As many as one in four children under five has a television in his or her bedroom, according to recent research. And whatever claims can be made for interactive television, most of what they watch will be passive in a way reading can never be. Audio-books can act as a useful compromise, since they combine the allure of technology with the necessary exercise of the imagination.
Penguin's Children's Classics fit the bill perfectly. In Dickens's A Christmas Carol, Geoffrey Palmer's mellifluous tones change magically for the miser's sour utterances. What could be more topical than the Cratchits' goose ("there never was such a goose!") followed by the entrance of a steaming plum pudding topped with holly? All this while dire warnings from the ghosts slowly melt Scrooge's heart. "God bless us every one," pipes Tiny Tim.
For vivid excitement Jack London's The Call of the Wild should be top of any list. William Hootkins reads the heartrending story of Buck, a proud dog abducted from his Southern home and transported to work as a sled dog in the Klondike, where he survives brutal treatment and eventually returns to the wild. Though if Hootkins's reading for Penguin is good, Garrick Hagon's for Naxos is even better. Both versions are unabridged.
Jack London wrote another story in response to his experiences in the Klondike Gold Rush: White Fang, which concerns an intelligent half-dog, half-wolf, trained by a vicious owner to be the killer-dog from hell, but tamed by his next owner's affection. Hootkins reads this well - but once more Hagon trumps him, plunging the listener into all the rough rawness of 1906 America.
Science may be catching up with science fiction, but Jules Verne's notion of a Journey To The Centre of the Earth goes far beyond any dream hatched in a laboratory. Related by the young nephew of an eccentric, daredevil scientist, this tale is more thrilling than any Spielberg movie, and it gets a superb reading for Penguin by Jamie Glover. From Penguin also comes Freddie Jones's marvellously 19th-century, almost sepulchral, reading of Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles.
Alexandre Dumas used to give the outlines of his stories to other writers, then he would take the result by its throat and wrestle it into his own style. His swashbuckling The Three Musketeers combines murders, executions, and cloak-and-dagger feats of heroism with a dash of romance. Simon Ward's reading for Penguin is very effective. Naxos's longer version is read by Bill Homewood with his customary skill, bringing all the characters to vivid life. Naxos also presents Dumas's The Man In The Iron Mask, in which the musketeers, now aging veterans, are still more than ready to risk their lives when the French monarchy is threatened. Homewood again reads superbly.
For milder appetites, Penguin has cast four excellent actors as the riverside animals in Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows, in which Mr Toad boasts his way into trouble despite repeated pleas from his furry friends. Four more actors are employed to create the magic of Hans Christian Andersen's Fairy Tales, while Kerry Shale takes on Dorothy, the Straw Man, the Tin Man, and the Munchkins, in a remarkably successful one-man rendering of The Wizard of Oz.
* Penguin: A Christmas Carol, The Call of the Wild, White Fang, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Three Musketeers, The Wind in the Willows. Hans Christian Andersen's Fairy Tales and The Wizard of Oz are all double cassettes at Pounds 6.99 each. Tel: 0171 416 3000 * Naxos: The Call of the Wild, White Fang, The Man in the Iron Mask: two cassettes each, Pounds 6.99; two CDs, Pounds 7.99. The Three Musketeers: three cassettes Pounds 7.99, 3 CDs Pounds 9.99. Tel: 0181 346 6816.