Johnny Heller & me

Johnny Heller

I had the great good fortune to speak as an audiobook evangelist at the Massachusetts Library Association conference, along with audiobook narrator extraordinaire Johnny Heller. Heller is the recipient of accolades galore, including titles on YALSA & ALSC’s suggested audiobook lists, Audies nominations & award, PW’s Listen Up award, and AudioFile’s Best Voice of 2008. My personal favorite of his productions is Al Capone Does My Shirts from Recorded Books – an amazing reading of a Newbery Honor book. And in the small world department, I discovered that Johnny & I both went to Glenbard East High School – but that I had moved from the Chicago area before he followed me two years later. No wonder his teen voice sounds so absolutely authentic to me!

Participants in the session may want to check out my post on audiobook research & resources, and read the rest of the post below for for the full session notes.

Beyond the Book: The Voice of Audiobooks

Presented by Mary Burkey                May 9, 2009   Massachusetts Library Association Conference

Why audiobooks? Listening…

  • Increases fluency
  • Expands listening skills
  • Raises reading comprehension
  • Enlarges vocabulary
  • Boosts pronunciation skills
  • Supports struggling readers
  • Expands literature experiences for proficient readers
  • Improves test scores

Increased fluency & interpretation

  • Expert readers model fluent inflection & enunciation within the story’s narrative flow
  • Narrator’s voice reveals punctuation, accents, dialects, and cultural vocal patterns
  • Listeners hear the story through another reader’s voice, gaining deeper meaning

Audiobooks provide opportunity

  • Comprehension level when listening is often two years above reading level, allowing struggling readers, English Language Learners, and those with learning differences to join the community of readers through audiobooks alone or when paired with text.

Building a community of readers

  • Audiobooks allow all students access to classroom literature
  • More time with text (or spoken text) = better vocabulary

Audiobook review sources

  • Book Links
  • Booklist
  • Horn Book
  • VOYA
  • AudioFile Magazine
  • Library Journal
  • Publisher’s Weekly
  • School Library Journal

Audiobook awards and honors

  • ALA’s Odyssey Award for Excellence in Audiobook Production
  • YALSA’s Amazing Audiobook yearly list of suggest tiles
  • ALSC’s Notable Children’s Recordings yearly list of suggested titles
  • The Audio Publishers Association’s Audies Awards
  • The spoken word Grammy Awards
  • Publishers Weekly’s Listen Up Award
  • AudioFile magazine’s Golden Earphones

Starting & enhancing the audiobook collection

  • Investigate formats: CD, MP3, Playaway, downloads
  • Decide on interfiled or separate shelving
  • Piggyback with Title 1, Stimulus, or other funding sources
  • Seek grants from PTO, Friends, or education foundations
  • Survey language arts & resource teachers for titles & topics
  • Choose “One book,” top circulating titles & local required reading Language Arts titles first

Marketing your audiobooks

  • Hook commuters, teachers & parents first – survey to see where a need is perceived
  • Include audiobooks in displays, booktalks, summer reading lists
  • Investigate circulating players & rechargeable batteries
  • Hold CD ripping, MP3 loading & public library downloading workshop, both on-site & off-site
  • Create a listening club or provide listening stations in youth & teen areas
  • Include listening minutes in summer reading club requirements
  • Display in collaboration with craft programs: knitting, beadwork, etc.
  • Promote summer time “family listening” at the local pool, with parent + child titles
  • Promote at the local Senior Citizen Center with Playaways + large print
  • Include diverse audiobook styles in promotions: single-voice, full cast, non-fiction, etc.

Parents as audiobook partners

  • Create pre-holiday break or open house displays of family-friendly audiobooks for travel time listening
  • Highlight your audiobook collection in toddler time & in parent newsletters along with research data on audiobooks
  • Provide audiobook + large print material lists
  • Purchase audiobook titles to supplement parent/child book clubs

Making audiobooks part of the curriculum

  • Hook teachers with a long commute on audiobooks
  • Lobby for audiobooks fulfilling teacher’s reading assignment quotas
  • Have audiobook research reports at-hand
  • Include audiobooks in pathfinders, summer reading lists, & classroom collections.

Achieving Content Standards with Audiobooks


  • Students identify significant contributions of composers and performers to our music heritage.

Music Connection

  • Jazz / Live Oak Media ~ Odyssey Award-winning history of the American musical art form, with original compositions and jazz vocals transforming Walter Dean Myers’ poetry and Christopher Myers’ illustrations into an entirely new work.

Dramatic Arts

  • Students analyze the creative techniques used in creating and performing dramatic/theatrical works and evaluate dramatic/theatrical works using appropriate criteria

Dramatic Arts Connection

  • Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village / Recorded Books ~ This Newbery title was written to be performed as Reader’s Theater, as modeled by the full cast of narrators.

Visual Arts

  • Students understand the impact of visual art on the history, culture, and society from which it emanates.

Visual Arts Connection

  • The Pot That Juan Built / Weston Woods ~ Mexican potter Juan Quezada’s artistic process is revealed in a multilayered readalong for all ages.

Social Studies

  • Students use knowledge of the purposes, structures and processes of political systems at the local, state, national & international levels to understand that people create systems of government as structures of power & authority to provide order, maintain stability and promote the general welfare.

Social Studies Connection

  • Chasing Lincoln’s Killer / Scholastic Audio ~Mesmerizing factual narrative with the excitement of a murder mystery.


  • Students demonstrate an understanding of different historical perspectives, scientific approaches and emerging scientific issues associated with the life sciences.

Science Connection

  • The Adoration of Jenna Fox / Macmillan Audio ~ Listeners will explore the issues of medical ethics, organ transplants, and the very concept of human existence.

Foreign Language

  • Students demonstrate an understanding of insights gained into another culture through the examination of its practices (behaviors), products (tangibles such as monuments, food and literature, and intangibles such as laws and music) and perspectives (attitudes, values, ideas, world views).

Foreign Language Connection

  • Martina the Beautiful Cockroach: A Cuban Folktale / Peachtree Publishers ~ Author/narrator Carmen Agra Deedy’s bilingual reading and authentic background music provide the perfect Latino cultural flavor to this Odyssey Award Honor title.


  • Students demonstrate number sense, including an understanding of number systems and operations and how they relate to one another.

Mathematics Connection

  • How Much is a Million? / Weston Woods ~ Audio and illustrations combine to illuminate the concept of large numbers.


  • Students use computer and multimedia resources to support their learning
  • Identify what information is, and recognize that it can be represented in a variety of ways

Technology Connection

  • Frankenstein / Tantor Media ~ Tantor’s Unabridged Classics series includes both the audiobook read by a top narration plus the entire book as a PDF file that may be read on computer or hand-held reader, allowing full-text search & print capabilities.

Language Arts

  • Students define and investigate self-selected or assigned issues, topics and problems. They locate, select & make use of relevant information from a variety of media, reference and technological sources.

Language Arts Connection

  • Duck for President / Weston Woods ~ A title that can be enjoyed by all ages and at many levels, made even more enjoyable by Randy Travis’ witty narration & musical accompaniment.

Language Arts

  • Students acquire vocabulary through exposure to language-rich situations, such as reading books and other texts and conversing with adults and peers.

Language Arts Connection

  • Blues Journey / Like Oak Media ~ A stunning readalong that recreates the title, adding original blues music to the poems that trace the history of the Blues.

Evaluating Audiobooks

Use the titles below to model the bulleted evaluative benchmarks

The Narrator as Author’s Voice

  • The reading should be authentic and appropriate to content, with voices that match the time and place of the text as well as characters’ gender, ages, and moods.
  • The reader should use well-placed inflections and tones and convey the meaning of the text through engaging expression, emotion, and energy.
  • The reader should maintain and differentiate character voices, accents, or dialects consistently. Narrative descriptions (“He murmured,” for example) should be read appropriately.
  • A single performer may read in a straightforward manner using his or her natural voice with suitable inflection and tone. Or the reader may vary his or her voice to change tone, inflection, accent, and emphasis to represent multiple characters. The reading might also be a combination of the two styles, with major or pivotal characters receiving particular emphasis. Some audios feature multiple narrators taking on specific roles and characters or full cast dramatizations.
  • Recommended titles: (* notes Odyssey Award title)

* Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows / JK Rowling / Listening Library

Al Capone Does My Shirts / Gennifer Choldenko / Recorded Books

Born to Rock / Gordon Korman / Brilliance Audio

Boy Meets Boy / David Levithan / Full Cast Audio

Clementine / Sara Pennypacker / Recorded Books

Deliver Us from Normal / Kate Klise / Recorded Books

Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie / Jordan Sonnenblick / Scholastic Audio

The Girls / Amy Koss/ Full Cast Audio

The Graveyard Book / Neil Gaiman / Harper Children’s Audio

Ish / Peter Reynolds / Weston Woods

Marcello in the Real World / Francisco X. Stork / Listening Library

Rotten Ralph Helps Out / Jack Gantos / Live Oak Media

So Much to Tell You / James Marsden / Bolinda Audio

Wolf Brother / Michelle Paver / HarperChildren’s Audio

Window to Culture / Reflection of Region

  • Cultures & ethnicities are presented authentically and without stereotype.
  • Geographic terms, foreign terminology, and other challenging phrases and words should be pronounced correctly and with ease.
  • Musical features match the culture and region portrayed.
  • Recommended titles: (* notes Odyssey Award title)

* The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian / Sherman Alexie / Recorded Books

* Bloody Jack series / L.A. Meyer / Listen & Live Audio

Bindi Babes / Narinder Dhami / Listening Library

Bucking the Sarge / Christopher Paul Curtis / Listening Library

The Cay / Theodore Taylor / Listening Library

Dairy Queen / Catherine Gilbert Murdock / Listening Library

Does My Head Look Big in This? / Randa Abdel-Fattah / Bolinda Audio

Homeless Bird / Gloria Whelan / Listening Library

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency / Alexander McCall Smith / Recorded Books

A Pack of Lies / Geraldine McCaughrean / BBC Audiobooks America

Parrot in the Oven / Victor Martinez / Harper Audio

The Power of One / Bryce Courtenay / Bolinda Audio

Revenge of the Whale / Audio Bookshelf

Secret Life of Bees / Sue Monk Kidd / HighBridge Company

Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood / Benjamin Alire Saenz / Recorded Books

To Kill a Mockingbird / Harper Lee / Caedmon

When My Name Was Keoko / Linda Sue Park / Recorded Books

Whale Rider / Witi Ihimaera / Bolinda Audio

Behind the Booth: Production Quality

  • Quality productions maintain a clean, crisp sound that allows for periods of silence and a range of dynamics, without affecting volume levels.
  • The recording should be free of sibilant or plosive microphone pick-ups. Distractions result if reader moves off microphone, has an overly dry or juicy mouth, or can be heard swallowing.
  • Sloppy production may result in titles that are too loud or intense, have missing or repeated text segments, show obvious dubbing or noticeable time differences in recording sessions, or contain abrupt or lengthy chapter or line breaks.
  • The packaging should correctly note title, author, and readers’ names as well as accurate running times or notice of abridgement.
  • Readalongs (picture book and audio sets) require additional evaluative criteria. Because the intent is for youngsters to follow along with the picture book while listening, there should be no mismatches between the words, pictures, and sound effects. Page turn signals are usually an option and these cues should allow time for young listeners to follow the text and explore the illustrations.
  • Recommended titles: (* notes Odyssey Award title)

*Jazz / Walter Dean Myers / Live Oak Media

*I’m Dirty! / Kate & Jim McMullan / Weston Woods

Journey of the One & Only Declaration of Independence / Judith St. George / Weston Woods

The Golden Compass / Philip Pullman / Listening Library

The Goose Girl / Shannon Hale / Full Cast Audio

The One and Only Shrek / William Steig / Macmillan Young Listeners

Mack Made Movies / Don Brown / Live Oak Media

Peter and the Starcatchers / Dave Barry & Ridley Pearson / Brilliance Audio

Seven Blind Mice / Ed Young / Weston Woods

Gifts & Goodies: Audio Extras

  • Music may be used as an introduction or to delineate mood, setting, or time changes. The background music must be unobtrusive and not interrupt the narrative flow.
  • If sound effects are used, they serve to subtly enhance the production, rather than distract.
  • Bonus features include author interviews, critical essays, or other supplemental audio materials.
  • Added content may be informational booklets, links to web-based material, games or computer files on disk, or graphic materials such as illustrations or photographs.
  • Recommended titles: (* notes Odyssey Award title)

*Dooby Dooby Moo / Doreen Cronin / Weston Woods

*Treasure Island / Robert Louis Stevenson / Listening Library

We are the Ship / Kadir Nelson / Brilliance Audio

Eagle of the Ninth / Rosemary Sutcliff / Naxos Audio

Fairest / Gail Carson Levine / Full Cast Audio

Hitler Youth / Susan Campbell Bartoletti / Listening Library

I Am Not Joey Pigza / Jack Gantos / Listening Library

The Invention of Hugo Cabret / Brian Selznick / Scholastic Audiobooks

King for Kids / Clayborne Carson, ed. / Hachette Audio

Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel / Virginia Lee Burton / Magic Maestro Music

Poets’ Corner: The One-and-only Poetry Book for the Whole Family / John Lithgow, ed. / Grand Central Publishing

Series of Unfortunate Events series / Lemony Snicket / HarperChildren’s Audio

The Wall and the Wing / Laura Ruby/ Brilliance Audio

When Marian Sang / Pam Munoz Ryan / Live Oak Media

Breaking the Wall: The Art of the Audiobook

  • The audiobook must stand alone as a fully-realized expression of the author’s intent and meaning.
  • The mark of an excellent audiobook is one in which the wall of performance is removed so that listeners fall completely into the audiobook experience.
  • Recommended titles: (* notes Odyssey Award title)

*Elijah of Buxton / Christopher Paul Curtis / Listening Library

*Nation / Terry Pratchett / Harper Children’s Audio

*Skulduggery Pleasant / Derek Landy / Harper Children’s Audio

Before I Die / Jenny Downham /Listening Library

Day of Tears / Julius Lester / Recorded Books

The Book Thief / Markus Zusak / Listening Library

Buddha Boy / Kathe Koja / Full Cast Audio

Dead Fathers Club / Matt Haig / HighBridge Audio

I, Coriander / Sally Gardner / Listening Library

Keturah and Lord Death / Martine Leavitt / Recorded Books

Lon Po Po / Ed Young / Weston Woods



About the Author:

Mary Burkey is an independent library consultant in Columbus (OH). An enthusiastic audiophile, she has served on all four of ALA's audiobook award committees as well as the Audies. In addition to writing the "Voices in My Head" column for Booklist, she is the author of Audiobooks for Youth: A Practical Guide to Sound Literature (ALA, 2013). Follow her on Twitter at @mburkey.

5 Comments on "Johnny Heller & me"

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  1. rbeerbower@cityofsalem.nte' Robin Beerbower says:

    Johnny Heller spoke at our audiobooks pre-conference for the Oregon Library Association, and despite a small attendance (23 and we expected at least twice that) was gracious and funny, and gave us an hour of readings and answered questions. Recorded Books sponsored his appearance, of which we are very grateful. I am also a huge fan of Al Capone Does My Shirts and think his narration of Dave Barry is the best.

    • Mary says:

      It was great to meet Johnny – he is indeed gracious and very funny. I would love to see him perform as a stand-up comic – he was hilarious during his reading!

  2.' Sue-Ellen says:

    What a great resource you have given librarians by posting the outline of your presentation. Also I had no idea Johnny Heller went to GE High School in the Chicago western suburbs. Chris Raschka did too as did one of the recent space shuttle astronauts. More than you wanted to know about attendees of your old high school I am sure.

  3. Mary says:

    Holy cow! I just looked up Chris Raschka, and he’s four years younger than me – that means that he & Johnny Heller were at Glenbard East together!

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