WALK INTO almost any bookstore these days and you will see racks of books on tape, everything from mysteries and abridged best sellers to the latest self-help audiopopschlock promising to improve the investment potential of your spirit guide during weight loss. You won't find much for children unless you are visiting a book store that caters to kids. The displays are deceptive, however, because there are hundreds of children's audio titles available just a phone call away.
One of the best sources is Boston's G.K. Hall Audio Publishers, which specializes in unabridged works for both adults and children. Hall deals primarily with schools and libraries, but also sells by mail to individuals. Well over 100 children's titles are listed in their free catalogue, including Judy Blume's Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret and Iggie's House; Roald Dahl's Matilda is listed, as is The Witches; and you will find Paula Danziger's funny The Pistachio Prescription and Betsy Byars's The Not-Just-Anybody Family.
Hall has also recently published The Diddakoi ($22.95), by Rumer Godden, named a 1990 Notable Children's Recording by the American Library Association. This is the story of Kizzy, who is tormented by her schoolmates because she is a half-gypsy -- a diddakoi. Kizzy survives the pain because she can rely on her loving grandmother and Joe, her devoted horse. But Kizzy's world turns upside down when Grandmother dies and Joe is sent away. This 3 1/2-hour reading by Lynda Bellingham is meant for children 8 to 12.
That is roughly the same age range for Dick King-Smith's books, which are exceptionally imaginative and funny. In The Fox Busters ($16.95), for example, we meet Ransome, Sims and Jefferies, three remarkable hens. All the chickens at Foxearth Farm are unusual because they can fly, but these feathery sisters command the sky like combat jets, looping, diving and bombarding their foxy foes. "Their deeds would be told in years to come by every hen to every brood of chicks, and by every vixen to every litter of foxcubs." Read enthusiastically by BBC-TV's Nigel Lambert, who apparently has an inexhaustible supply of voices, The Fox Busters is an exciting romp, funny and just a bit scary.
If you would like to introduce your children to classic children's literature, however, try Audio Book Contractors, Washington's own premier source of unabridged audio. Most of the evergreens of kiddie lit are listed in their free catalogue: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland ($19.95); Anne of Green Gables ($46.95); Black Beauty ($26.95); Heidi ($36.95); The Jungle Book ($26.95) and Five Little Peppers and How They Grew ($32.95) are available along with dozens of others.
But ABC's founder and award-winning narrator, Flo Gibson, also enjoys bringing unusual and forgotten tales to life on tape. One of her newest audio productions is L. Frank Baum's Sky Island ($26.95), which Baum considered -- with The Wizard of Oz -- one of his two best books. Like the Oz stories, Sky Island is the kind of complex adventure that can absorb children for hours, no small gift on a long automobile trip. In this tale, Cap'n Bill, Trot and Buttonbright are whisked away by a magic umbrella to an island in the sky populated by the Blues, the Pinks and the evil Boolooroo. Round up the usual Baumy suspects.
Also new from ABC is Frank R. Stockton's The Queen's Museum and Other Fanciful Tales ($26.95), a collection that includes "The Griffin and the Minor Canon," "The Bee Man of Orn," and "The Clocks of Rondaine." ABC offers Kenneth Grahame's enduring classic, The Wind in the Willows ($26.95), of course, but they also have a relatively new release of short tales by Grahame. Dream Days ($23.50) includes "The Reluctant Dragon," "The Saga of the Seas," and "The Magic Ring." Audio Book Contractors also offers 30-day rentals on most of their titles.
Speaking of classics, Recorded Books, which also rents and sells, has scored a coup, being the only audio book publisher to offer an unabridged reading of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. This is the first time, says Recorded Books, that every word of this beloved trilogy has been done on tape, complete with the 35 songs Tolkien sprinkled throughout the three books. The production was also authorized by the Tolkien family.
While not children's literature, The Lord of the Rings is certainly a remarkable work whose drama and layered complexity cut neatly across age distinctions. This recording of the trilogy consists of 53 hours spread over 38 cassettes: The Fellowship of the Ring (15 cassettes, $99.95); The Two Towers (12 cassettes, $84.95); and The Return of the King (11 cassettes, $79.95.)
This is not a dramatization, but a single-voice narration -- possibly the longest such performance aside from recordings of the Bible -- by British stage and screen actor Rob Inglis. Well-known in Great Britain for his one-man performances of Shakespeare, Chaucer and Dickens, Inglis -- and his rich, versatile voice -- and Tolkien are a perfect match.
But what an actor's challenge is a full-length reading of The Lord of the Rings! Tolkien created hundreds of original names for places and characters, made up two complete alphabets (Tengwar and Cirth), and fabricated various languages including variants of Elvish, Dwarvish and Orkish. Performing this masterpiece to the satisfaction of Tolkien fans and scholars would be an accomplishment in itself, but Recorded Books and Inglis have done much more. They have made The Lord of the Rings accessible to children and families who might not otherwise pick up the books. And many children exposed to Inglis's performance will go on to read and reread the originals.
Very small children aren't ready for Tolkien, Grahame or Baum yet, so one publisher -- A Gentle Wind -- offers audio aimed at the littlest listeners, 2 and up. The free catalogue offers inexpensive cassettes filled with activities, folk songs, lullabies and gentle stories. Hobbits might be too rough and tumble for tykes, but not The Reluctant Dragon, Old Tales for Tender Years and Elsie Piddock Skips in Her Sleep -- $7.95 each from A Gentle Wind. IF YOU and your children enjoy listening to dramatizations and multiple voice recordings, tapes from The Mind's Eye will keep you plugged in for hours. The King Arthur Soundbook offers Howard Pyle's rousing tales read by actor Ian Richardson. No light sabres and ray guns here, just the clang of steel against armor and tales of noble knights. The four-cassette set ($29.95) includes "Excalibur"; "The Story of Sir Galahad"; "The Story of Sir Launcelot"; and "The Sword in the Anvil."
The Mind's Eye also offers BBC dramatizations of two classics, Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped and J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan (two cassette sets, each $14.95) and a Junior Cassette Library for listeners 4-8. This includes four stories about the irrepressible Amelia Bedelia; 16 stories featuring Elsie Holmelund Minarik's gentle Little Bear; and Arnold Lobel narrating his 20 stories about the friendship of Frog and Toad. Each two-cassette set is $14.95.
Telling sweet stories about cute bears, frogs and toads entertains children and teaches them some moral lessons. And surely, no child should be denied a visit to Toad Hall or a chance to ride with Black Beauty. But most traditional animal stories teach children nothing about the reality of the natural world. Worse, they compound the "Bambi mentality," that some animals are cute, therefore good; while others, red in tooth and claw, are manifestly evil.
Farley Mowat's narration of Never Cry Wolf (Bantam Audio, $14.95; in many book stores) is an excellent antidote for this ignorance, a recording the whole family can share. Mowat, a biologist, spent almost a year camping in Canada's desolate Barren Lands, sent there by the government to learn how wolves were destroying the Arctic caribou. What Mowat discovered, however, is that virtually everything biologists believed about the big bad wolf was wrong, that the biggest threat to both wolf and caribou is -- you guessed it -- homo sapiens.
But this abridged recording of Never Cry Wolf is no diatribe. Mowat is the liveliest of narrators, a natural-born performer whose funny, startling and sometimes frightening adventures make riveting listening. You can rent the movie version, but having older children hear Mowat tell his tales will free their imagination and let them create their own vivid pictures. And that, after all, is what listening to stories is all about.
Vic Sussman regularly reviews recorded books for Book World.