Ann Saunders

Ann Saunders smiling

The eagerly-awaited seventh book in J.K. Rowling’s blockbuster Harry Potter series hit the bookstores on July 21, 2007. And thanks to the efforts of CNIB volunteer narrator Ann Saunders, Canadian kids with vision loss were aboard the Hogwarts Express right alongside their sighted friends to read about what happened next to the world’s best-known young wizard.

The natural 

Saunders, a retiree, has been narrating audio books for CNIB since 1991. She had no formal voice training, and no radio or acting background – although she loves live theatre and attends as often as she can, she says. 

She especially likes children’s books, stating “there’s less bad language and sex than in adult material.” 

She also enjoys science fiction, murder mysteries and historical fiction, and has read a wide selection of genres for CNIB.

“I’m incredibly lucky,” says Saunders. “I’ve narrated some wonderful books over the years.”

Award winner

She won a CNIB Award in 1998 for her narration of “Elephant Winter” by Kim Echlin, and recalls with a laugh the experience of meeting author Ken Oppel, whose books she had narrated, at an awards ceremony.

“I suddenly realized his name was pronounced with a long ‘O’ sound, and not the short ‘O’ I’d been using when I narrated his books,” she says. “That was an embarrassing moment!” 

She was approached by CNIB’s recording studio staff shortly before that, in 1997, to narrate the first Harry Potter book, “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone”, which was released that year. 

The Potter phenomenon

“I was thrilled, delighted,” says Saunders, a fan herself. “Harry Potter is a phenomenon that cuts across age, gender and nationality. Everyone in the known world knows the Harry Potter books!”

For the first four books, Saunders set aside time especially for Project Potter, to make sure they were done and available as quickly as possible. She normally volunteers three days a week but increases her hours to ensure that each Harry Potter book is available to readers with vision loss as close as possible to the date the print version is released. So far, each book has taken her about 10 days of full-time reading.

Phoenix fumble

The only volume that she hasn’t narrated is number five, “The Order of the Phoenix,” since CNIB had already procured the audio files from the Royal New Zealand Foundation for the Blind. Unfortunately, it took six months for those files to arrive at CNIB, so there was a half-year gap between the release of the printed book and the audio book.

Saunders was “adamant” that this not happen with volume six, she says, and impishly confesses that she put “unseemly pressure” on the recording studio staff to be allowed to narrate that book herself rather than wait again for the files to be shipped from New Zealand.

“When you see the hype about the release date, the kids lining up to get their books – that’s so important,” she says. “Why should CNIB clients be denied the same chance?”

A labour of love

Although her self-imposed timelines are extremely tight, it’s a labour of love for Saunders. Not only does she love the books, but “I’m a real ham,” she says. “This gives me the opportunity to do all sorts of accents.”

Her favourites are Hagrid, the gamekeeper at Hogwarts, and especially Dobby the House Elf. She listens to how British actor Stephen Fry, who narrates the Harry Potter books for the British market, does his accents and then learns from that.

“I feel sorry for Stephen Fry trying to do Hermione, though,” she says with a laugh. “It’s difficult for a man to read in a young girl’s voice.”

Volunteers needed

Saunders, who is also a CNIB donor, says there is always a need for more recording studio volunteers.

“I want to let people know the delights of narrating, what a rewarding job it is, and how desperately people are needed.”​

“I look forward to reading many more books, and when my voice goes, I will continue to be a studio monitor and technician. It’s just such a wonderful job.”