We never had it this good. Sure, we audiophiles didn't suffer from a lack of good fiction in the dark ages of audio, but we never had the array of fantasy, or fantastic readers, available today.
Random House and its imprint Listening Library deserve much credit for the amount of material made available to children and young adults, but also for the superior quality of the work. Listening Library releases about 100 titles a year, so the difficult part was deciding which titles to hear.
''Artemis Fowl" and its two sequels were an excellent choice, but also a troubling one. Troubling? Well, wouldn't you call it troubling when a grown woman, a woman in her fourth decade, a woman who should have a modicum of self-control, is sitting up in the wee hours of the night obsessively listening to the criminal capers of a fictional Irish lad?
The joy of listening to ''Harry Potter" on audio is the elastic voice of Jim Dale. Meet the equally talented Nathaniel Parker, a British actor who conjures up America, Asia, Scotland, and various Irish counties. The combination of Parker and Fowl is not to be ignored.
We meet Fowl in the first audiobook of the series as he is about to shanghai a fairy in the back alleys of Saigon. Fowl, and his deadly bodyguard Butler, hope to restore the family fortunes by stealing gold from ''the People," as leprechauns and fairy folk are known.
The great fun of Eoin Colfer's Fowl is that he is a holy terror. He sets out on imaginative escapades rooted in the criminal underworld. If he occasionally does the right thing, there is something in it for him. Due to his unusual moral code, eccentric family, and brilliant arrogance, he is flawed and fascinating. Plus, he is surrounded by similarly fascinating characters. Captain Holly Short, for instance, is a cop and an elf and a member of the LEPrecons, the Lower Elements Police.
By the time you have made your way though all three audiobooks, Fowl will have wreaked havoc in fairyland, Ireland, the Arctic, and America. He will have stolen gold, kidnapped fairies, engineered explosions, endangered those around him, and outwitted the Russian Mafia. His rough-and-tumble adventures are sometimes a bit more explicit and far less pretty than Potter's. The sophistication of Colfer's humor will appeal to adults as well as kids, and Parker's array of voices will delight all. Each character has a distinctive aural marker. Thanks to Parker's agile vocal cords, we know as soon as a character speaks which person, or creature, it is.
Another adventure, albeit a much more somber one, is Lois Lowry's Newbery Medal winner, ''Number the Stars." On Sept. 29, 1943, the people of Denmark, in a remarkable act of unity, helped some 7,000 Jews escape to Sweden via a flotilla of fishing boats, a day before the Nazis were planning to round up and deport them.
The story is told by Lowry with great warmth. She personalized the feat by detailing the escape of one little girl, Ellen Rosen, who was aided by her best friend, Annemarie Johansen. Lowry conveys the deprivation and hardship of war by explaining in the epilogue the real-life counterparts of those in her story.
While it contains humor and hope, the story is mostly poignant, an emotion underscored by narrator Blair Brown.The actress is one of those few women who can deepen and roughen their voice enough to sound convincingly manly. So, when she takes us from soft-spoken Annemarie to the gruff, angry voices of soldiers, the effect is quite startling -- exactly the point. Her clear voice and realistic pacing always make her an aural treat.
To celebrate the 30th anniversary of its first printing, Listening Library has reissued a wonderful recording of ''The Chocolate War," narrated by Frank Muller. The late Robert Cormier, with his thick Boston accent, introduces the audiobook and briefly describes the ideas that sparked him to write this seminal young adult novel.
The ''war" occurs at a Catholic boys' school when one of the kids, a scrawny freshman, refuses to participate in the annual candy drive. Cormier came under a lot of heat because of the natural language and situations in the book, and there have been numerous efforts to remove it from schools and libraries. While never graphic, it does portray characters who give in to sexual longings, greedy thoughts, angry outbursts -- just like real people. It is also a very finely crafted look at the misuse of power, and the ripple effect that occurs when one person takes a stand against it.
Though it is always good to hear Muller, once an audiobook star, he is rather mature for this title. Small complaint, as some of us will take Muller, and Cormier, any way we can get them.
Rochelle O'Gorman is publisher and editor in chief of audiobookcafe.com, an online magazine about the audiobook industry.