The history of Caedmon Audio -- After 40 years, the label continues to capture the essential sounds of children's literature

If record labels were TV networks, Caedmon Audio would be PBS: It’s tasteful, well-bred, and heavily dependent on the written word. From its first release in 1952 — Dylan Thomas reading A Child’s Christmas in Wales — to its recent holiday offerings (boxed collections of Roald Dahl, Sherlock Holmes, and C.S. Lewis) Caedmon, celebrating its 40th anniversary this month, has been a peerless publisher of children’s literature on records and cassettes.

Babar. Winnie-the-Pooh. Mary Poppins. The Little Prince. The poems of Robert Louis Stevenson. The stories of Hans Christian Andersen. If Caedmon hasn’t recorded it, that’s probably because it hasn’t been written.

The idea of recording poets reading their own work came to Caedmon founders Barbara Holdridge and Marianne Mantell in the early 1950s, when they were a couple of years out of New York’s Hunter College. After a decade or so of recording readings by the likes of T.S. Eliot and Carl Sandburg, Caedmon moved into albums for children. No frills, no tips on ecology, self-esteem, or trips to the dentist. Nothing, in fact, but literature. Mantell: ”The goal wasn’t to entertain the child nearly as much as to re-create the original voice of the author.”

Often without the authors. For dramatic purposes, Caedmon used actors like Claire Bloom, Boris Karloff, and Carol Channing (who worried about her characters’ ”motivation”).

Despite this degree of artistic concern, or because of it, a Caedmon recording is pure and minimalist. In the end, it’s the work you remember, not the production. Mantell: ”The whole point was to take this very fantastical stuff and do it straight.” Most Caedmon recordings are so well made, and so faithful to their sources, that reviewing them is redundant. You might as well talk about A Child’s Garden of Verses itself as about Judith Anderson’s Caedmon recording of it.

Holdridge and Mantell sold Caedmon in 1970 to Raytheon; the founders left the company in 1975. HarperCollins bought the label in 1987 and has begun repackaging and rereleasing many classic titles. The repackaged Caedmons come in fancier boxes, with more modern illustrations. New Caedmon releases tend to have louder soundtracks and more musical effects. Perhaps that’s necessary in an era in which most kids watch The Wizard of Oz on TV or video long before they come across Caedmon’s four-tape Ray Bolger recording of Oz stories. The little label that could is competitive in a TV-centered world, but it’s still Caedmon. Some good choices:

The Napping House and Other Stories by Audrey Wood
Performed by Lynn Redgrave (1987)
The title story is sung, while the others are read in Redgrave’s crisp British style. ”Heckedy Peg” is Brothers Grimm-like; ”Elbert’s Bad Word” Wodehousian, with a butler named Chives. A-

Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia Maclachlan
Performed by Glenn Close (1986)
The story is part Little House on the Prairie, part O Pioneers! The telling is all Glenn Close, which makes this tape a pleasant revisiting of CBS’ award-winning Hallmark Hall of Fame Sarah, in which the actress starred. A-

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl
Performed by the author (1975)
Even if you didn’t see the 1971 movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory — especially if you didn’t see the movie — you’ll be moved by the plight of poor Charlie, and up-lifted by this moralistic fantasy. Amusing and haunting in equal measures. A-

Where the Wild Things Are…And Other Stories by Maurice Sendak
Performed by Tammy Grimes (1977)
Grimes does justice to the title story, as well as to the quirky ”Chicken Soup With Rice.” The Mozart soundtrack is unnecessary, but nice. B+

The Runaway Bunny and Goodnight, Moon by Margaret Wise Brown Performed by Si Kahn, Cathy Fink, Marcy Marxer (1989)
Each tape has sing-alongs and spoken stories long enough for a toddler to study the accompanying paperbacks, or tear them up. Moon’s song is a dirge. Are those kittens and mittens sleeping, or dead? B+

Winnie-The-Pooh by A.A. Milne
Performed by Carol Channing (1988)
A golden oldie. The bubbly Channing is Pooh, whose misadventures must have inspired I Love Lucy‘s writers. Channing’s accents make this a tour de force; effete, upper-crust Rabbit is unforgettable. A

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
  • Movie
  • 116 minutes