Audiobooks: They won't teach you this in school

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The Independent Culture

Audiobooks make perfect presents for children, and they are a godsend for parents, too, during those endless journeys as we hurtle about between relations in the festive season. One almost everyone in the family should enjoy is an inspired new recording of Roald Dahl's Little Red Riding Hood (from Revolting Rhymes), The Three Little Pigs and Raymond Briggs's The Snowman (London Philharmonic Orchestra £9.99). What is special is not just having these read by the terrifically lively Chris Jarvis of the CBeebies, whipping a pistol from RRH's knickers with glee, but having music by the London Philharmonic. Children of four and over will be transfixed.

Another Jarvis, Martin, is an audiobook genius who has kept Richmal Crompton's Just William books alive for the next generation. Just William's Greatest Hits (BBC £17.99) is the funniest recording of the year. Whether or not you have a child over eight, I cannot praise these recordings too highly. Crompton, as a teacher, understood the mind of boys like nobody else; however, a close second is Pete Johnson. In Help! I'm a Classroom Gambler (BBC £24), smart, irrepressible Harvey begins to bet on his teachers' foibles, and soon finds himself in deep doo-doo.

From the first moment of Alan Garner's classic adventure, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (Naxos £24.99), when the swirling music of Arnold Bax's symphonic poems gives way to the deep, rich voice of Philip Madoc, listeners are swept away into a breathtaking story (for over-nines) of wizards and trolls. Equally gripping is Rosemary Sutcliffe's The Eagle of the Ninth (Naxos £16.99), about a young centurion's search for a missing legion over Hadrian's Wall. Read by Charlie Simpson against a background of thrilling music, and sparkling with detail about the Romans in Britain, it is perfect for boys of eight and over.

Another jewel in the crown is Naxos's recordings of H E Marshall's Our Island Story (£16.99). Written at the height of Edwardian confidence in the British Empire, it tells the history of Britain from its beginnings to the death of Queen Victoria. This is exactly what children need to counter the disconnected history now taught in schools. Read by the dulcet Anna Bentick and the noble-sounding David Philpott, with stirring music from Naxos's library of recordings, each of the three volumes give a child five hours of fun.

The ultimate masterpiece is Craftsman Audio's recording of Ursula le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea (£31.95). Craftsman is a young company specialising in unabridged classic fantasy. These are like nothing else on the market, partly because of their superior casing and track listing (so you don't lose your place), but also as stunningly good drama. A Wizard of Earthsea is a thrilling literary masterpiece which adults enjoy as much as children of 10 and over. Karin Archer's immaculate reading captures the purity of the prose, really an epic poem, telling how Ged, a young goatherd, discovers his power as a wizard. The specially-composed lute music is exactly right, and this is electrifying.

Slightly younger children meanwhile will want to open John Masefield's The Box of Delights (Craftsman £34.95), sequel to The Midnight Folk (also Craftsman). Kay is home for the Christmas holidays but the wicked Abner Brown and his coven have not given up. A mysterious Punch and Judy man has a magic box which can enable you to shrink, go swift, or travel back in time, and the witches will stop at nothing to get it back. Richard Mitchley has a voice that is as rich as plum pudding, perfect for high Edwardian entertainment of this kind.

If that fails, give them Horrid Henry's Christmas Cracker (Orion £5.99), a particularly seasonal outing from Francesca Simon, read by Miranda Richardson. Four interlinked stories lead up to the nightmare before and during Christmas as the awful child ruins his school Nativity play and enjoys the worst Christmas lunch ever. The scratchy, punky music will put your teeth on edge and Richardson's voice is like broken glass in treacle as she relishes the ghastly details about spiders in wreaths, frozen turkey and revolting relations. It will have you laughing helplessly all the way to Boxing Day and beyond.

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