Take me to a happy place: Time-travel and a trip to the moon feature in the latest children's audio books

Sue Gaisford
Sunday 23 October 2011 03:30

"Childhood is not from birth to a certain age," wrote Edna St Vincent Millais. "Childhood is the kingdom where nobody dies." Breaking Dawn (read by Ilyana Kadushin and Matt Walters, Hachette, £24.47), the last volume of Stephanie Meyer's Twilight saga, opens with this comforting thought, but it is a bit of a con. Bella, the feisty heroine, has reached 17 – surely getting close to the upper limits of childhood – and by marrying Edward, her beautiful, eternally youthful vampire, chooses to stay there forever, forfeiting mortality and human ambitions to join him in that happy state. These are not nasty vampires. Because they feed on animal blood, they are described as vegetarians. (Clearly, carrot juice would not cut the mustard.) Teenagers love this series for the clever plotting and the surreal other-life they describe. And many identify with Bella herself, who goes, in her mind, to a "happy place" when times are hard.

Younger listeners similarly inclined are becoming addicted to Amy Tree's Charmseekers series. The third of these is The Dragon's Revenge (Orion, £9.87), read with superb versatility by Kate O'Sullivan. These are book-with-CD packages – and also with small silvery charms, for the premise here is that young Sesame Brown is frequently required to visit the land of Karisma and collect another charm until all 13 have been restored to the queen's bracelet. Ten more times, Sesame will confront Zorgan the dragon, whose magnificently deep, Russian accents make him sound like an early James Bond villain.

For dragons, though, you can't beat E Nesbit. So little about her work is dated, for she really knew how to entertain both children and parents. A selection of her and Kenneth Grahame's Dragon Tales (Naxos, £10.75) includes "The Island of the Nine Whirlpools", in which the seductive rhythms of her prose are undercut by affectionate bathos. The dragon guarding the princess is merely "competent"; the griffin, alas, "artificial". You could listen to Emma Gregory reading this in the car from here to Skegness and love every minute. The only, smallish, problem is that the bold hero is called, inexplicably, Nigel..........

Marcus Sedgwick's Flood and Fang (Orion, £9.78; also reviewed on page 27) has a similarly clever double appeal. It is narrated by a raven called Edgar, a sulky old know-all who lives in the gloomy and vertiginous Castle Otherhand. The beauteous Solstice (sporting a couple of neck punctures, to maintain her vampirical street cred) is the only one who understands him. The castle is threatened by eponymous disasters on a gigantic scale – a five-storey flood and three rows of fangs – but what could you expect when the previous owners had practised the "dark arts of necromancy, thaumaturgy and osteopathy"? Martin Jarvis does Edgar proud, as a wronged and bronchitic scoutmaster, given to corvine croaks.

Also highly recommended is a lovely triple package of classic novels, all superbly dramatised with cleverly appropriate music. Noel Streatfeild's Ballet Shoes, Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden and Nesbit's The Railway Children are this summer's best buy, boxed together as Three Children's Classic Stories (BBC, £24.47) and excellent value. As is Jacqueline Wilson's Video Rose (BBC, £5), an entrancing story that begins in mundane, inner-city gloom and soars into gloriously surreal time-travel. And Francesca Simon's Don't Cook Cinderella (Orion, £5.87), read by the stupendous Simon Russell Beale, is an anarchic and hilarious reworking of stock fairy tales – and a welcome break from the nasty naughtiness of her Horrid Henry.

Finally, 40 years ago a small boy gazed up at the moon and dreamed of going there. Mark Haddon was the boy, and the moment is recalled in The Sea of Tranquility (HarperCollins, £7.99), his beautiful picture book, magically illustrated by Christian Birmingham and now gently read by Anthony Head, accompanied by the music of the spheres. It is the best, most peaceful and inspiring bedtime story of the year.

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