Some adults worry that audiobooks are a cheat, and that a child who listens rather than reads is somehow not developing the right skills. But the love of story is the most important thing to impart in the making of readers. In my experience, says Nicolette Jones, the listener often goes on to enjoy the same book in physical form. Audiobooks, like reading aloud, give children a way in to stories and make the deciphering of text (particularly of classics) easier and more enticing, enabling them to ‘hear’ the words in their head and grasp the voices in dialogue. The capacity to listen and follow is also a crucial skill, and great preparation for the classroom and the lecture theatre. Never discourage a listener. All readers, reluctant and otherwise, can increase their appetite for literature through audio. And listening together, in the car for instance, is a much richer experience than leaving a child alone with isolating headphones.
This list of favourites demonstrates too what a great actor can add to a story, making of it a whole new entertainment.
The Ruby in the Smoke by Philip Pullman, read by Anton Lesser (Audible) 11+
The reader whose voice, more than any other, makes me feel instantly like snuggling down in my duvet and letting myself drift away on a story (even if I am driving a car) is Anton Lesser. This rendition of Pullman’ spoof Victorian thriller is an extraordinary demonstration of Lesser’s capacity to convey atmosphere and characters. He understands the tone of the narrative perfectly, and sounds like a whole cast, including the female voices. He does menace so your spine shivers, not least in the malevolent Mrs Holland who wears her late husband’s false teeth (‘plenty of wear in them yet’). Sally Lockhart’s dangerous adventures are often chilling but we will happily accompany Lesser anywhere, even into the opium dens of East London.
How to Train Your Dragon series by Cressida Cowell, read by David Tennant (Hodder) 7-11
Securing David Tennant as the reader of the How to Train Your Dragon series was a coup that preceded his celebrity as Doctor Who. He has loyally stayed with the audio series for all twelve books, bringing his rich Scottish voice and exemplary comic timing to this increasingly profound and complex sequence about Vikings and dragons and the hazardous upbringing of inadequate Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III that makes him into chieftain material. Tennant can do equally well the voices of brawny warriors (Stoick the Vast), weedy boys (Fishlegs) and, unmissably, to break your heart, the demanding little dragon Toothless.
Winnie-the-Pooh by A A Milne read by Bernard Cribbins (Bolinda audio) 6+
Alan Bennett is famously one of the great readers of Winnie-the-Pooh, but this version by Bernard Cribbins should not be forgotten (though check the format for compatibility). It is a joyous and beautiful thing. If you want to know what Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore, Tigger, Kanga, Roo, Wol, Rabbit and Christopher Robin really sound like, banish those terrible Disney voices from your head and listen to Cribbins imparting the memorable, touching, laugh-out-loud truth.
Revolting Rhymes and Dirty Beats read by Stephen Mangan, Tamsin Greig and Miriam Margoyles (Puffin) 5-7
This compilation, with squelchy noises, puts together Dahl’s twisty, no-holds-barred, rhyming rewritings of well known fairy tales, and his menagerie of eccentric animals (such as the toad who jumps to France) , and finds three glorious readers in Mangan, Greig and Margoyles, who understand as well as anyone how to deliver comedy. This will entertain adults as much as children, and make constant repetition endurable.
The Ruby Redfort series by Lauren Child read by Rachael Stirling 8-12
This is a great introduction to the work of our new Children’s Laureate: Child’s six film noir-influenced adventure stories, to which Rachael Stirling brings her earthy and resonant voice, and a skilled American accent. Thirteen-year-old undercover agent and rich kid Ruby, with her butler Hitch as sidekick, and her great rules for life, juggles perils and repartee. Remember: “You can never be completely sure what will happen next” and “Smart kids make their own rules.”
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, read by Michael Hordern (Audible) 8+
Michael Hordern, celebrated for being the narrator of the Paddington stories on television, reads Grahame in a precise, cheery, avuncular, expressive, singsong voice that makes the journey as comfortable and scenic as messing about in a boat on a river in the company of Mole and Ratty. It deserves this fine, warm delivery to convey Grahame’s elegantly written and enduring exploration of the pull of home and the need for adventure, of decency and villainy, of boastfulness and quiet kindness.
I, Coriander by Sally Gardner, read by Juliet Stevenson (Orion) 10+
Sadly only available in an abridged version, this tale of history and magic, set in the austere interregnum of seventeenth-century London, is about seventeen-year-old Coriander whose happy life takes a brutal turn. Stevenson’s mellifluous tone softens the cruelty of Coriander’s fate at the hands of a fundamentalist Puritan in cahoots with her stepmother, and captures the story’s fairy-tale quality (it has supernatural elements) and the mesmeric cadences of Gardner’s writing. Together Gardner and Stevenson conjure place and time transportingly.
White Crow by Marcus Sedgwick read by Teresa Gallagher (Orion) 12+
Eerie, dark and atmospheric, this gothic novel set in the eighteenth century is read by Gallagher with exceptional versatility – in the distinct voices of a young girl and an adult narrator. A new girl, Rebecca, arrives in the village, and madness, villainy and secrets are revealed, as bloody experiments are taking place. Not very summery listening, it is involving, thanks to the skill of both writer and reader; the context of sunshine might make it less scary.
Never Say Die by Anthony Horowitz read by Rupert Degas 9+
For anyone who hasn’t caught up on the unexpected new Alex Rider story, it is available on audiobook. An easy listen which catches you up in the action, as retired 15-year-old superspy Alex, living in California after the death of his friend and guardian Jack, receives an email that makes him think she might be alive. A very satisfying coda to a funny and ingenious series, read with panache.
The Detective Dog by Julia Donaldson read by Floella Benjamin (Macmillan) 3+
Best heard in conjunction with the picture book that offers Sara Ogilvie’s funny, skilful illustrations, this audio nevertheless takes advantage of a lovely rhyming text, about a dog with tracking skills that leads a class of children into a library, and of Floella Benjamin’s warm, exuberant voice.
Nicolette Jones has been the children’s books reviewer of The Sunday Times for more than two decades. In 2012 she was nominated for an Eleanor Farjeon Award for outstanding service to children’s books.
Discover more about the work of the audiobook producer in this article by Nicholas Jones (no relation).