Children's Book Special: Audiobooks

A little less talk of 'daffodils', please
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The Independent Culture

In the audiobooks category, Vesuvius Poovius (book & CD £7.99) is a sure-fire winner with under-sixes. Kes Gray's prize-winning book is introduced with lots of deep, farting tuba music which will have the lavatorially inclined giggling even before its premise is described with ponderous relish by Jim Broadbent. The Emperor of Ancient Rome decrees poo to be a "forbiddenus wordus", with the result that his subjects call turds daffodils, honey-bees and nightingales. The inventor Vesuvius shows the Emperor a his'n'hers marble loo which flushes the problem away.

In the same benign but hopelessly funny vein is Martyn Beardsley's Sir Gadabout (Orion £5.99), the kind of knight "voted most likely to chop off his own foot off in a fight" while stopping villains. Clive Anderson gives a robust reading, interspersed with plenty of silly jokes and Pythonesque music. Sir Gadabout is even funnier if children know anything about Arthurian legends, but the story will keep four- to seven-year-olds happy for an hour. The book, illustrated by Tony Ross, is, however, superior.

Altogether more intelligent for six to nines is Philip Pullman's The Scarecrow & His Servant (Random House £12.99). Magically animated by a bolt of lightning, the Scarecrow becomes a quixotic companion for a poor boy called Jack. Along the way to Spring Valley they encounter brigands, soldiers and shipwrecks, all described in quick, vivid prose before an important secret is revealed. The indomitably stupid scarecrow will make children laugh, and the satirical brio with which the tale is told is admirably served by the feline Anton Lesser.

Enid Blyton's The Secret Seven & Secret Seven Adventure and Well Done, Secret Seven & Secret Seven on the Rail (Hodder £7.99 each) are two audiobook recordings to keep six-to-eights happy. Fully dramatised with music, the professionalism of the production promotes Blyton's perennial genius for jolly super stories.

One of the most delightful children's novels to be published last year, Angie Sage's Magyk, is now in audiobook (Bloomsbury £35). It begins just as an adventure story should, with a fanfare of trumpets and a reading by Allan Corduner that manages to be both thrilling and comforting at the same time. We are instantly plunged into a world of warlocks and wolverines - and Septimus Heap, switched at birth with a Princess. Septimus's survival is described with appealing comic ebullience. The chapters are short enough to keep children of seven-plus interested but, as ghosts, rats, soldiers and dragon boats help Silas and the young Princess fight the evil necromancer Dom Daniel, there is enough to keep the whole family amused while driving from Land's End to John O'Groats.

A good actor can make a bad book sound like Shakespeare. I loathed Christopher Paolini's Eragon (Random House £18.99) as sub-Tolkien tosh, but the audiobook read by Kerry Shale is smoothed by a mellow mid-American accent and skilful editing. From the first sentence we're plunged into a dangerous fantasy world in which a young boy, Eragon, must look after a dragon. Good if you have a boy of nine to 12 who is mad about dragons and needs to be kept quiet for nine hours.

The second in Charlie Higson's Young Bond series, Blood Fever (Puffin £12.99), is read by the author. The 13-year-old James Bond is a pupil at Eton in the 1930s, where he overhears a conversation that eventually links up to a kidnapping and the usual megalomaniac with a taste for Surrealist art, trying to take over the world. Higson is good at describing boys' enthusiasm, rebellion or despair, but Bond has yet to become the kind of kid who could grow up to be Pierce Brosnan. Its abridged version is good for 10-plus on medium-length journeys.

Anthony Horowitz has taken a break from Alex Rider to give us a new hero, Matt Freeborn, an orphan cursed or blessed with precognition who the satanic Old Ones want to kill. Raven's Gate (Walker £19.99) announces its supernatural status with creepy music, whispering voices and a narrator (Paul Panting) who manages to get the right pitch of tone to appeal to adolescents. Horowitz's gift for vivid visual detail has never been better deployed, but there is a lot less humour here than in the Alex Rider books. Perfect for stunning surly teenagers while driving to the countryside, it runs for just over seven hours and is totally gripping.

There's sword and sorcery for girls, too, in Meg Cabot's Avalon High (Macmillan £9.99). The author of The Princess Diaries has produced a supernatural tale about the teenaged daughter of two academics, reluctantly uprooted to Indianapolis. She gets involved with Will, and finds her new high school starts to repeat the dark patterns of sexual betrayal in Arthurian legend. Read by Jo Wyatt, it's romantic fun for 10-plus and perfectly palatable for everyone else.

The most original audiobook on offer is Frances Hardinge's Fly By Night (Macmillan £14.99). Written in muscular, consistently surprising prose, it has a 12-year-old heroine, Mosca, who is both wildly engaging and madly irritating. Her adventures as she runs away with a savage goose and a smooth swindler to the terror-struck city of Mandelion are as baroque and bonkers as anything dreamt up by Mervyn Peake or Joan Aiken. If you like this kind of thing, you will have nine hours of unflagging inventiveness.

Amanda Craig's recommended children's books are on www.amandacraig.com

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