Short version of this post: I’m looking for recommendations for books to read aloud that feature more character diversity and less wince-inducing prejudice than my longstanding favorite read-aloud books tend to have. (But I have more criteria than that; see below.)
Longer version follows.
I’m looking specifically for books that meet all of the following criteria:
- In English.
- Works unusually well aloud.
- Novella length or longer. (That is, takes a minimum of two hours to read aloud; I’m looking for books to read in installments.)
- You personally have read it aloud, ideally to adults, or heard it read aloud as an adult.
- Not all of the most important characters are cis white human men and boys.
- Isn’t particularly racist or sexist.
In addition, I would ideally prefer books that meet some or all of the following criteria:
- Has an unusually appealing or poetic prose style.
- Has some social-justice leanings.
- Is not written by a cis white man.
Note: The “unusually well aloud” part is important—I’m not just asking about books that work okay aloud, I’m asking for books that work really well aloud. There are many excellent books that are not particularly good read-aloud books, but I’m not asking about those; I’m asking only about books that are really good for reading aloud.
(Books that you’ve heard as audiobooks with a voice cast and special effects aren’t quite what I’m looking for, but audiobooks with a single reader that worked especially well aloud might fit my criteria.)
I’m asking about this because I realized recently that most of my favorite books to read aloud were written by people who I presume to be white cis men, and most of them aren’t particularly feminist or anti-racist or otherwise social-justice-aware.
Specifically, the following have long been my favorite book-length works to read aloud. (Please don’t take my political criticisms here as indications that these books are bad or should be banned or anything, and please don’t start on the “product of their times” argument. I love these books; I just wish that more of them didn’t make me wince as I read them.)
- The Last Unicorn, by Peter S. Beagle. This is an amazingly great read-aloud book (if listeners are in the right frame of mind to enjoy it), full of stunningly gorgeous language, and commentary on Story, and magic, and laugh-out-loud funny bits. And it has major and excellently portrayed female characters. But all of the characters are, presumably, by default, white; you could read some of them otherwise, but there would be no clear evidence in the book to support such a reading.
- The Princess Bride, by William Goldman. Until recently, the last time I read this aloud was in college. It is a wonderful read-aloud book—but the second-to-last time I offered to read it to someone, they declined on the grounds that the only major female character’s primary attributes are beauty and lack of intelligence. I couldn’t disagree. And more generally, the book is very looksist, somewhat fatphobic, somewhat sexist, a bit racist, a bit ableist, etc. (And although there are more women in the book than in the movie, almost all of the main characters are men.) I just finished reading it aloud to Kam, and it was a lot of fun, but I also winced a lot as I read.
- The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster. Thoroughly delightful, works excellently well aloud; but has a total of about four female characters in the whole book, none of whom have more than a few lines. Last time I read it aloud, at the listener’s request, I made the Mathemagician and Queen Azaz the Unabridged women, which worked pretty well. But even with those changes, it’s not exactly a paragon of diversity.
- The Thirteen Clocks, by James Thurber. Lovely and hilarious—but here again, the onscreen female characters are very decentered. One is literally silenced (she’s under a spell that allows her to only say one phrase); the other appears for only a few pages. Also, if you don’t prepare listeners ahead of time for the casual sadistic cruelty of the Duke, they may find the book unpleasant instead of charming.
To that list I’ve recently added Cog, by Greg Van Eekhout, which does largely fit my criteria above. Neither the author nor the protagonists are white, and a couple of the main characters are female, and the book has lovely social justice paradigms embedded in it, and it works very well aloud, and is funny and sweet and only occasionally scary. I highly recommend it, both for reading aloud and for reading silently.
But I would still like to find more books like that.
While I’m here, the other long works that I’ve heard aloud that I’ve thought worked best were these:
- “In the Drifts,” the Jesse Honey chapter of A Winter’s Tale, by Mark Helprin. I’ve read this aloud a couple of times and it’s worked pretty well, but when I’ve read it aloud, it hasn’t had the full total-hilarity effect that it had the first time I heard it read aloud by someone else. (And both main characters are presumably-white men.)
- Very Far Away from Anywhere Else, by Ursula K. Le Guin. I heard this read aloud in two installments in college, my first encounter with the book, and I loved it. But on re-reading it to myself recently, I was more aware of its flaws, and a couple of my friends read it for the first time recently and disliked it. And even though one of the two main characters is a girl, the boy’s POV is very much the focus of the book. And both characters are presumably white.
- Borgel, by Daniel Pinkwater. I used to love this book, and I loved hearing it read aloud many years ago. But I recently re-skimmed it, and I’m sad to report that it no longer particularly appeals to me.
- Cyrano de Bergerac, by Edmond Rostand, translated by Brian Hooker. Superb language, works very well aloud. But has some very problematic aspects, especially around wooing by deceit.
- The Lord of the Rings, by J. R. R. Tolkien. My parents read this to us when I was a kid, and I’ve kind of wanted to read it aloud ever since. But boy is it ever male-focused. And has problematic racial stuff too.