Best Audio Books for Family Road Trips

Film still from National Lampoon’s Vacation © Warner Brothers

School’s finally out here in the Northeast, while other parts of the U.S. have already been enjoying their summer vacations for weeks. That means road trip season is here, which can bring up vivid childhood memories of endless hours of boredom, begging for bathroom breaks, and—if you were in my family—taking your life in your hands on the interstate to stop at every single state sign for photo ops. (North Carolina, I sincerely apologize on behalf of my older brother for knocking over your sign July 4th weekend in 1987; we did try to put it back.)

In my day (hey kids, get off my lawn!) we didn’t have iPods, DVD players, or 3DS’s. My brother and I didn’t even have Walkmans until the 90s were in sight. We had a travel version of Connect 4, I Spy, and conversation—that was it. (My mom even banned Punch Buggy.) It wasn’t always enough to keep us from whining, and I definitely get the appeal of DVD players, headphones, and video games these days, but we talked. As bored as we were, I have great memories of those trips.

But I really wish we’d discovered audio books years before the summer we did my college visits. By then we were old enough to entertain ourselves, but when my mom suggested checking some audio books out from the library it gave us something to talk about. And it turned my brother and me into avid audio book listeners. My Audible subscription is one of my best-ever investments, and now I listen to books on my commute, on car trips, even when I’m working on crafty projects in my studio. So I asked the other GeekMoms to help me compile a list of great audio books for family road trips. They had amazing suggestions, including anything by storyteller Odds Bodkin and the children’s audio program Boomerang (GeekMoms Laura and Kris are big fans of both). Here are our other favorites. Whether you buy them, download them, or find them at your local library, there are plenty here to start some conversations.

UPDATE 3/20/16: We’ve just published Best Audio Books for Family Road Trips, Vol. II, with 36 additional recommendations for great family listening.

The Bad Beginning (A Series of Unfortunate Events Book One) by Lemony Snicket, read by Tim Curry
Lemony Snicket’s series of books about the forever unlucky Baudelaire children is deliciously narrated by Tim Curry, who does the readings for all 13 of the books in this series. The misadventures for the children start in this book when their parents die, and throughout the first novel “the three youngsters encounter a greedy and repulsive villain, itchy clothing, a disastrous fire, a plot to steal their fortune, and cold porridge for breakfast.” A great elementary school listen.

Bill Bryson At Home and A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson, read by the author
My husband is a huge Bill Bryson fan, and he’s been begging me to read his books for years. Maybe I should start this summer on our own road trip, since GeekMom Laura raves about them. Bill Bryson was born in Iowa, spent two decades in England as a reporter, and now lives in New Hampshire. Here he covers a history of how we spend our private lives and a brief look at everything he’s learned from esteemed minds throughout the years. Good stuff for engaged teens.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, read by Allan Corduner
A Holocaust story narrated by the Grim Reaper is not exactly light summer fare, but this incredible book about a little girl named Liesel Meminger, the titular book thief, is so haunting and moving that it will spark some deep conversations with thoughtful teens. There is some PG-13 swearing in this one.

The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, read by multiple narrators
There’s a lot of debate about the reading order of C.S. Lewis’s series of books, but whatever order you choose will be great with the collection of audio book narrators. There are different readers for each book, including Kenneth Branagh, Lynn Redgrave, and Patrick Stewart. So farI’ve only listened to Michael York’s reading of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, but I loved it.

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, read by Bill Homewood
There have been multiple editions of this audio book with various readers over the years, though most of them are out of print as audio CDs. But the unabridged Bill Homewood version (considered to be the best reading, and clocking in at a whopping 53 hours in length) is available from Audible. GeekMom Kay says her kids were crazy for this book during a road trip when they were in their mid-teens. They didn’t want bathroom breaks, chatting, or map checks. They just wanted to listen.

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L Konigsburg, read by Jill Clayburgh
Ms. Konigsburg passed away in April at age 83, but her classic children’s novel is still beloved after 46 years in print. When almost-twelve-year-old Claudia Kincaid decides to run away from the suburbs to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, she enlists her younger brother Jamie to help fund the trip. The two of them have some great adventures in the famous museum, and the late Jill Clayburgh’s spot-on reading is just so much fun.

George’s Secret Key to the Universe by Lucy and Stephen Hawking, read by Hugh Dancy
This book is geek parent nirvana. The first book in a series of (so far) three, the books are written by Stephen Hawking and his daughter Lucy (with Stephen writing the science notes at the end). All of the books are narrated fabulously by Hugh Dancy (love him!). The first book introduces us to George, a shy and polite British schoolboy whose parents are environmental activists. They don’t eat anything they haven’t grown themselves, and they like to take George on family outings to global warming protests. But all George wants in the universe is a computer. When his new scientist neighbor moves in and shows George his incredible supercomputer, Cosmos, George’s world is opened wide. He is inspired to enter the school science fair (to win a computer), but he will have to deal with an evil mad scientist first. Excellent stuff.

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman, read by the author with a full cast recording
The entire His Dark Materials trilogy is a really cool audio book production. Young orphan Lyra Belacqua lives in an alternate version of our reality, where humans all have personal daemons–their souls manifested as animals. Lyra and her daemon Pantalaimon spend their days causing trouble at Oxford University until they overhear something they shouldn’t, and a chain of events is set in motion.  This is one of those children’s series that really works for adults, and The Golden Compass is still my favorite of the three.

The Graveyard Book written and read by Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman is one of few authors who can narrate their own books really well. Nobody “Bod” Owens is an orphaned boy being raised by ghosts in a cemetery. The man Jack, who murdered his family, continues to search for Bod as he grows up and learns how to navigate life with and without the dead. Creepy and marvelous for older elementary and middle school students, and the 2009 Newbery Medal winner.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (and the rest of the Harry Potter series) by J.K. Rowling, read by Jim Dale
Maybe this is the summer you’re finally ready to introduce your kids to Harry, Ron, and Hermione. Maybe they’re not quite ready to read the books, but they could definitely listen. Jim Dale is kind of legendary as an audio book narrator, and his interpretations of all seven Harry Potter books are the most glorious listens I’ve ever experienced.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, read by Stephen Fry
No explanation is needed here for Douglas Adams’s classic about the hapless Arthur Dent, and the original BBC radio series is also really wonderful. But Stephen Fry’s reading is charming because, well…it’s Stephen Fry. If you choose to listen to any version on your trip, make sure your kids pack a towel.

How to Train Your Dragon (and the rest of the series) by Cressida Cowell, read by David Tennant
David Tennant reads all of the books in this uproariously funny series, and he is just perfect. Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III has gone down in history as a great Viking warrior, but as a kid he didn’t quite live up to the reputation of his father, Stoick the Vast (chief of the Hairy Hooligans). If you need a tenth Doctor fix, and your kids think dragons and Vikings (and the movie adaptation) are awesome, this is for you.

The Lightning Thief (Percy Jackson & the Olympians #1) by Rick Riordan, read by Jesse Bernstein
Man, do I love the Percy Jackson series. The Lightning Thief will always be my absolute favorite, but Rick Riordan did something great here with the whole series. He got kids excited about mythology and ancient history through a wise-cracking, dyslexic kid from New York City (who also happens to be the son of Poseidon). This is real epic adventure, and Jesse Bernstein narrates the whole series.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, BBC Radio plays
Kay says for years doing a routine ten-to-twelve hour drive to see relatives, her family listened to these classic BBC radio dramatizations of Tolkien’s novels. They tried other traditional audio book readings of these books but always came back to the radio plays.

Nicholas St. North and the Battle of the Nightmare King (The Guardians, Book One) by William Joyce and Laura Geringer, read by Gerard Doyle
This is the story of Santa before he was Santa; when he was just a swashbuckling hero named North (Nicholas St. North). When an evil king threatens the village of Santoff Clausen, North comes to the rescue. GeekMom Cathé and her kids loved this one, the first in the Guardians of Childhood series.

The Red Pyramid (Kane Chronicles Book One) by Rick Riordan, read by Kevin R. Free and Katherine Kellgren
GeekMom Rebecca swears that this book saved her family on a long road trip a few years ago. Rick Riordan followed up his Percy Jackson series with the Kane Chronicles (there are three books so far), this time bringing ancient Egyptian mythology to the present. Fourteen-year-old Carter Kane has spent the years since his mother’s death traveling the world with his Egyptologist father, while his twelve-year-old sister Sadie moved to London with their grandparents. The family is reunited on Christmas Eve, when their father unleashes something at the British Museum that sets the siblings off on a dangerous adventure.

The Roald Dahl Audio Collection, read by the author
I fully support reading and listening to any Roald Dahl book, but this is a great collection of some of his classics, including Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Enormous Crocodile, and The Magic Finger. Roald Dahl is a great narrator for his own stories, and this collection has some of my absolute favorites. It’s great for elementary school kids (and precocious younger ones), but if you’re not already familiar with his stories be warned that they don’t always have warm and fuzzy language.

The Spiderwick Chronicles by Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi, read by Mark Hamill
When the Grace kids move with their mom into the crumbling Spiderwick Estate, they discover a world of fairies, goblins, elves, and dragons. Obviously, adventure ensues. The complete set of five original Spiderwick Chronicles novels (there was a follow-up series) is narrated by Mark Hamill, who does a great job with the story of thirteen-year-old Mallory Grace and her nine-year-old twin brothers Jared and Simon. Great for elementary school kids.

The Strange Case of Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger, multiple readers
Unpopular Dwight shows up to school one day with an origami Yoda puppet on his finger. When he begins talking in a Yoda voice and giving out great advice to his classmates, they decide to launch an investigation to discover if the Yoda puppet is real, or if there is a side to Dwight they’ve never noticed before. This is such a wonderful book for elementary- and middle-school kids. Cathé listened to it with her kids and loved it. There are also two more so far in the series.

The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo, read by Graeme Malcolm
This is just one of my favorite children’s books, period. I used to read it to my second grade classes in the library every year, and Graeme Malcolm’s reading of the audio book is one of my all-time favorites. Despereaux the mouse is an outsider in his world, and one day he falls in love with a human princess and promises to always honor her. When an evil rat threatens the castle, tiny Despereaux steps up to save the day. If you’ve seen the movie but haven’t read the book, there is so much rich language and deep emotion in the writing that did not translate to the screen. This is a dramatic story with a really poignant moral about accepting differences and embracing who you are. Just fabulous.

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, read by Alfred Molina
Classics like Treasure Island have had endless book reprints and recordings with different narrators. I blogged about the one read by Alfred Molina a few years ago because it is just so superb. He is exactly the Long John Silver I imagined in my head, and he will make your kids of all ages love this classic.

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, read by Hope Davis
An absolute classic children’s novel, and Hope Davis does a great job narrating. Meg, her brother Charles Wallace, and their friend Calvin learn all about tesseracts, time travel, and the mysterious disappearance of their father when a strange visitor appears at their door. So. Great.

Rebecca Angel, Kris Bordessa, Kay Moore, Cathé Post, and Laura Grace Weldon contributed to this audio book list. Jackie Reeve is an Amazon and Audible Affiliate.

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