Children's Books: Telling tales out of spool

Spoken-word tapes for children need lots of relish, but no ham. Christina Hardyment listens in wasters of alternative Albion? Just the music, says Charles Jennings
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BOUNCE AND verve but not too much attack is what makes for good tapes for children. Quite a few of the readers I've listened to this month simply try too hard, reading with manic glee. But Lynne Reid Banks gets it just right, reading her own Harry The Poisonous Caterpillar (Collins, unabridged, 90mins, pounds 5.99) with calm poise and justified relish. She also gives the amusingly ambiguous scene in which Harry and best friend George roam blindly over the hairy torso of a sleeping "Hmn" in search of moisture, the perfect degree of tongue-in-cheek (or caterpillar-in-cheek) humour.

J R R Tolkien wrote Roverandum (HarperCollins, 2hrs 30mins, pounds 7.99) to comfort his four-year-old son Michael, who once lost a beloved toy dog called Rover. Rover gets kidnapped by wizards and has wonderful adventures with the man in the moon, who also has a dog called Rover. Full of fantastical characters, it's an unusual and approachable story, which even quite small children will enjoy. Derek Jacobi reads with grandfatherly gravitas and the hint of a chuckle.

Jeremy Strong's stories always rate high in the bounce and verve stakes, and reader Lesley Sharp does full justice to The Karate Princess (Cover to Cover, unabridged, 90mins, and very good value at pounds 3.99). A classic and very funny fairy tale in which a most unpromising princess wins through in the end, it is also an arresting parable about how a good teacher (in this case a Zen-minded karate specialist) can channel talent and bring out real wisdom in his pupil.

Clive King's Stig of The Dump (Penguin, c3hrs, pounds 7.99) has been a perennial favourite since it was published in 1963. Its taciturn hero is an inventive and independent cave boy who lives deep in a chalkpit in a Kent village and has all sorts of escapades with eight-year-old Barney, none of which ever get believed. Tony Robinson hits just the right direct note as narrator, but relishes opportunities for burlesque when he reads burglars, and so on.

Smith (Penguin, c3hrs, pounds 6.99) is an excellent way to introduce children to Leon Garfield's wonderful but to some children slightly daunting historical writing. Its hero is a 12-year-old pickpocket who lives in the tumbledown maze of streets around St Paul's in London. When he steals a document from the pocket of a man seconds before he is stabbed, he becomes embroiled in a hair-raising adventure which tests his talents - and his character - to the utmost. Subtle but resonant 18th- century speech rhythms are brought out convincingly by Jasper Britton.

The four stories in Robert Westall's Blitz (HarperCollins, unabridged, 74 minutes, pounds 4.99) were written to be read aloud. They are intended to put over to children how the Second World War really was for ordinary people. The perils of the Blitz certainly add to the nail-gobble factor. But forget accusations of wartime obsession: these stories are about our history, with an accuracy that will make parents (or grandparents) of a certain age listen as closely as their children.

Finally, a real treat. Philip Pullman's Clockwork (Cover to Cover, unabridged, 90minutes, again good value at pounds 3.99) could have been written to be read aloud. Set in a fairy tale middle-European past full of inns, cunning artisans and noble houses, the tale has a storytelling competition at its core. But the story being told, with macabre magician, wolves and little dying prince, seems to come to life. As we have grown to expect with Pullman, there is a wickedly inexorable logic to it all, and a quite unpredictable and satisfying outcome. A tour de force, superbly read by Anton Lesser.