While Gameboys and TVs in cars keep parents sane during summer treks, I wonder if they do what audiotapes did for my family. Popping in audio books changed moods and built literary memories. Newer technological advantages might provide instant relief, but they don't maximize the family connections cars can offer. Below find audio recommendations for every age.
Preschool: Rhymes and rhythms
One of parents' early reading-aloud missions is getting children to fall in love with words. Why not let gifted readers help you out? I gave a friend with three sons under the age of 3 the new audio of Gwyneth Paltrow reading Bill Martin Jr. and Eric Carle's "Brown Bear and Friends" (Macmillan, $14.95, 1 CD, 1 hour). A day later, she strode up to me in a parking lot chanting its rhythmic verses and told me how her boys were repeating the lyrics nonstop. Paltrow's dramatic reading mirrors calypso, jazz and classical backgrounds, and accents onomatopoeic verbs that define each animal.
4-8 years: Cultural literacy
When I read aloud to young classes, some students miss references to folk and fairy tales. My children owe part of their knowledge to Rabbit Ears, a recently revived imprint that pairs music and acting celebrities to bring alive tales from the Bible, legend, fairy tales and tall tales. The artists' improvisational freedom makes the audios a joy for adult listening. New is "Rabbit Ears Treasury of Fairy Tales: Volume 2" (Listening Library, $11.95, 1 CD, 50 minutes). Michael Caine stresses wonderment as he reads "King Midas and the Golden Touch" while Yo-Yo Ma merges classic and modern strains. Michael Palin's voice changes renew "Jack and the Beanstalk" as David Stewart's music accents the tale's magic. History and lore merge on "Treasury of African-American Heroes" as Morgan Freeman reads "Follow the Drinking Gourd" with Taj Mahal's original songs and music while Denzel Washington reads "John Henry," accompanied by original music by B.B. King. (Listening Library, $11.95, 1 CD 48 minutes)
Ages 5-8: Learning readers, restless riders
For this the age of struggling readers and fidgety car riders, the solution is humorous short stories that feature home or school situations children can identify with. Both are in Judy Blume's second sequel about two squabbling siblings, "Cool Zone with the Pain and the Great One" (Listening Library, $14.95, unabridged, 1 CD, 1 hour 18 minutes). Kathleen McInerney reads with the perfect squeaky voice for impetuous first-grader Pain and his third-grade sister, the bossy Great One. She captures the perfect tone for acrimonious arguments with love hidden underneath. The dialogue feels believable as do everyday situations of a lost tooth, an out-of-control pet day, and bullying threats. Judy Blume has a cameo as the wise cat, Fluzzy.
Ages 9-11: Longer tales
For this age, you want novels with appropriate subject matter that cross gender lines, but won't bore the listeners. Old-fashioned novels are one good solution, such as the sequel to Jeanne Birdsall's National Book Award winner, "The Penderwicks." "The Penderwicks on Gardam Street" (Listening Library, $34, unabridged, 6 CDs, 7 hours, 41 minutes) finds the motherless children dealing with dating as their father follows the wishes left to him in a letter from his wife. Each girl is fully realized by Susan Denaker, whose voice merges the story's old-fashioned quality with a tale from today. Rosalind, the eldest is the wonderer-worrier; Jane, the writer, is overdramatic; tomboy Skye is rough and ready; and preschooler Batty has a squeaky voice that fits her eccentric self.
Young adult: Mutual enjoyment
For a child who has come into his own with reading and listening, the world of audio is open. No longer do you have to satisfy young emotional needs, or listening levels. Try an adult book about coming of age like Lloyd Jones' "Mister Pip" (7 CDs, 7.5 hours, Recorded Books). Susan Lyons reads rhythmically, accenting the lyricism of 13-year-old Matilda. On a small island off the coast of New Guinea, a copper-rich land made fragile by the clash of government and rebel troops, students are enlivened when their white teacher reads aloud Dickens' "Great Expectations."