Children's audio: magic in the air

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The Independent Culture

This Autumn there is a fine harvest of children's audio titles. Most unusual is First Discovery Music (each book and 20min CD, £9.99), a series of books with CDs tucked into their covers, published by the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music. They provide an accessible way of introducing children to the great composers. The little books are stoutly bound and beautifully designed, illustrated with contemporary paintings. Each starts with a sketch of the musician's childhood, giving a sense of kinship; then their styles and subjects are lucidly explained. The CD, which repeats the text but offers musical illustrations, can be listened to independently but is best if heard as the child turns the pages of the book. Five – Purcell, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin – have been published so far, with Bach, Vivaldi, Handel, Berlioz and Debussy in the pipeline.

Anthony Horowitz's Granny (BBC Cover to Cover, unabridged, 3hrs 30mins, £10.99), read with infectious zest by Nickolas Grace, catches you immediately and doesn't put you down. Joe Warden has selfish parents, but they are angelic in comparison with his granny, a crone Grace realises as so grotesquely evil that she comes close to Roald Dahl's witches. It's a hilarious fantasy – and don't worry, there are plenty of positively presented senior citizens as well. The (undeniably true) moral is that old age intensifies both vice and virtue.

Diane Wynne Jones's Howl's Moving Castle and its sequel Castle in the Air (both Collins, 3hrs, £7.99) are two of the best children's books of the past 20 years. John Sessions reads both titles in this double release, giving the original young wizard Howl plenty of Welsh charm. He's equally adept at the resourceful Sophie, spelled into an old hag by a jealous witch, the canny fire demon, and the rest of Wynne Jones's rich cast.

Dodie Smith is enjoying a well-deserved revival. The Hundred and One Dalmatians (CSA Telltapes, 3hrs, £9.99) was based on her own long experience of dalmatians, including the birth of 15 puppies. Good though both Disney films are, they can't do justice to the unending ripple of little jokes that is the hallmark of Smith's style. This is a tape that grown-ups will enjoy just as much as children, and Martin Jarvis excels himself.

As Julia Donaldson's Smarties Gold Award-winning The Gruffalo (Macmillan, book and tape, 1hr, £7.99) is a rhyming story, it is good fun to hear it read aloud; and as this is a book-and-tape pack, you can still enjoy Axel Scheffler's witty illustrations. Imelda Staunton manages motherly narrator, dauntless mouse, the varied predators in pursuit of the Gruffalo. A first-class production, which small children will want to hear again and again.

Finally, my favourite: Kenneth Grahame is best known for The Wind in the Willows, but The Reluctant Dragon (BBC Cover to Cover, unabridged, c1hr, £3.99) has the same cosy immediacy. It's the story of a lazy dragon who enjoys verse too much to dig himself out of an earthquake, surfacing, in the chalk downlands, long after his kind is extinct. Grahame is a master of the revealing phrase, and skilled at suspense. Anton Lesser enjoys reading all the characters.

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