AN EARFUL OF STORIES

An earful of stories
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The Independent Culture
Talking - to say nothing of singing, swinging and scary sound effect - books are beginning to take up almost as much space on the shelves of children's bookshops as the real thing. Every parent knows that car journeys with children are transformed by them.

"SHE magazine understands how important it is for busy parents to keep their children stimulated" runs the puff on the SHE young listeners series, conjuring up a picture of catatonic children strapped into their seats, headphones on ears. But the tapes themselves are long, well produced and good value. Once SHE's jolly Animal Songs (40 mins, pounds 3.99) are associated with memories of daddy doing the conga round the kitchen to its rumbustious rendering of "Nellie the Elephant", it could become as important a bedtime item as that much-hugged teddy-bear.

Dr Seuss's Cat in a Hat (25 mins plus book, Harper Collins, pounds 5.99) is the perfect candidate for audio-recording, because it was always hard to read without tapping your foot. Adrian Edmondson gets the irrepressible cat, the terrible Thing One and Thing Two, and the hysterically admonitory fish absolutely right, but it is the music, rollicking reams of rolling ragtime, which completely steals the show.

Helen Lederer shows an impressive vocal range when she settles a princess down to sleep despite dragons, ghosts and giants in Lullabyhullaballo (text and pictures by Mick Inkpen, 10 mins plus book, Hodder, pounds 9.99), a delightful bedtime sweetener for tinies, with a nice line in refrain, but expensive. Better value is Jill Murphy's delightful Peace at Last (15 mins plus book, Cover to Cover, pounds 4.99). Incidentally, Cover to Cover is always a guarantee of quality - and they never abridge stories.

For slightly older children, the folksy swingtime music on Jill Barklem's Brambly Hedge series also makes for a soothing bedtime ("ease your whiskers, rest your paws/ Pies and puddings fill the stores"). John Moffatt's reading of Autumn Story (15 mins plus book, Harper Collins, pounds 5.99) reminds us that Barklem is more than just a talented illustrator: her characterisation is economical but vivid, as is her tale-telling.

Hodder has a nicely judged series of Best Stories for under-fives, six- and seven-year-olds respectively. At pounds 5.99 each with a 60- minute tape and a substantial book, they are both good value for money and a useful way of sampling talented new authors.

When it comes to talking books of well-known classics, Penguin's complete and unabridged works of Beatrix Potter (6hrs 15mins, pounds 20) are a lot of dosh for a lot of posh. The narratives are made varied and lively by the star-studded cast of readers (Gary Bond, Michael Hordern, Rosemary Leach, Janet Maw, Patricia Routledge and Timothy West) and the music has been specially composed by Carl Davis. Nostalgic parents will relish Potter's measured turns of phrase, but children will need the prompts that the pictures supply to appreciate such phases as "embroidered muslin apron" or "foxy-whiskered gentleman" to the full.

Enid Blyton, the Agatha Christie of children's literature, is predictably already much recorded, with varying degrees of success. Hearing her books read word for word certainly emphasises their limitations. First Term at Malory Towers (80 mins, HarperCollins, pounds 5.99) is one to avoid, less for its upper- crust intonations than because it is drawn out to the point of absurdity with sound effects and mimsily skippy music.

Five Fall into Adventure (60 mins, Hodder, pounds 3.99) is much pacier, with wonderfully manly renderings of Dick and Julian ("Shall I punch the little cad, or will you?"). But George's voice (Scarlett Strallen), is a shade little girly, and Timmy's famous bark a mere yap. Best of the bunch is the double Secret Seven series (120 mins, pounds 5.99, Hodder) with a warm, comforting narrative by John Baddeley and an impressive range of children's voices, good use of sound effects, and a lovely linking theme on oboe.

It is not everyone who could carry off lines like "Cheerio, laddies!" without faltering, but Michael York's Biggles: Pioneer Air Fighter (2hrs, Listen with Pleasure, pounds 5.99) succeeds in carrying off not only that but any amount of spitting Spandaus, flak-flakking artillery, and tersely enunciated aviation jargon. Easily the most exciting of all the tapes I listened to.

Given the comic book presentation of the Asterix the Gaul series, you might think that tapes were quite superfluous, but Willie Rushton's brilliant rendering of Asterix, Getafix, Obelix and Vital Statistix brings out much more of Goscinny and Uderzo's punning wit than you get while racing through the strips. Real ear-openers, and excellent value for money. There are 32 in the Hodder series of 90 min tapes, each packed with a book at pounds 6.99.

The best of the bunch, though, is Hodder's marvellous, fully dramatised adaption of Old Testament stories (90 mins, pounds 7.99) narrated by Thora Hird with an astonishing range of actors. Brilliant sound effects, startling stereo. Thrill to the sound of David's swirling slingshot. Tremble with Daniel at the ghastly gurglings of the lions. Occasionally OTT, but it taught me more than I ever remember knowing about the Bible. Quite simply a must.

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