Author Cornelia Funke On Why Audiobooks Are Great For Kids

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German-born author Cornelia Funke crafts worlds with care and caution: Her children’s fantasy series enrapture young readers with immersive tales that merit multiple sequels. Known for both the Inkheart  trilogy and the Dragon Rider series as well as The Thief Lord and other titles, her wealth of imagination informs intricate, gorgeous tales. When we catch up over the phone, she’s at home on an avocado farm in Malibu, California; there are cellists warming up in her writing barn. For someone who develops magical worlds, this seems incredibly appropriate.

We’re chatting about her American release of the audiobook for The Griffin’s Feather, the second title in the Dragon Rider series. For Funke, audiobooks are about far more than reading the text aloud: She incorporates sound and musical score, as well as talented voice actors, to create an immersive experience. Unlike films, “an audiobook will take the text and will not cut it down, [will not] take out characters, motives, change things. And I still see a movie in my head when I listen, and I think every reader does; every reader can add the faces you want, the atmosphere you want,” Funke, a mother-of-two, says. “In a way, you make a million movies with an audiobook; you make only one when you do a movie. And it’s always only one vision.”

As soon as she heard Brendan Fraser read as paternal character Mo—a.k.a. Silvertongue—for her Inkheart audiobook, she saw the format’s full potential, and not just because she has a self-professed “obsession” with the human voice. “That was for me the most stunning recording I had ever listened to, and I sat there listening with tears in my eyes because [his reading] told me things about my book I didn’t even know,” Funke reflects. “That experience, to suddenly hear a brilliant reader interpret, [makes you realize] ‘Oh, I didn’t know Mo was that sad at that moment,’ [or] ‘Oh, I didn’t know…of course he sounds that broken.’ If a reader can do that, I think it is the Silvertongue. It adds to the text, and therefore for me an audiobook is a more important experience than the movies.”

She’s no stranger to film—Fraser played Mo in the Inkheart movie, and there’s currently a Dragon Rider animated film in the works. The process is different though: As the writer of a film’s source material, the movie-making process is “far less collaborative. Yes, I’ve talked to the director, I’ve seen the animated material, but you still feel like somebody else has taken over and does it his way,” she explains. “And whatever the writer says, they always say: ‘No, we have to change this because that’s how it is in the movies.’”

When making the American audiobook of The Griffin’s Feather, she approached the process with a keen eye for detail, far beyond just the voices. “What do you want to hear? How should we be inspired in our music by, say, Indonesian sounds and instruments? I know they used those, for example. They do it so meticulously and they put so much research in how they do the sounds,” Funke says. “They research the animal voices, because I said to them: ‘I want listeners to feel they are in Indonesia in the jungle.’ And how do we do the griffin’s voice? What do we compose it of?”

All of these details are what make an audiobook attractive for young listeners. In fact, she’s seen it with her own children: Her daughter is an avid reader, but her son? Not so much.

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“Ben only wanted the audiobook. Then he could swing on his rope and skateboard while he was listening, and do a thousand things, and I think for children who love to move or do things while a story comes to them, audiobooks are a magical possibility,” she says. “I also think that for children who have problems reading, or for autistic children, it can be such a wonderful tool to bring the story to them.”

Funke’s new foundation, Rim of Heaven, only furthers her work in engaging young imaginations—it supports exchange programs for young artists, which is why at the time of our call she was housing young Canadian cellists. “I’m very interested to, in the next few years, work on collaborations between writers, illustrators, musicians, and bring those artists together, and have them inspire each other,” she says.

With her new home on an avocado farm, Funke says, “nature comes in as the fourth leg” of this exchange program.

“I saw the enchantment this morning as the young cellists walked under the avocado trees, and I think we underestimate also what nature does to our creativity and how much we are losing that currently, so I’m working a lot on nature education for children,” Funke says. “The Griffin’s Feather, of course, in some way is very much part of that work because I hope [kids] would fall in love with the world that surrounds them. They can go to Indonesia. Yes, they may not find the griffin, but they can find all the other creatures I put in the book.”

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