The Phantom Tollbooth – Norton Juster

I have met many, many adults who consider this book their favorite book of all time, even though they haven’t read it in twenty or thirty years. And I have met even more adults who have never heard of it.

The story is ultimately an adventure story, with the main character traveling in a strange land, meeting interesting characters along the way, some of whom join him. They stumble upon an epic quest and have to confront many challenges before saving the day and returning home.

But that is just the core plot. The real joy is the metaphor and wordplay. Many concepts are treated literally: Milo physically jumps to the land of Conclusions; The Spelling Bee and Humbug are large talking insects; The princesses Rhyme and Reason have been imprisoned. Milo begins the story bored, but over the course of the tale he learns that motivation and curiosity are the tools you need to help people and solve big problems.

The actor David Hyde Pierce (perhaps best known for the character Niles Crane from the TV show Frasier) recorded an audiobook version that is very well done and a good pick for a long car ride. It sounds trite to say, but it is one that the whole family can enjoy.

There was even an animated movie made in 1970 that captures much of the whimsy of the story, but doesn’t compare to reading the book and imagining the characters and hearing the wordplay in your own head.

The Phantom Tollbooth in Wikipedia

The Giraffe, the Pelly and Me – Roald Dahl

This is a Roald Dahl story I hadn’t heard before, certainly much less-well-known than “James and the Giant Peach” or “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”. It also doesn’t have the undercurrent of terror and threat of violence that most Dahl stories have.

Some animals have a window-washing business and a kid joins them.

The kids liked it and particularly enjoyed the audio cd performed by actor Richard E. Grant.

The audio runs 42:30.

How to Be a Viking

This book introduces the character of Hiccup, who went on to have more adventures in the better known series, “How to Train Your Dragon”. It’s a fun, but serious story of a little boy who is thrust into the world of adults (specifically tough viking men) and has to overcome fear and take on responsibility.

The book comes with a CD of the author, Cressida Cowell, reading the story. The CD also includes a track of the actor David Tennant (Dr. Who #10, among many other roles) reading a selection from “How to Train Your Dragon” in his rich Scottish accent.

The Giant Jam Sandwich

This is a classic that our kids asked for again and again, even taking it to kindergarten for show-and-tell. The illustration style is unique and appealing. And the text, written in verse, makes it easy for children to follow along:

Bap gave instructions for the making of the dough.
“Mix flour from above and yeast from below.
Salt from the seaside, water from the spout.
Now thump it! Bump it! Bang it about!”

The book we got came with a CD, so the kids can listen in the car or follow along with the pictures.

The story (spoiler alert) concludes with the asphyxiation of 3,999,997 wasps. The idea of so many dead bugs did not bother us or the kids, but might be alarming for some.

Geronimo Stilton

I had never heard of Geronimo Stilton before having kids, and just randomly stumbled across these CDs at the library when planning a road trip. These were a big hit and we started playing them in the evening at bedtime.

The concept is that Geronimo Stilton is a mouse and a newspaper editor who winds up in zany adventures with his sister and nephew and others. Geronimo is a bit of a nebbish and a reluctant hero, making the stories comical.

There are something like 30 stories that have been read and recorded on CDs, in collections of 2 or 3. The narrator of the first few CDs is Edward Herrmann and of the others is Bill Lobley. Lobley in particular is a very skilled voice actor and he makes the characters and story very entertaining, enough to engage parents as well as children.

It turns out that Geronimo Stilton is practically a media empire, with dozens of chapter books, comic books, graphic novels, audio CDs, and a TV cartoon. It was fun for our kids to hear the stories first on audio, and later to read the comic versions, putting faces to the characters they had become familiar with.