QUARTERLY BLOG: WHO SPEAKS FOR WHOM?

In 2015 and 2016 we recorded the vlogger Carrie-Hope Fletcher for her books All I Know Now and On The Other Side, published by Little Brown. For Hachette Children’s, we were delighted to produce YouTuber Hannah Witton’s debut foray into audiobooks, Doing It, an educational and entertaining guide to the world of sex and relationships. As with Carrie’s book, it is refreshing to produce material that treats its young audience with intelligence, and is able to inform with the benefit of experience. Putting vloggers on audiobooks helps engage an audience – technology-minded teenagers and young adults – who are often more receptive to audio than they are to print. Moreover, audiobooks preserve the voice at the heart of the intimate relationship between vlogger and subscriber. From having worked with these insightful young women for separate projects, they are united by being examples of a genre where a different relationship is created between listener and author, compared to reader and author. The attitude that audiobooks are an inferior substitute for print is dissipating more and more, but it is still worth drawing attention on occasion to the unique potential afforded by the audio form, especially when the voice is a familiar one to its audience.

To narrate the experiences of someone else’s life is no mean feat, but Laura James’ memoir and reflections of a life filtered through autism, Odd Girl Out, was especially tricky to cast. Together with the publishers, Macmillan, we called up the talents of Louiza Patikas, who is perhaps best known as Helen Titchener on The Archers, but she is also a versatile audiobook reader who has recently read Beneath The Cypress Tree (also Macmillan) and Evie’s Ghost (Nosy Crow) for us as well. Richard Hughes gave his considered guidance from the producer’s chair.

One of the most fun parts of working with audio is constructing, from the ground up, the sound pictures which accompany children’s books – being able to take an illustration of, say, a duck pond – and identifying just the right combination of sound effects of quacks, running water, weather, and anything else needed to evoke the scene. There is little better material for this than the combination of Julia Donaldson’s words and Axel Scheffler’s illustrations in their books for Macmillan, with Detective Dog our latest audio production of their work. The voice was Floella Benjamin (in a morning session before she went to the House of Lords), and the post-production was by Joseph Degnan.

David Mitchell (the comedian, not the author!) was with us in March for a batch of picture books by Kes Grey. The bulk of the work for children’s books is usually carried out away from live recording (in this instance by Jordan Killiard for effects and music), but there is a quick-fire creativity needed in the recording session to work with material which plays around with language much more than a standard adult fiction title. Consider the plot of Quick Quack Quentin, where the titular duck loses the ‘a’ from his quack, and tries to borrow letters from different animals, like the ‘dg’ (dog) and ‘hn’ (hen). A pronunciation quandary, and not your standard production query, but for Quick Quack Quentin and the others we had the steady presence of producer Leo Whetter to tackle it.

We had Joe Thomas, another Cambridge Footlights alumnus, behind the mic for a series of books by David Solomons for Nosy Crow, with his voice a natural fit for the mixture of demented fantasy and classroom comedy of My Gym Teacher Is An Alien Overlord and My Brother Is A Superhero. It’s vital in books targeted at the 8-12 market to have a narrator who can sound convincingly young, which is one of Joe’s many talents.

Fresh from collaborating on the Willard Price Adventure stories and Michelle Paver’s Thin Air, producer Tamsin Collison and reader Daniel Weyman were reunited in our studio for Ed Docx’s stunning Let Go My Hand. Part road-trip, part meditation on mortality and family, Daniel was typically excellent at bringing to life a story equally conversant with Little Miss Sunshine as it is The Brothers Karamazov. A Macmillan book, it is one of my personal favourites of the year so far, with Daniel impressive as ever in his ability to flit between well-rounded characters with incisive accents at high speed.

While we have recorded four Doctors Who (Tom Baker, Paul McGann, Christopher Eccleston, and David Tennant), a bona fide spaceman had eluded us until we had astronaut Chris Hadfield in to record his children’s book The Darkest Dark for Macmillan. He was a consummate professional, with an infectious attitude that rubbed off on all of us. Staying with the cosmic theme, we produced Marcus Chown’s The Ascent Of Gravity for Orion Audiobooks. We have spoken about this title and the decision taken by Orion to cast Adjoa Andoh elsewhere, but I’d like to use our blog to elaborate on this a bit more. From our perspective, we were completely confident in Adjoa’s casting, as she is one of the best in the business, with an array of accents in her arsenal and a natural authority to her voice. But it goes further than this. Having Adjoa read The Ascent Of Gravity allows a push, even a small one, from the presumption and stereotypes surrounding voices – in this case, that the default voice for a non-fiction science book is that of a white man. This is only one part of a cultural shift which has gradually occurred in the past few years, leading to Maggie Aderin-Peacock MBE becoming one of the hosts of The Sky At Night, and the release of the film Hidden Figures, which detailed the crucial role played by black female scientists during the Space Race. As Nicholas Jones outlined in his article for the London Book Fair Daily, voices lead to certain presumptions in certain contexts. As producers, we feel a share of responsibility in addressing that where necessary, and with The Ascent Of Gravity, we identified an opportunity to do so. When the time comes for today’s young listeners of Julia Donaldson, Kes Grey or David Solomons to move on to science books, they may not have to consider one voiced by a British-Ghanaian actor as unusual.

Chris Beer

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