Audio Books

By Katherine A. Powers
Sunday, December 11, 2005

Nothing enhances holiday joy so much as the sight of a young person sitting still, transfixed by a book. As we are ceaselessly told, the surest way to cultivate this idyll is to begin reading aloud to our children when they are very young. This means perusing picture books, which might seem to rule out the audio format; but, no. There are a number of excellent picture book and audio pairings of works for young children.

A Brave Opera Singer

When Marian Sang is by Pam Muñoz Ryan, illustrated by Brian Selznick and read by Gail Nelson (Live Oak Media, 29 minutes, CD, $28.95; cassette, $25.95). It tells the story of Marian Anderson, from her girlhood in South Philadelphia through her struggle against racial segregation, to her success in Europe and her triumphant appearance on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial before an integrated crowd of 75,000. The book and recording conclude with Anderson's debut at the Metropolitan Opera. The reading is interspersed with cuts from Anderson's performances. The selections are chiefly spirituals, but the production ends with her rendition of " Re dell'abisso affrettati " from Verdi's "Un Ballo in Maschera," ," a beautiful demonstration of her extraordinary range, timbre and feeling that will bring goose bumps to both young and old. The illustrations are imbued with sepia warmth and filled with details -- photos on the wall, faces in a train, street scenes -- that children will love.

The Song of a Train

The Train They Call the City of New Orleans is, in fact, the song written by Steve Goodman, read and then sung by Tom Chapin (Live Oak Media, 1 hour, CD, $28.95; cassette, $25.95). The book, which includes a map and the lyrics, is illustrated by Michael McCurdy. As you may recall, the song never actually gets the train all the way to New Orleans. But all along the way, as far as words and accompanying pictures do travel, it shows a vanished America with exhilarating perspectives and plenty of involving sights to pore over. The recording won a Grammy this year for Best Spoken Word Album for Children and follows the same repeated format as When Marian Sang .

Scarecrow's Big Adventures

The Scarecrow and His Servant , by Philip Pullman, read by Graeme Malcolm (Listening Library, 4 hours, 4 CDs, $30; download from, $21) does not come with an accompanying book -- though you could buy it separately with its enchanting illustrations by Peter Bailey (Knopf, $15.95). It is the tale of a scarecrow with a turnip for a head and a pea for a brain who, when struck by lightening, is galvanized into life and an exalted sense of his own talents, perspicacity and distinction. He finds a friend and factotum in a sensible little orphan called Jack. The two hit the road seeking excitement and glory as they make their way to Spring Valley, a place of halcyon associations for the scarecrow -- but one that is also the object of the evil designs of a ruthless gang of despoilers. Malcolm's reading is nice and slow, and the many characters are distinguished by a good range of British accents and intonations. The often affronted, but kindly voice of the scarecrow is just what it should be, as is Jack's in its youthful practicality and gentle exasperation. The firm friendship, fanciful adventure, many distinct characters and final resolution ensure that this book will be listened to many, many times.

A Precocious Criminal

Gifted fantasy writers make cognoscenti of their readers and please them mightily when they extend the goings-on in their magical worlds to a series. Take, for instance, the world of Irish boy genius Artemis Fowl, who is now the hero of four books by Eoin Colfer, bringing him from age 12 to 14. Criminal mastermind, reluctant altruist and ally of the fairies, Fowl has pursued his mixed goals and hair-raising adventures both in human society and in "the Lower Elements," hundreds of miles deep in the Earth where the fairies have retreated. These creatures, whose greatest fear is discovery and exploitation by human beings, come in various sorts, each with its own powers and weaknesses and, in these terrific audio versions, its own voice too.

Nathaniel Parker reads all four unabridged books: Artemis Fowl and Artemis Fowl: The Arctic Incident (both 6 hours, 5 CDs, $28; 4 cassettes, $26; download from, $18.20), Artemis Fowl: The Eternity Code (7 hours, 6 CDs, $30; 4 cassettes, $26; download from, $18.20) and Artemis Fowl: The Opal Deception (7.5 hours, 6 CDs, $34; 5 cassettes, $28; download from, $23.80). He delivers the characters, fairy and human, with glorious brio in an assortment of apposite accents. Artemis's Dublin-area inflection reflects the location of Fowl Manor; the boy's huge Eurasian bodyguard, Butler, has a Northern Irish intonation that suits his hard-man disposition; the intrepid Captain Holly Short, an elf of LEPrecon (Lower Elements Reconnaissance) has an English accent, though her boss, Commander Julius Root, sounds like a tough American cop; the dwarf, Mulch Diggums, a kleptomaniac with a potent digestive system, has an earthy, Wessex way of speaking, and so on. Everyone, whether human, elf, sprite, dwarf, pixie or troll, is distinct, and the comic elements that make these novels so entertaining -- the tribulations of dealing with fairy bureaucracy, the overweening vanity of genius, the anomaly of a ruthless child thief and, of course, Mulch Diggums's ferocious evacuations -- are all the more lively for being given a vocal dimension.

Where Magicians Rule

The Bartimaeus Trilogy , by Jonathan Stroud, is one of the truly great children's fantasy tales, and is now two volumes strong, with the concluding volume to be published in January. (Already published unabridged by Listening Library: The Amulet of Samarkand [13 hours, 8 cassettes, $35; download from, $25.50] and The Golem's Eye [16 hours, 10 cassettes, $39.95; download from, $28.97]; library editions on CD from [11 CDs, $70 and 14 CDs, $85 respectively].) Set in a modern London of an alternate reality where ordinary people, or commoners, are under the thrall of arrogant magicians, the books conjure a complete world governed by an exotic set of conventions. The novels are also splendidly and wickedly funny. Simon Jones does a marvelous job of conveying it all, most especially in his brilliant impersonation of Bartimaeus, a cynical, world-weary, 5,000-year-old djinni. Here is a creature who has seen what history is made of and has been held in bondage by, hobnobbed with, and advised the great. "As I once told Archimedes," he says, " 'give me a lever long enough and I will move the world.' "

Bartimaeus is obliged to serve a talented, though callow, young magician named Nathaniel who is apprenticed to a cruel and evil schemer in the first volume. By the second book, the boy has had his revenge and, puffed up with his own importance, is quite literally too big for his breeches. Meanwhile, all sorts of rebellion and treachery and dark magic are afoot -- as is a large cast of characters, human and otherwise, each given appropriate voice by Jones. The most appealing of these is the independent-spirited girl Kitty, a commoner and a member of the Resistance against the magician rulers -- and the sort of female role model we all like, one who can dish out a punch in the gob when it's called for.

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

© 2005 The Washington Post Company