Parents are feeling more harried than usual. With schools in more than 160 countries closed due to the covid-19 pandemic, UNESCO estimates that around 1.5bn pupils have been sent home. Caregivers are supposed to educate children on top of their other obligations; many are turning to games and television series or seeking new pastimes to help keep their offspring entertained. Podcasts and audiobooks, long a staple of the road trip and the bedtime routine, are a particularly effective weapon in the fight against boredom and restlessness.
The spoken word offers some respite from screens; and, since audio files are standardized, any gadget that plays music will do. Children will often quietly build, draw or color as a story unfolds, surprising carers with attention spans hitherto unseen. Indeed, listening has been proven to be immersive. A study of 100 people by University College London in 2018 showed that participants engaged more deeply with audio than with video. Analyzing physiological data, the researchers concluded that an individual’s faculties of imagination are “working harder when reading and listening, which in turn leads to a greater emotional engagement”.
It is good news, then, that some writers have stepped in to fill the newly unstructured hours. David Walliams, a popular children’s author, has started a free series called “Elevenses”: he reads a new story each day from his “World’s Worst Children” collection, and posts it at 11 o’clock on SoundCloud. (The stories are also available for a limited time on his website.) “Spoiled Brat”, posted on March 24th, has been played more than 400,000 times. Mac Barnett, an American writer, is reading installments from “Mac B Kid Spy”, his bestselling novel, on Instagram each day, attracting an average of 10,000 views. The Penguin Kids publishing imprint, meanwhile, is doing virtual storytime sessions with famous figures every weekday.
Audio-entertainment platforms have also made their services more easily accessible. In France Souffleur des Rêves, a website has switched from a flat monthly fee to a pay-what-you-can subscription model, with the option to cancel anytime. Members have access to nearly 500 audio stories, which are often educational while maintaining a lightness of tone. The coronavirus explainer, “Videos”, is particularly good. It follows Elisa, a science-mad eight-year-old, as she helps a shame-faced germ fix the mess it and its excitable brothers have made.
Audible—which, with a 30% market share, is the foremost platform for audiobooks—has created a collection of children’s titles that can be streamed free without a login or a subscription. It offers more than 200 books in English, 100 in Spanish, and selections in Japanese, French, German and Italian. There is a mix of timeworn classics such as “Winnie the Pooh” and “Anne of Green Gables”, contemporary bestsellers such as Ingo Siegner’s “Der Kleine Drache Kokosnuss” (“The Little Dragon Coconut”) and intriguing outliers (“Viva Durant and the Secret of the Silver Buttons” is a young-adult procedural novel in the style of Nancy Drew).
The free offering is a small sample of a rich catalog of more than 55,000 titles for children and young adults. Where early audiobooks were straightforward readings on tape, stories are now brought vividly to life with a soundtrack and all-star casts. Young listeners will particularly enjoy Imelda Staunton’s reading of “The Gruffalo”, Sophie Marceau’s rendition of “Les Malheurs de Sophie” (“Sophie’s Misfortunes”) or Kate Winslet’s impressions of both Matilda and the fearsome Miss Trunchbull; teenagers may prefer Malorie Blackman’s “Noughts and Crosses”, read by Syan Blake and Paul Chequer. Authors narrating their own works are popular, too (your correspondent recommends Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials”, Neil Gaiman’s “Fortunately, the Milk” and E.B. White’s “Charlotte’s Web”). The key, according to Angus King, a veteran narrator, is to look for a voice as comfortable as a good pair of socks. “After all,” he has said, “you’re going to spend a lot of time together.
While analysts have noticed uncertainty in the American podcast market in this time of crisis—perhaps due to the absence of commutes, when many listeners tune in—downloads in the children and family sector are up by 24% compared with this week's last year. Cécile Palusinski, a French author whose annual Plume de Paon audiobook prize is now in its 10th year, sees listening to stories as an educational tool, particularly for children who are more auditory than visual learners, and a magical form of escape for the whole family. A good audiobook serves as “an aural cocoon,” she has said. “It settles everyone.”