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Librarian listens to literature

Abrahamson helps choose national award winner

By Robert Cloud

Sue Abrahamson was among nine judges to select the 2016 Odyssey Award.

This annual award, presented by the American Library Association, recognizes the nation’s best audiobooks for children and young adults.

The children’s librarian for the Waupaca Area Public Library, Abrahamson soon discovered she would endure her own personal odyssey as she spent hundreds of hours listening to entries.

“I burned out the CD player in my car, went through three sets of earbuds and had my hearing tested when I was done,” Abrahamson said.

More than 580 audiobooks were submitted to the committee.

Abrahamson listened to 145 audiobooks in the first round, then listened to the 30 finalists.

“The average size of an audiobook was eight discs and it’s an hour per disc,” Abrahamson said. “When we started out, there weren’t too many submissions and I could listen two to three hours per day. By November, I was listening an average of eight hours per day.”

During deer hunting season, Abrahamson took a week of vacation, secluded herself at a friend’s house and spent 16 hours a day listening to the audiobooks.

“I had to have listened to all the books by Dec. 1,” Abrahamson said. “Then, I had to choose six that I could defend for the award.”

Each of the nine committee members selected six books. Since several chose the same titles, the committee was down to the final 30.

Abrahamson then went to Boston from Jan. 7-11 to discuss the books with the other committee members.

“We were sequestered until we selected a title,” Abrahamson said. “It was like choosing the pope without the smoke.”

Selection was based primarily on the quality of the audio production.

“Sometimes, the story was fascinating and wonderful, but we weren’t judging the writing, we were judging the production,” she said. “Was the reader clear? Were words pronounced correctly? Was the narrator a good match for the character being portrayed?”

Abrahamson noted that many of the audiobooks were read by a full cast, “like an old radio drama with sound effects and music.”

Her first choice for the award was Pam Munoz Ryan’s novel, “Echo.”

Winner of the 2016 Newberry Award, “Echo” follows the odyssey of a harmonica that travels across continents, oceans and decades, enchanting the lives of three children.

The harmonica first touches the life of a 12-year-old boy in Germany who struggles against prejudice during the rise of Hitler. Then it finds its way to an orphan in Pennsylvania during the Great Depression. The harmonica’s third owner is a girl whose parents are migrant workers who manage a farm in California that belonged to a Japanese-American family that has been sent to an internment camp.

In addition to complex, multiple storylines and serious social themes, the “Echo” audio book has four narrators, along with a harmonica, cello, piano and singing.

“Corky Siegel’s music enhances the book,” Abrahamson said. “Some Enchanted Evening’ is part of the story and they talk about it in the book. But what 8 year old knows about ‘Some Enchanted Evening’?”

Although Abrahamson was not alone in her choice of “Echo,” the majority of judges selected another audiobook for this year’s Odyssey Award.

“The War that Saved My Life” was written by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley and narrated by Jayne Entwistle.

Set in Britain during World War II, it tells the story of Ada, a lame but determined girl who follows her younger brother when he is sent out to the countryside. They seek sanctuary not only from the bombs being dropped on London but from their abusive mother.

Once they are relocated to a village, Ada and her brother are taken in by a reclusive woman whose sharp-edged kindness transforms their lives. The book has won numerous awards for children’s literature.

Abrahamson said her experience as a judge came at an unexpected personal cost.

“There were weeks and months that I wasn’t aware of what was going on in the world. I wasn’t reading or watching TV. Days went by when I didn’t speak with my husband. He was very patient,” she said.

Abrahamson said she is glad to be reading books again and listening to audiobooks for pleasure rather than critically.

When asked if she would be willing to help judge audiobooks again for the Odyssey Award,” Abrahamson replied, “I think I would do it again, but not if I was still working. When you’re working for eight hours then listening for eight hours, it’s hard to stay awake.”

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