For really little kids, say, up to 4 or 5, you have to go with collections of shorter stories. Long narrative is kind of lost on them, and they can get bored and cranky when they've lost track. On the other hand, you the parent are going to be in that vehicle too, and all is lost if the story or voice makes you so crazy that you drive into a bridge abutment before you make it to the family reunion. Unless your goal is to give everyone else something to talk about in years to come, and hell, you could do that just by talking about your intestines every chance you get (we miss you, Cousin Roy!).
Luckily for you, some of the most accomplished professional voices in the world occasionally record children's books. Here's a good long list (remember, they're short, so grab a big stack!) of audio books that small people enjoy and bigger people don't hate:
The One and Only Shrek by William Steig, read by Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci
I reviewed it this March, and I was incredibly impressed. Worth listening to again and again, whether you're an adult marveling at Meryl Streep's virtuosity, or a kid who thinks that a talking bone is just funny.
The Stink books by Megan Mcdonald, read by Nancy Cartwright
Nancy Cartwright is one a hard-working person. Among other things, she's Bart Simpson - Bart Simpson! Some adults (my husband, for one) find her Stink voices grating, but kids think they're hysterical. She injects plenty of variety, so kids can tell the characters apart, and the mechanics of her reading - pace, emphasis, etc. - are flawless.
In addition, I find Stink Moody to be a more sympathetic character than his older sister Judy. McDonald includes informative sidebar material and unexpected incidental funny stuff. I love that one of Stink's friends insists on being called Sophie of the Elves, and that bit is carried through all the books. Also available: Stink and the World's Worst Super-Stinky Sneakers & Stink and the Great Guinea Pig Express and Stink and the Incredible Super-Galactic Jawbreaker.
Three Tales of My Father's Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett, narrated by Robert Servra
This CD of three stories is gentle to the point of lullaby. But kids love 'em. We listened to this CD last summer in the car, and this year when my son's first grade teacher read it aloud, he was a big celebrity in class because he knew what was going to happen. It's old-fashioned and well-written and original and underappreciated.
Dr. Seuss on audio
Anyone who's ever had to read If I Ran the Zoo every night for about two months knows that reading Dr. Seuss aloud is no laughing matter. It's written in anapestic tetrameter, a term that certainly sounds like it was invented just for him, and is chock-full of made-up words and names that would stop even the most nimble-tongued truck. The Bippo-No-Bungus, the It-Kutch, the Tizzle-Top-Tufted Mazurka, and the Fizza-ma-Wizza-ma-Dill? You've got to train for that kind of thing, else you're going to injure yourself.
John Cleese, Walter Matthau, and Dustin freakin' Hoffman are among the name-brand voices that read Seuss stories on The Cat in the Hat collection (image above).
On Green Eggs and Ham and Other Servings of Dr. Seuss, we are read to by brave enunciators such as David Hyde Pierce, John Lithgow, and Michael McKean, who will always be Lenny to me.
Billy Crystal, Hoffman and Mercedes McCambridge (also the voice of the possessed Linda Blair in The Exorcist!)do the voices on Horton Hears a Who and Other Sounds of Dr. Seuss.
Lithgow and Ted Danson read the more message-y stories on Oh, the Places You'll Go! and The Lorax.
If you can't find these collections, the British comedians Adrian Edmondson and Rik Mayall (Vyv and Rick from The Young Ones (dating myself, fine, but it was a very funny show)) are the improbable narrators of the cassette-and-book versions of One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish and The Cat in the Hat Comes Back . I would give a lot to get my hands on those.
Other audio collections for very young audiences that I would recommend:
- Geronimo Stilton (read by Edward Herrmann)
- Hank the Cowdog (my colleague Mercedes swears by these from when her boys were younger)
- Flat Stanley (above)
- Russell Hoban's Frances (narrated by the throaty yet refined Glynis Johns)
- Little Bear (read by Sigourney Weaver - perfect!)
- Arnold Lobel's Frog and Toad stories read by the author
- ...and Piglet Meets a Heffalump and Other Stories read by Dame Judi Dench, Mister Stephen Fry, and Jane Horrocks (Bubble from AbFab and Angelina from Angelina Ballerina) among others.
Round it all out with Fry reading A Bear Called Paddington, and there you are, pulling into the hotel parking lot.