Audio Books for the Whole Family, by Eleanor Marshall


It feels like I’ve only just packed away the Christmas tree, but it’s February already and almost half term. We often travel to see friends and family over the break, and that means a lot of car time. With three children aged nine, seven and two, this can lead to a serious strain on parental sanity.


I have fought against the temptations of the travel DVD player because I can foresee the fights about which disk to watch. We have instead come to rely on audio books to keep the children occupied (and with the CD player in the front, control rests with me, circumventing the arguments).


We do have a few ground rules, though.


  • Stories have to be suitable-ish for all our three children – the littlest one doesn’t usually follow the story well enough to be scared by things, but there is a lot of whinging if she can’t follow anything at all.
  • They have to be entertaining enough to prevent the grown-ups frisbeeing the disk out of the window.
  • They have to be long enough so that you needn’t change disk too frequently, and ideally one story will get you all the way to your destination.


My children are all girls but they are much more interested in dragons and swords than princesses and glitter, so our selection should suit anybody. Here (in reverse order) are my top five recommendations.


  1. The Harry Potter Series, by J. K. Rowling, read by Stephen Fry.


Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you and your children will probably already be familiar with these. This makes it a good safe option, however, and of course the stories are likely to engage most listeners aged about five upwards. We also put in place a rule that the children can’t watch the films until they have listened to the relevant book so they know what to expect which helps with the later, scarier movies. It goes without saying that Stephen Fry is also a great reader to listen to and this is a good one to keep parents entertained as well.


However I have put this at the bottom of my list for a few reasons: the audio books are very expensive to buy (especially the later ones, because they are so long) and if your child wants you to get the full series of seven you will end up shelling out quite considerably. The other issue is that they are quite sophisticated and do develop some serious themes as you go through the books – this may wash over a younger child without too much difficulty but the more sensitive might get upset. Also because the books are long and aimed at older readers, the pace can be quite slow for younger listeners.


In brief: Cracking stories with plenty to fuel your child’s imagination, but also their nightmares. Requires deep pockets or a library card if you want to listen to the whole series.


  1. Little House on the Prairie, by Laura Ingalls Wilder, read by Cherry Jones.


Don’t be fooled. This is nothing like the saccharine series you may have watched on Sunday mornings back in the 90s. Listening to these books as a adult makes you realise how INSANE the Ingalls parents were: they packed their children up into a covered wagon the size of a kitchen table and travelled for months, camping in the wagon every night, through land genuinely full of bears, panthers and other perils. Even when they find somewhere to live they have to build their own house from scratch and try not to get eaten by wolves before they can fit a proper door, and then it turns out they have accidentally settled in Indian Territory…


This recording almost fails on the second of my pre-requisite as the lady who reads them has quite an irritating voice, but the excitement of the stories makes up for it (I’m serious - my husband ended up reading a book about pioneers because he was so fascinated by their story). For an added bonus, Laura and Mary work really hard around the house and are utterly delighted to get nothing but a penny and a tin mug in their stockings for Christmas, which is very helpful for lecturing your children on how lucky they are (if they are anything like my children, that is). Take care though – I overdid this angle and we never finished the series because the children did not want to hear any more about how delighted Laura and Mary would have been with a homemade lasagne for supper and how they would have helped with the washing up too.


In brief: Exciting adventures which will entertain parents as much as children. Avoid if you are irked by the southern drawl. 


  1. Selected Books by Roald Dahl, various readers.


You can often find a tin of ten Roald Dahl books discounted on cheap book websites such as The Book People, and this is fantastic value for money. With ten different books there is something for every age group, from The Enormous Crocodile to The Witches or The BFG. Not much to say here: they are all brilliantly read by well-known actors and of course the stories speak for themselves.


In brief: a great introduction to these well-known stories, suitable for all listeners.


  1. Andy Stanton – ‘Mr Gum’ series, read by Andy Stanton.


These were our first foray into audio books - when our eldest two were about five and three - and the children thought they were completely hilarious. If you haven’t already come across the Mr Gum books, they are the fairly surreal adventures of a young girl called Jammy Grammy Lammy F'Huppa F'Huppa Berlin Stereo Eo Eo Lebb C'Yepp Nermonica Le Straypek De Grespin De Crespin De Spespin De Vespin De Whoop De Loop De Brunkle Merry Christmas Lenoir (known as Polly) and her arch-enemy, the evil Mr Gum, who is absolutely grimsters.


I think the most widely available recordings are read by Kate Winslet, but ours are older and were recorded by the author. We have a number of other books read by Kate Winslet which are excellent, so I’m sure these are too, but from personal experience I can tell you that Andy Stanton has a very matter of fact and comical style which we really enjoyed, and if you can get hold of these they are a great way into the series. You can expect your children to come up with some imaginative insults afterwards. These make a very good bridge between picture books and longer chapter books, and they certainly entertained the adults in our car almost as much as the children.


In brief: bonkers but brilliant.


  1. Cressida Cowell – ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ series, read by David Tennant


No question the absolute favourite audio CDs for our family, children and adults alike. The books pre-date the movies and bear very little resemblance to them, apart from the names of some of the characters. So if your children love the films, make sure they are ready for something very different. However, the stories are still really brilliant and if your family get into them there are twelve book in the series, which will get you through a lot of miles on the road.


What really makes these, however, is the way they are read by David Tennant, with a dizzying array of comedic and convincing voices and regional British accents. I would say the series picks up considerably as it goes along (though this might just be because of the number of times I’ve listened to the first book) so you might want to start on book 3 or 4 – the children will easily catch up with the characters. Although probably children need to be six or seven to keep up with the story, younger children stay relatively involved because there are frequent music breaks and lots of different voices to listen to.


In brief: Great adventures, fun characters and brilliantly read.


An honourable mention goes to Enid Blyton’s ‘The Folk of the Faraway Tree’, read by Kate Winslet which is good for younger children. This teeters on the edge of the irritation levels for me – the stories are engaging but when you are listening to every word (and often more than once) the writing style becomes noticeably repetitive and can start to grate. However it is good to have something in your arsenal for the littler ones and my nine year old will still listen fairly happily. The stories provide a good springboard for discussion such as what your child would choose from the land of Take What You Want (though be braced for some unrealistic expectations following a visit to the Land of Birthdays).


Hopefully this selection will keep you going through your half term travel and onwards. These stories have become a school run staple for us – it keeps the children quiet and provides gentle entertainment for the driver, as well as widening vocabulary and promoting literacy. We hope you enjoy them too.


(Eleanor Marshall taught English at secondary level for over ten years. She now juggles writing an annual children’s musical, being a chaotic mother to three daughters and racking up a lot of miles behind the wheel listening to children’s audio CD’s)