2021 Listen List Revealed

CHICAGO—The Listen List Council of the Collection Development and Evaluation Section (CODES) of the Reference and User Services Association (RUSA) has announced the 2021 selections of the Listen List: Outstanding Audiobook Narration. This year’s committee evaluated 284 titles with a total listening time of more than 3,118 hours.  The final deliberation produced a list of 12 winners. This award highlights extraordinary narrators and listening experiences that merit special attention by a general adult audience and the librarians who advise them. 

Adhering to established criteria, these benchmarks of excellence are available for purchase by libraries. Committee members matched the twelve titles on the list with three listen-alikes each which match in some way the tone, theme or style of the title on the list.  None of these titles have appeared on any previous Listen Lists. Titles are named to the list because the narration creates a new experience with an outstanding performance in terms of voice, accents, pitch, tone, inflection, rhythm and pace, offering listeners something they could not create by their own visual reading. This juried list, designed for both avid listeners and those new to the pleasures of stories read aloud, includes fiction and nonfiction and features voices that enthrall, delight, and inspire. 

The 2021 selections are:

“Bear Necessity” by James Gould-Bourn. Narrated by Rupert Holliday-Evans. Simon & Schuster Audio. Accompanied by a motley crew of unlikely friends, recently widowed Danny embarks on a humorous and heartwarming journey to rebuild his life and connect with his grieving son. Holliday-Evans’ sensitive characterizations and spot-on comedic timing bring out the sweetness and depth in this story of friendship, redemption, and love.


“Barn 8” by Deb Olin Unferth. Narrated by Brittany Pressley. Recorded Books.

“Nothing to See Here” by Kevin Wilson. Narrated by Marin Ireland. HarperAudio.

“The Love Story of Missy Carmichael” by Beth Morrey. Narrated by Harriet Walter. Books on Tape.

“A Burning: A Novel” by Megha Majumdar. Narrated by Vikas Adam, Priya Ayyar, Deepti Gupta, Soneela Nankani, Neil Shah, Ulka Simone Mohanty. Books on Tape. The aftermath of a terrorist attack in contemporary India reverberates through three individuals’ intertwined lives in this multifaceted thriller. Authentic full-cast narration reveals the complexity of the characters’ hopes and fears while providing insight into the rigid social system that constricts their options.


“Human Acts: A Novel” by Han King. Narrated by Sandra Oh, Deborah Smith, Greta Jung, Jae Jung, Jennifer Kim, Raymond J. Lee, Keong Smith. Books on Tape.

“Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents” by Isabel Wilkerson. Narrated by Robin Miles. Books on Tape.

“The Space Between Us” by Thrity Umrigar. Narrated by Purva Bedi. Books on Tape.

“The Girl with the Louding Voice: A Novel” by Abi Daré. Narrated by Adjoa Andoh. Books on Tape. Fourteen-year-old, Nigerian-born Adunni overcomes abuse, privation, and cruelty as she desperately searches for an education. With rhythmic, accented speech, Andoh passionately embodies the warmth and courageous spirit of this remarkable girl who wants only to have a say in her own future.


“Little Family” by Ishmael Beah. Narrated by Dion Graham. Books on Tape.

“The Dragons, the Giant, the Women: A Memoir” by Wayétu Moore. Narrated by Tovah Ott. Brilliance Audio.

“Golden Child” by  Claire Adam. Narrated by Obi Abili. Books on Tape.

“Homie: Poems” by Danez Smith. Narrated by Danez Smith. HighBridge Audio. Strongly influenced by hip-hop and spoken word, Smith’s poetry explores growing up Black and queer in America with a freshness and power that will captivate both poetry fans and casual listeners.


“We Want Our Bodies Back: Poems” by Jessica Care Moore. Narrated by Jessica Care Moore. HarperAudio.

“How We Fight for Our Lives” by Saeed Jones. Narrated by Saeed Jones. Simon & Schuster Audio.

“Heavy: An American Memoir” by Kiese Laymon. Narrated by Kiese Laymon. Simon & Schuster Audio.

“Make Me Rain: Poems and Prose” by Nikki Giovanni. Narrated by Nikki Giovanni. HarperAudio. American treasure Nikki Giovanni examines the personal and political in this timely collection. Her raspy voice and measured tone create an intimate experience for the listener, conveying tenderness in one poem and outrage in the next.


“An American Sunrise: Poems” by Joy Harjo. Narrated by Joy Harjo. Blackstone Publishing.

“The Tradition” by Jericho Brown. Narrated by JD Jackson. HighBridge Audio.

“The Carrying” by Ada Limón. Narrated by Ada Limón. Milkweed Editions.

“Me & Patsy Kickin’ Up Dust: My Friendship with Patsy Cline” by Loretta Lynn. Narrated by Patsy Lynn Russell. Hachette Audio. Patsy Cline took Nashville newcomer Loretta Lynn under her wing, and the two developed an instant friendship that changed Lynn’s career and personal life forever. Narrated by Lynn’s daughter and Cline’s namesake, Patsy Lynn Russell’s sweet southern twang adds authenticity and tenderness to this beautiful tribute to women’s friendship.


“Me and Sister Bobbie: True Tales of the Family Band” by Willie Nelson, Bobbie Nelson, David Ritz.  Narrated by Willie Nelson, Bobbie Nelson. Books on Tape.

“The Growing Season: How I Built a New Life–and Saved an American Farm” by Sarah Frey. Narrated by Sarah Frey. Books on Tape.

“Shiner: A Novel” by Amy Jo Burns. Narrated by Catherine Taber. Books on Tape.

“My Dark Vanessa: A Novel” by Kate Elizabeth Russell. Narrated by Grace Gummer. HarperAudio. A harrowing tale of a boarding school student, the English teacher who preys on her, and the long-term psychological trauma it causes. Gummer’s compelling depiction of Vanessa from naive teenager to world-weary adult makes this an unforgettable listen.


“The Swallows: A Novel” by Lisa Lutz. Narrated by Abby Elliott, Lisa Flanagan, Michael Crouch, Ari Fliakos, Johnny Heller. Books on Tape.

“Cruel Beautiful World” by Caroline Leavitt. Narrated by Xe Sands. HighBridge Audio.

“Rust & Stardust” by T. Greenwood. Narrated by Thérèse Plummer. Macmillan Audio.

“The Only Good Indians” by Stephen Graham Jones. Narrated by Shaun Taylor-Corbett. Simon & Schuster Audio. In this gory, visceral horror novel, four Blackfeet men are haunted by an elk hunting misdeed a decade ago. Native American Taylor-Corbett’s lilting accent captures the tension and dread, creating an unearthly atmosphere for listeners.


“This Town Sleeps: A Novel” by Dennis E. Staples. Narrated by Kaipo Schwab. HighBridge Audio.

“Ring Shout” by P. Djèlí Clark. Narrated by Channie Waites. Books on Tape.

“Hex” by Thomas Olde Heuvelt. Narrated by Jeff Harding. Macmillan Audio.

“Tiny Imperfections” by Alli Frank and Asha Youmans. Narrated by Bahni Turpin. Books on Tape. Private school admissions counselor Josie Bordelon thinks she has it all under control until those around her start making waves and she realizes the precarious balance of her life is teetering. Turpin masterfully embodies an ensemble of characters and their snappy dialogue with genuine emotion and passion.


“Ties That Tether” by Jane Igharo. Narrated by Nkeki Obi-Melekwe, Gary Tiedemann. Books on Tape.

“Such a Fun Age” by Kiley Reid. Narrated by Nicole Lewis. Books on Tape.

“Little Wonders: A Novel” by Kate Rorick. Narrated by Teri Clark Linden. HarperAudio.

“The Trial of the Chicago 7: The Official Transcript” edited by Mark L. Levine, George C. McNamee, Daniel Greenberg. Narrated by J. K. Simmons, Jeff Daniels, Chris Jackson, John Hawkes, Chris Chalk, Luke Kirby, Corey Stoll, Norbert Leo Butz, George Newbern, full cast. Simon & Schuster Audio. Following the 1968 Democratic Convention, eight men were charged with conspiracy to riot. This riveting full-cast reenactment of their infamous trial is the ticket to the outrageous courtroom circus. 


“Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own” by Eddie S. Glaude. Narrated by Eddie S. Glaude. Books on Tape.

“Deep Delta Justice: A Black Teen, His Lawyer, and Their Groundbreaking Battle for Civil Rights in the South” by Matthew Van Meter.  Narrated by Brad Sanders. Hachette Audio.

“Death in Mudlick: A Coal Country Fight Against the Drug Companies that Delivered the Opioid Epidemic” by Eric Eyre. Narrated by Michael David Axtell. Simon & Schuster Audio.

“The Vanishing Half: A Novel” by Brit Bennett. Narrated by Shayna Small. Books on Tape. Identical twin sisters Desiree and Stella, fair-skinned enough to pass as white, adopt starkly different racial identities after leaving their Louisiana hometown. With exquisite delicacy, Small communicates race, age, gender, and social status, honoring the individuality of each voice within this intergenerational story.


“An American Marriage: A Novel” by Tayari Jones. Narrated by Sean Crisden, Eisa Davis. HighBridge Audio.

“The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother” by James McBride. Narrated by JD Jackson, Susan Denaker. Books on Tape.

“Luster: A Novel” by Raven Leilani. Narrated by Ariel Blake. Macmillan Audio.

“Wow, No Thank You: Essays” by Samantha Irby. Narrated by Samantha Irby. Books on Tape.

Irby’s relatable essays cover topics ranging from sex to IBS to life in small-town Michigan. Her honest and occasionally snarky narration showcases her capacity to see the humor in all situations, even those that include uncomfortable struggle.


“The Hungover Games: A True Story” by Sophie Heawood. Narrated by Sophie Heawood. Hachette Audio.

“I’m Just a Person” by Tig Notaro. Narrated by Tig Notaro. HarperAudio.

“Save Yourself: Memoir” by Cameron Esposito. Narrated by Cameron Esposito. Hachette Audio.

The Listen List: Outstanding Audiobook Narration Council includes Sarah B. Hill (Chair), Hilary Meg Albert, Ron Block, Janice Derr, Nanette Wargo Donohue, Sarah Hashimoto, Christa Van Herreweghe. The Reference and User Services Association, a division of the American Library Association, represents librarians and library staff in the fields of reference, specialized reference, collection development, readers’ advisory and resource sharing. RUSA is the foremost organization of reference and information professionals who make the connections between people and the information sources, services, and collection materials they need. Learn more about the association at www.rusaupdate.org. 

Originally published at https://www.ala.org/news/member-news/2021/02/2021-listen-list-revealed


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