Celebrating Black Narration
By Pauline Bird and Cameron Phillips
In celebrating Black communities, their talents and stories, we in the audiobook team have a powerful angle that our favourite medium gives us: voice. Voicing one's story is just as important as the story itself, and our picks this issue highlight Black writers whose stories are also narrated by members of the same community. In addition, our picks are audiobooks whose print editions have a focus on illustration.
Cameron’s Pick: Islandborn by Junot Diaz, narrated by Junot Diaz
Lola is a small child who is sitting in a classroom with her fellow classmates. Her teacher sets them a task: to draw a picture of the place where they emigrated from. The trouble is, Lola doesn’t know the place she came from. She left the Titular Island when she was very young, so cannot remember. With the help of her family and friends, Lola sets out on a path to discover her roots.
Emotionally charged and written to, at times, devastating effect, Lola’s story is one familiar to so many people who have been displaced from their home. Despite the more mature tones of displacement, diaspora, dictatorship, immigration and losing everything to natural disasters littered throughout, Lola’s tale is a constant glow of eminent triumph at her family's journey, but also the pride they feel for their homeland. Family is the key element to Lola’s story, forming the scaffolding which allows her to construct the drawing of the Island.
When it comes to the narration, Junot Diaz is mesmerising and the sound design is powerful to match. Accompanied by various sound effects to describe the scene he is painting, Diaz sounds like the relative who reads all of the kids bedtime stories, the one who can play multiple characters with different voices. His decision to add Spanish words to the English narration is very interesting, as it perhaps mirrors the way parents who immigrate with their young children teach them their mother tongue. He infuses the tale with myth, magic and authenticity, which leads me to believe the work is semi-autobiographical, with Diaz himself leaving the Dominican Republic for New Jersey when he was six years old. It is absolutely brilliant, and I will definitely be re-listening on multiple occasions in the future.
Pauline’s Pick: Sulwe by Lupita Nyong’o, narrated by Lupita Nyong’o
Sulwe’s skin is the colour of midnight. She is darker than all of her family members and everyone at school. She notices that those with lighter skin colours are treated more positively than those with darker hues. This eats away at Sulwe’s sense of self-worth, and she dreams of and prays for lighter skin. Her mother tries to comfort her by reminding her that true beauty comes from within, but when a shooting star arrives in her bedroom, Sulwe is taken on a truly transformative magical night-time journey. Through a charming vignette featuring mythical sisters Day and Night, she discovers that she too is beautiful – inside and out!
This mythical journey and its message are important. Had the listener been left with Sulwe’s mother’s comments alone, although well-intentioned, they could reinforce the belief that darker skin is not beautiful – and that instead Sulwe must accept that her beauty is not external. The story teaches us that all skin colours are beautiful, but the most important beauty is found within.
Written and narrated by Academy Award-winning actress Lupita Nyong'o, this powerful book explores themes of colourism and self-esteem, encouraging children to see their own unique beauty. She draws upon her own experience of colourism, growing up with darker skin. The audiobook features a section at the end where Nyong’o shares her own stories. This made the narration even more powerful in my opinion, as we are reminded of the impact that colourism can have on an individual.
There were so many things I loved about this audiobook in addition to the message of the story. It was wonderful that all the characters in this book were Black and instead of contrasting with white characters, we were introduced to a spectrum of characters with various shades of Black skin. I also liked the slow, gentle pace of the book and the soothing accompanying music. It’s the perfect book to soak up and enjoy – particularly before bed. This is a great example of a picture book that works extremely well in audiobook format. If you haven’t yet tried listening to a picture book in this mode, I urge you to try this one!