IS THAT YOU Humpty Dumpty? Man, I hardly recognized you in that far-out blue and white striped suit, your eyes closed behind those wrap-around shades, slapping your bass, groovin' to the cool sounds of . . . Wait a minute. Humpty Dumpty as an angelheaded hipster? No jive, Bro'! And how about a bluesy "Old Mother Hubbard," a jazz accompaniment for "Tweedledeum and Tweedledee" or "Mary Had a Little Lamb" sung as a lush, romantic ballad? Just the ticket for the kiddies after a candlelit dinner of mudpies and lemonade.

If you like the idea of laying updated traditional nursery rhymes on your thoroughly modern urchins, you'll love Shakin' Loose with Mother Goose, a series of four read-along book and cassette sets starring Steve Allen and Jayne Meadows. The publisher, KidsMatter, has taken the rhymes generations of us grew up with, added music, narrative and, they say, "gently edited {them} for sexism, ethnic bias and gratuitious violence."

So now "The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe" kisses her kids before putting them to bed instead of "beating them soundly," as in the original verse (which apparently condoned child abuse). And the roles have been reversed in "Sing a Song of Sixpence": In this sanitized version the queen is in the counting house, counting out the money, while the king is indolently eating bread and honey. (Feminism has been served but given our precarious economy I'm not sure if king or queen got the better deal.)

This is a comprehensive collection of Mother Goose rhymes, many grouped according to a common theme, all set to high-quality jazz and pop. Allen and Meadows -- who could perform The Congressional Record and bring it to life -- also add historical notes about the rhymes as they narrate. The read-along books are illustrated with a mix of drawings that ocasionally try to serve both traditional and modern ends, which will either annoy or delight you depending on your reverence for the past. For example, Mary -- of Little Lamb fame -- is a little black girl, while the Six Little Mice tailors are shown wearing yarmulkes.

The readings and music are engaging, original and offbeat. They'll certainly please most children aged 5 to 10. But whether kids should be bopping to nursery rhymes made hip ("It gives me Mother Goosebumps just to think about it," says Allen in the promotional brochure) rather than reading or listening to traditional, uncensored rhymes, is open to question. I suppose it hinges on your philosophy of child-rearing and notions of social responsibility. And whether you choose to risk the horrific possibility of sharing your home with a 5-year-old who does a rap rendition of "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star."

Trickster Tales

PARENTS searching for more traditional childrens' fare will be happier with Bede Productions' Young Brer Rabbit and Other Trickster Tales from the Americas. These stories have been around for centuries, first told by African peoples and then spread throughout this hemisphere by slaves (for whom the symbol of the clever, brave rabbit had a special meaning).

Childrens' literature specialist Jaqueline Schachter Weiss collected and adapted these tales from various countries. Known as Uncle Rabbit (Tio Conejo in Venezuela, Panama and Columbia), Brother Rabbit (Hermano Rabito in Cuba) and simply The Rabbit (o coelho in Brazil), the indomitable Brer Rabbit is both entertaining and subtly instructive. What makes this cassette outstanding, however, is its inspired choice of narrator, the silken-voiced Eartha Kitt.

Kitt purrs, growls and whispers her way through 15 tales, including "Brer Rabbit and Sis Turtle," "The Root" and "Young Anteater." Lisa Calkin-Clough accompanies her on violin, playing the music of Schumann, Lalo, Paganini, Verdi and others. Hearing these two instruments together -- Kitt's incomparable voice and Calkin-Clough's violin -- should enthrall children, quickly making this a favorite tape.

Clinton Arrowood's lively illustrations in Weiss' large-format paperback book (an optional but recommended companion to the cassette) will also please children as they read along. But aside from the entertainment value, Kitt's performance graces young ears with something they're rarely exposed to in these mumbly times: The chance to hear crisp, clear diction. Kitt's enunciation -- spoken words at their best -- is as keen as Brer Rabbit's wits.

Stories from Undersea

ANOTHER classic tale for children, though not nearly as old as the rabbit stories, is Charles Kingsley's The Water-Babies. This unabridged cassette set is read by Flo Gibson, a narrator whose voice, articulation and interpretation are also models of excellence. Kingsley's best-loved work, written in the 1860s for his youngest son (and a favorite of Queen Victoria, who read it to her children), introduces us to Tom, a 10-year-old chimney sweep who works for Mr. Grimes, a cruel bully. One day, Tom falls down a chimney, tumbling into a bedroom owned by a lovely little girl named Ellie.

There, in a room as sweet and clean as his impoverished world is sour and rank, Tom peers into a mirror and is startled to see for the first time his filthy appearance. His reverie is shattered, however, when Ellie suddenly awakens and screams, alerting the household. Mistaken for a burglar, Tom flees, escaping into the unfamiliar countryside. There he falls into a river and is magically transformed into a water-baby.

Kingsley, who loved and was knowledgeable about rivers and seas, has Tom meet all manner of exotic and vividly described creatures in this underwater world, including Mrs. Doasyouwouldbedoneby and Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid -- two who are instrumental in Tom's re-education and rehabilitation. (He's returned to the world eventually, reunited with Ellie and yes, mean Mr. Grimes finally gets what he deserves.)

This is a marvelous tale, alternately didactic and satiric, yet filled with sweetness, compassion and ethereal magic. Gibson gives it her usual superb rendering, complete with appropriate English accents and varied character voices. Be warned, however, that The Water-Babies may initially strike some young ears as foreign and occasionally incomprehensible. (Children under 7 may be totally bewildered.) That's because its elegant cadences, allusions and British diction differ sharply from the normal patter of our modern, truncated and media-influenced language.

I'd encourage parents to listen to this tape with their children, translating and explaining unfamiliar terms and references. Shared this way, the authenticity of Gibson's interpretation, the rich flow of Kingsley's language and Tom's wondrous adventures will thoroughly enchant the entire family.

A Woman Apart

ANOTHER classic novel from about the same era is also available as an unabridged recorded book -- Thomas Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd -- read by British actor Stephen Thorne. Hardy's first masterpiece concerns itself with independent Bathsheba Everdene, who can manage her farm but not the turmoil in her life caused by her several suitors. There's her shepherd, Gabriel Oak, whom she depends on but cannot accept as a potential mate; charismatic Sergeant Troy, who marries Bathsheba, only to abuse, neglect and finally abandon her; and smouldering Farmer Boldwood who proposes to Bathsheba and later shoots Troy dead.

Hardy examines themes familiar in his later works -- the conlicts sparked by unselfish love and devotion at odds with unscrupulous passion -- but there's also plenty of comic observation of country life here, all brought to life by Thorne's fluid, expressive voice. In fact, Thorne seems so completely at ease with Hardy's words and images that it sounds as though he's telling the story instead of reading it. Thorne's acting skills -- his ability to give substance to Hardy's numerous characters by subtly changing his vocal pitch and inflection -- will offer many listeners a new perspective on this classic. Not that Hardy's very much out of date. Bathsheba sounds entirely modern when she tells Oak, "I shouldn't mind being a bride at a wedding if I could be one without having a husband."

The Writer's Life

FOR contemporary humor, give a listen to Peckham's Marbles, Peter De Vries' 1986 comic novel done as an unabridged reading by a cast of 11 actors. Meet Earl Peckham, whose egghead novel, The Sorry Scheme of Things Entire, has sold a total of three copies -- thanks partly to Dogwinkle, his lazy publisher. Peckahm sets out on an odyssey to Middle America searching for those three buyers.

Along the way he meet Poppy McCloud, who's in Omaha autographing her novel (also published by Dogwinkle) a tome Peckham has previously dismissed as trash. The chance meeting triggers an affair that -- as in other De Vries novels -- teaches its protagonist lessons about human vulnerability while giving readers and listeners an abundance of sophisticated humor and laughter. And listening to the novel read (performed?) by multiple voices instead of a lone reader works particularly well on this recorded book, adding zip to De Vries' already snappy dialogue and wry observations.

Vic Sussman regularly reviews recorded books for Book World.