I wish Ollie, my family’s handmade marionette, could have met Mr. Rogers. That was my first thought as I settled happily into LeVar Burton’s Earphones Award-winning performance of THE GOOD NEIGHBOR, the biography of Rogers by Maxwell King, published on Tuesday. Ollie, carved and clothed by my grandparents, was once part of their traveling marionette theater. But after years of entertaining children up and down the west coast with classic fairy tales, all the marionettes except Ollie were lost in a fire. I know that Mr. Rogers could have helped Ollie and the people who loved — and still love — him to cope with the loss. By the way, that’s me with my parents and Ollie in the picture.
As a thank you to Fred Rogers for welcoming us into his neighborhood of kindness, I recommend this mix of new titles that honor his generous spirit. You might start with the engaging novel HARRY’S TREES by Jon Cohen, read by Josh Bloomberg, in which a child employs fairy tales to help a grieving grown-up find a way forward. My grandparents would have approved. I do, too.
As Rogers taught, open-hearted listening honors the speaker and the listener. Plus, it feels so good. Try Edoardo Ballerini’s Earphones Award reading of Sakyong Mipham’s persuasive nonfiction, THE LOST ART OF GOOD CONVERSATION. It’s a timely and energizing reflection on how and why to listen as attentively as we speak, including with those who don’t agree with us. I need to practice.
Rebecca L. Brown’s debut novel, FLYING AT NIGHT, is a tough and uplifting tale of a family with challenges — father with possible dementia, daughter at the end of her wits, grandson with autism. One of the discoveries they make is the comfort of true conversation, finding the surprising way in which it can make life better than okay. The wonderful story has been given an Earphones Award ensemble performance by Cassandra Campbell, Kivlighan de Montebello, and Arthur Morey.
Robert Dugoni’s THE EXTRAORDINARY LIFE OF SAM HELL, for which he also won a rare Earphones Award for an author-read novel, is every bit the “extraordinary” in the title. Sam’s difference — red eyes due to a medical condition — leads to him to make friends with the one kid who’s nice to him. Sam is white; his friend is black. Therein lies the start of a captivating story.
Sam’s parents are religious. Fred Rogers was an ordained minister. In that spirit, I recommend Maria Shriver’s Earphones Award reading of I’VE BEEN THINKING, her lovely new collection of meditations and prayers. She considers life, work, and family in this short, meaningful audiobook that brims with gratitude and hope.
And finally, I suggest HOPE NATION, a terrific compilation of never-give-up messages from some of the country’s best-known YA authors. They represent the colorful rainbow of America and are read by some of the most talented narrators. It’s an Earphones Award performance and a message to savor. Thanks again, Mr. Rogers.
Our new Behind the Mic with AudioFile Magazine podcast launches this week — including a conversation with LeVar Burton about narrating THE GOOD NEIGHBOR. Listen in on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.