Children's Books: When Harry Potter met Pollyanna...

From J R R Tolkien to J K Rowling, listen out for a seasonal treat. Christina Hardyment surveys audiobooks for children

THIS AUTUMN sees an especially rich harvest of audiobooks for children. First on everybody's list will be J K Rowling's Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (Cover to Cover, unabridged, 8hrs 20 mins, pounds 19.99). Stephen Fry reads quite superbly, effacing his own kingsize personality in the interest of giving full rein to the book's own remarkable characters. Top marks too for the lively cover design, gaily-coloured cassettes and wonderfully compact and tough carton.

Fans of another undoubted classic, Philip Pullman's trilogy His Dark Materials, will also welcome publication of the first book, Northern Lights (Cavalcade, pounds 24.99, 10hrs 30mins,). The text is totally unabridged, and Philip Pullman himself is the main narrator. All the dialogue is spoken by a large and varied cast. At first I wondered if I wouldn't have preferred just Pullman, who has a hypnotically compelling voice. But once I got into the rhythm of the thing, I found myself totally caught up in it. So, evidently, did the excellent cast, notably Joanna Wyatt as Lyra.

Another very special production, one to keep handy in the car for black dog days, is Bonnie Greer's excellent dramatisation of Antoine St Exupery's The Little Prince (BBC, 1hr 20mins, pounds 5.99). But how can it work without pictures, no elephant in a boa constrictor, you ask? The answer is, surprisingly well - when your aviator is Robert Powell, and Bernard Cribbins and Stephen Thorne are among the cast. Garrett Moore is a splendidly impatient Little Prince.

Jostein Gaarder, whose Sophie's World was an international hit, has produced a book very kin to The Little Prince in Hello? Is anybody there? (Orion, 2 hrs, pounds 7.65). Mika falls out of a spaceship into the garden of a little boy called Joe, who is waiting for his parents to return from hospital with what he hopes is a new baby brother. Through Mika's eyes we see our own quite freshly - what a wonder is a hen, for example, the only creature in the universe to lay a daily egg. Books like this walk a tightrope between pretension and sentiment, but Gaarder carries it off. Joss Ackland is the perfect choice as reader; his husky whispery voice is as liquorice rich as a malt whisky.

Fresh and fantastical in a quite different way is Philip Ridley's Dakota of the White Flats (Chivers, pounds 9.95, 2hrs 45mins, mail order 0800 136 919). Ridley is a masterly creator of doggedly bold kids and eccentric adults. Dakota Pink, whose mother hasn't left an armchair since her father left 11 years earlier, is one of the most memorable. Josie Lawrence does both her and the book's other grand guignol characters full justice.

There couldn't be a stronger contrast than the Eleanor H Porter's legendary Pollyanna, a gaily plucky girl who would look on the bright side of life while she was heading for the guillotine. But I've always had a weak spot for her, so, slightly nervously, I suggest you give Pollyanna (l hr 30mins, pounds 8.99), the BBC's dramatisation starring Gayle Hunnicutt, a whirl. Handkerchiefs may be needed for mopping eyes - or else for stifiling laughter.

Last but by no means least, Derek Jacobi reads J R R Tolkien's Farmer Giles of Ham (Harper- Collins, 3hrs, pounds 8.99). This is one of the most accessible Tolkien tales, with plenty of humour hiding behind the lines in a way which will delight both discerning children and their parents. Two other tales are included in the package: Smith of Wootton Minor and the charming little Leaf by Niggle.



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