The last time most of us heard a story read aloud – reverently and slowly – it’s very likely we were children, and that it was bedtime, and that the storyteller was a parent. I’ve always found it curious that as children we’re read stories before bed. They always woke me, lifted me, rather than sending me into sleepyland. Why not stories at breakfast or with tea?
That special shared reading time – whatever the time – is something we remember fondly; it was a place we were safe, a little sleepy (except me!) and the person we loved most in the world was taking us somewhere magical. Is it any wonder that we long to return to that place now adult life means we barely have enough time to read, let alone get lost in another world?
With audiobook sales on the rise, it would appear that many of us are craving that surrender to words read aloud and embracing again the spoken tale. When writing How to be Brave I read aloud the parts that Natalie reads to young Rose to see if it worked when lifted off the page, the way parents do with Cinderella and Harry Potter. Even the clumsiest reader – and I’m no expert, I often get nervous and babble – only needs heart and a belief in the words to make them work.
But when someone with both of those things and a gorgeous, lilting voice brings your novel to life, it doesn’t get any better. I was on our family holiday in New York when publisher Karen Sullivan told me that Finty Williams, daughter of Judi Dench, would be reading the How To Be Brave audiobook. Because of the time difference my family were still sleeping near me – so I had to keep my squeals to myself. I had to lie in the dark and smile, keeping my story very quiet. There are strong themes of shared storytelling in How To Be Brave – not only as an escape but quite literally as a lifesaver, too – so it felt natural that the novel would become an audiobook. And yet it was still an amazing surprise.
Some weeks later I got to listen to Finty raise my novel to another level. She came with me on the bus, in the bath, in the car. Her rich and velvety voice followed me around the house with a duster and into the garden with laundry. She was with me at lunchtime, teatime and bedtime – yes, even bedtime. Somehow the words I’d written were new ones. This was a tale in which I couldn’t quite be sure what might happen; such was the way she made it hers.
And I was thrilled, because only while sharing storytime with Finty did I become the child I’d not been for years, and my novel took on some kind of magical power I’d not even created.