Many children’s classics are much better known from their film versions than the original books. But there is a lot to be said for going back to the originals, and the best way to do this is to listen to them being read. For starters you’ll be amazed at how much the movie versions leave out. Stories often lose some of their essential character in the trimming, as much of their charm comes from the oddness of their details: the “grayness” of Dorothy’s Kansas, or the strange and tragic back story of the Tin Man, whose head, body, and all four limbs were chopped off by a bewitched axe. If you’re curious about these originals, here are half a dozen classics that would be fun to share with the kids on those long summer vacation trips.
“Peter Pan’’ by J.M. Barrie, narrated by Lily Collins (Audible)
Collins is an actress and the daughter of musician Phil Collins. She has a young voice and a childlike, almost lisping delivery, which comes across as charming and intimate — as though she herself were one of the gang, a lost girl maybe, or a fairy. You never hear her as the voice of the author, in fact, you never really feel as though she is reading at all, but rather as if she is just telling you a rather curious bedtime story. There is one tiny discordant note, and that is her occasional mispronunciation of a word (and not always a very hard word: “impotent” as “im-POH- tent,” for example). This, too, is perhaps a measure of her youth and it’s almost cute, but it did make me wonder what her producer was doing.
“Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’’ by Lewis Carroll, narrated by Scarlett Johanssen (Audible)
Johanssen’s Alice is very matter-of-fact and sounds exactly like a contemporary 7-year-old American, which is odd because Alice’s diction in the book is that of a 7-year-old English girl from 1865. In some ways Johanssen’s take is helpful for the American listener, but it can sound discordant. And she misses the correct inflection or speeds through a sentence that would be better lingered over — “Who . . . are . . . you?” the caterpillar asks, usually very slowly. But Johanssen does a very creditable job of voicing the characters: Bill the Lizard, the Dormouse, the Duchess, and the rest. And the coup de grace is her Cheshire Cat, who is simply the sexiest-sounding Cheshire Cat that has ever been heard.
“The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’’ by L. Frank Baum, narrated by Anne Hathaway (Audible)
Hathaway delivers an extremely capable performance of a classic that has been almost completely eclipsed by the 1939 film version starring Judy Garland, which has become a classic in its own right. The Oscar-winning actress, who seems like a good fit for the central role — the upbeat, can-do Dorothy — does a fine job of bringing the characters to life with a wide range of voices and manners. And she was rewarded for her efforts with a 2013 Audie nomination.
“Tarzan of the Apes’’ by Edgar Rice Burroughs, narrated by Simon Prebble (Recorded Books)
Here is a story that might be of interest just at this moment, given the release of the new Tarzan film. Although the stories of the ape man were wildly successful from the start, Burroughs was never one of God’s stylists. He is prolix after the fashion of many Edwardians (note that this unabridged version runs to nearly 9 hours), and you just have to take a deep breath, and let the words wash over you. This might be a good one for a long car ride. Prebble is an audiobook star, narrator of over 500 books, and winner of countless awards for voice work. He narrates the story of Tarzan in a cool, dry, high colonial voice perfectly matched to the period and setting.
“The Jungle Book’’ by Rudyard Kipling, adapted by Ben Doyle and Richard Kurti, narrated by Bill Bailey, Richard E. Grant, Colin Salmon, Tim McInnerny, Bernard Cribbins, Celia Imrie, and Martin Shaw (Audible)
An audiobook treatment more suited to younger listeners is that of the radio play or dramatization, and this one by Doyle and Kurti is wonderful. It features the voices of Shaw (“Inspector George Gently’’), Imrie (Una Alconbury in “Bridget Jones’s Diary),’’ Grant (Barkis Bittern in “Corpse Bride’’), and others, and won Audies for drama and production this year. Kipling is such a superb writer that anyone whose idea of “The Jungle Book’’ is limited to one or more of the (mostly dreadful) film versions owes it to himself to experience the story at least once in Kipling’s own words: “Oh, hear the call! — Good hunting all/ that keep the Jungle Law!”
“The Wind in the Willows’’ by Kenneth Grahame, narrated by Michael Hordern (Audible)
This is another truly marvelous audiobook for younger children. There are many versions but none better than that read by the late British stage and film actor Hordern, who voiced the character of Badger in the 1980s film and television series. This is a completely perfect reading, delightful in the very way that the book is delightful and a wonderful way to while away the time.
Christina Thompson is the editor of Harvard Review.