Books In The Car

Tuesday, March 9, 2010


For a harmonious car ride, there are three things that I must never, ever leave the house without:

1. Two separate drink bottles. (The only thing my children share is DNA, and that wasn't voluntary.)
2. Snacks. (See the Meal Policy).
3. An audio book.

About a year ago, our dear friend, Melinda, having read of our love for the Famous Five, sent us four volumes on cd. We decided to listen to them in the car on our way home from school the day they arrived.

Their effect was immediate and radical.

Audio books have done for our travel time what books at the table did for dinnertime:

They have transformed a period that was otherwise rife with conflict ("He's touching me!"), misbehavior ("He hit me!" "I hit him because he was touching me!"), threats ("If I have to pull this car over...."), and yelling ("STOP TOUCHING EACH OTHER!") into a time that is (mostly) peaceful, entertaining, and downright enjoyable. For all of us.

I have just returned home from the library armed with Books 3, 4 & 5 of The Spiderwick Chronicles on cd, and I do not know who will be more excited to launch into the next installment after school pick-up - me or the boys.

On Saturday, we spent several long minutes sitting in a parked car outside a birthday party venue. All three of us were poised on the edge of our seats, bodies leaning in towards the stereo, eyes wide and shoulders tense, as we listened to the end of yet another cliff-hanging chapter in this best-selling series.

We simply could not bring ourselves to get out before the chapter finished, and when the party ended, the boys clambered into the car with a sense of anticipation that was inspired as much by the continuation of the story as it was by the traditional investigation of the goodie bag.

Along with our daily travel, our approach to road trips has done an about-face.

When we first got a portable DVD player, in preparation for a 10 hour car ride, it seemed like manna from heaven and I marveled over the effect it had on our wee passengers.

The only sound coming from the back seat, other than the low drone of video dialogue and periodic requests for a disc change, was silence. Perfect, I thought.

We quickly established the habit of turning the DVD player on for any trip lasting more than two hours and, before long, road trips, like long-haul flights, meant movies on-tap, guzzled down, guilt-free.

Anything to make the time pass and emerge on the other side relatively intact.

This Christmas, however, we undertook the same 10 hour journey and, this time, the DVD player stayed packed away until the final forty minutes of the drive.

Again, the crew in the back seat was mostly silent, but so was the crew in the front.

And it was a silence of an entirely different quality:

Engaged. Alert. Intent. Rapt.

Unlike many a past journey, we did not simply endure it - we enjoyed it.

And we emerged not just intact, but the better for it.

Here are a few selections from our car library, beginning with some for the younger set and working our way up the maturity ladder. I must point out that we have been going through a particularly heavy Roald Dahl phase, hence his over representation below. But he is so good.




Henrietta by Martine Murray

You may have to go to your local library (with fingers crossed) to get a copy of Henrietta on cd, as it proved to be elusive in my internet search, but if you can find it, you are in for a treat. Henrietta has an imagination and turn of phrase that will have even the hardest-boiled second grader giggling. "Sheeza-mageeza" is now a part of the family lexicon, having replaced another phrase that produced permanent frown lines every time I heard it, and for that alone, I am eternally indebted to author Martine Murray. Henrietta: she really is A Real Go Getter.

Charlie And Lola by Lauren Child

I normally associate the magic of Lauren Child's books with her brilliant collages, so it was a complete surprise to discover how well her stories worked as audio-only. DB is a particular fan, and now that I have finally stopped pointing out how well the two siblings get on, WB is allowing himself to go back to enjoying it, too. (I am still hoping the example seeps in by osmosis.)

Winnie The Pooh A. A. Milne ready by Stephen Fry, Judi Dench and various artists

Although I normally associate Winnie The Pooh with very small people (perhaps because it has been so abused as a nursery motif), the humor is actually quite sophisticated and while it tickles my seven-year-old, his five-year-old brother's laugh usually comes one tell-tale moment behind. Still, even if you are not in on every joke, the narration is beautiful and soothing. A good choice for days when a calming effect is needed.

Fantastic Mr. Fox, by Roald Dahl, read by Lionel Jeffries OR by the author

Narration is so very, very important when it comes to audio books and, curiously, I find that the author is not always the best man (or woman) for the job. We have two copies of Fantastic Mr. Fox on cd and while I find the Lionel Jeffries version more enthralling, I do love listening to the Roald Dahl version to hear where he choses to put emphasis. But I am a bit of a nerd that way.

Charlotte's Web read by E.B. White

The best thing about Charlotte's Web on cd? My children will never have to hear me choke out the part where Charlotte dies, between sobs, again. The second best thing? The cadence of E.B. White's voice and his New England accent. The third best thing? The afterword by George Plimpton in the anniversary edition, in which he quotes Eudora Welty's review, proclaiming Charlotte's Web as "just about perfect." I couldn't agree more.

The BFG by Roald Dahl, read by Natasha Richardson

To have Natasha Richardson read you your bedtime stories must have been quite an experience. She is magnificent as The BFG. More brilliant, original language. More brilliant, original Roald Dahl.


Charlie And The Chocolate Factory is a perennial favorite, but I have never enjoyed it so much as when read by Eric Idle. You will be giggling and salivating by turns. Good for a road-trip, when snack rules are relaxed and lollies are on hand....


It is impossible to imagine anyone other than Stephen Fry reading Harry Potter. Impossible. We have played this set of cds (9 hours + in total) over and over again, and we will never tire of it. At least, I won't.

Spiderwick Chronicles by Holly Black and Toni DiTerlizzi

As mentioned above, we have been on the edge of our seats. The quality of the prose doesn't compare with some of the selections listed above, but it is a rollicking good tale told a clippy pace. If you hate to cut the engine because you need to hear what comes next, you know something is going right.

image from jasonhall.com

5 comments:

  1. Kate I am SO onto that suggestion - our long car trips consist of mindless DS playing and I would love us all to listen to Spiderwick Chronicles instead. We are off for a driving trip in May so will definitely take your advice and report back - Canberra and Thredbo are a LONG way away....

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  2. Thanks, Kate! We'll use these. We have been loving audio CDs as well. Just today we were listening to Junie B. Jones (which I didn't love) on an hour trip. I did LOVE Papi and Erath by Avi, although I think Steve and I loved it more than the kiddos and it took them a little longer to get into it.
    I appreciate you listing them.

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  3. We also love audio books - we have been through the Narnia set and the Roald Dahl collection. As both kids have just finished reading the final Harry Potter book I know they will love the audio books so have just placed my order! On your recommendation I also ordered the Spiderwick Chronicles - should be perfect for a drive from Scarsdale to Quebec this summer!!

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  4. Katie, I hope you enjoy the SWC. The first two books were the best, I think (five in total). As I said, the prose isn't special (it's not a classic), but the story had everyone very tuned in, which was great. I also liked listening to it because it was a series that I didn't have my heart on reading aloud to them FIRST, which is what I am planning to do with the Narnia books. We are in the middle of reading The Goblet Of Fire, and we were listening to Chamber of Secrets but it was all getting a bit confusing, so we have switched to a BBC production of Heidi (!) for the commute and, happily, my very butch boys are liking it. I think we may take your lead and finish ALL the Harry Potter books before revisiting the rest on cd. Enjoy the trip! Kate

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  5. I agree, definitely better to read the book aloud to them first, especially the "classics" - we did that with the Narnia series and they loved them all both times!!

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