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Top audio books for children

By Katherine A. Powers,

THE SECRET GARDEN
By Frances Hodgson Burnett
(Listening Library, unabridged, 8 ½ hours, 7 CDs, $37; audible.com download, $25)
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the publication of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s “The Secret Garden,” not only one of the greatest children’s novels ever written, but also one of the most recorded. At least seven unabridged versions are available, the most recent being a fine one narrated by Finola Hughes. This story of two crabbed and crabby children, a bucolic young friend, an old pensioner, an English robin and a secret realm of burgeoning nature draws on deep currents of comforting and exhilarating fantasy. Hughes’s English-accented voice has a pleasantly low register for the general narration, and she carries off the several characters who have Yorkshire accents adeptly and with warmth and decorum. As for the children, they possess the voices of youth, becoming increasingly invigorated by their friendship and Nature — to say nothing of the “richly frothed new milk,” oat cakes, heather honey and clotted cream that become their diet.

YOUNG FREDLE
By Cynthia Voigt
(Listening Library, unabridged, 6 ¼ hours, 5 CDs, $34.; audible.com download, $23.80)
Thanks to his over-abundant curiosity and complications involving a Peppermint Pattie, Fredle, a young kitchen mouse, ends up alone and confused in the perilous outdoors. His adventures are many, and his ponderings on the nature of things are enchantingly skewed by his tininess. Wendy Carter reads the descriptive passages in a sweet, compassionate voice at a pace that is easy to follow. She takes on the various characters whom Fredle meets in his travels with a great deal of energy, injecting perhaps more obnoxiousness into the voices of some hostile animals than is strictly necessary. (A know-it-all field mouse and a belligerent raccoon — country creatures both — have somehow acquired blaring “Joisey-style” accents.) On the other hand, Carter gives a malevolent barn snake a slithering underlay of hiss that is pleasantly chilling, and she insinuates friendly, bouncing eagerness into the voice of a young female dog, a characterization that is dogginess itself.

DOCTOR DE SOTO
Written and illustrated by William Steig
(Unabridged, 15 minutes, Macmillan Young Listeners, 1 CD, $9.99)
This package includes a paperback edition of William Steig’s marvelous picture book and a CD recording that consists of a first version read straight through, followed by a second with a bell signaling when to turn the pages. Stanley Tucci reads this engagingly wry story about a mouse who is a dentist; his wife, his assistant; and a fox, a pitiable fellow with a toothache, whom they agree to treat despite their rule against accepting mouse-eaters. Tucci’s pleasant American voice conveys just a hint of skepticism about the wisdom of this undertaking and projects the personalities of the three animals: the doctor, conscientious and shrewd; his wife, helpful and alert; and the fox, not to be trusted. (“On his way home he wondered if it would be shabby of him to eat the De Sotos when the job was done.”) The couple’s triumph is excellently summed up in the fox’s last line, delivered with mouth glued shut and rendered by Tucci in muffled tones of unsuccessful dignity: “Frank oo berry mush.”

FAVOURITE POEMS FOR CHILDREN
(Naxos, 1 ¼ hour, 1 CD, $14.98, download from www.naxosaudiobooks.com, $10)
The 39 poems here are classics of imagination and whimsy, alive with the great and mysterious power that language exercises over childhood. With a couple of exceptions, the poets are British, and their verses are suffused with the golden aura of childhood’s halcyon days. All but one of the nine readers here are professional actors. The poems range in mood from the stirring potency of William Blake’s “The Tyger,” magnificently read by Timothy West, to the inspired high jinks of Lewis Carroll’s and Edward Lear’s nonsense poems, and the linguistic confusion of Laura Richards’s “Eletelephony.” There are adventuresome pieces, such as “The Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens,” read with intoxicating Scots brio by Anton Lesser, and many tales of busy doings. Interspersed throughout are passages of classical music. This is a recording for your permanent collection.

Katherine A. Powers regularly reviews audio books for Book World.

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