Three years ago, the travel writer Helena Drysdale decided to have the holiday from hell. She, her husband and their two tiny daughters (one a baby) drove round Europe in a camper van for a year. Before they left I gave them two tapes: one was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; the other, an unabridged reading of The Canterbury Tales.
They drove and drove and drove, and listened to each tape more times than they can now bear to think. The Dahl was a predictable hit but, extraordinarily, so was Chaucer. Even the toddler knew chunks of it off by heart. It makes no difference that she doesn't understand what she learnt: the rhythm and richness of this great English poem got into her blood. I regret not having included the Iliad, the Odyssey, Paradise Lost, the Morte d'Arthur and The Faerie Queene (all £10, Naxos, 01737 760020), as it is logical to assume Helena's children would then have been the possessors of an old-fashioned classical education that most of us can't get for love or taxes.
When even very small children can enjoy being exposed to great literature, it seems mad to give them the dross. Why listen to the moronic disco beat of an Early Learning Centre tape when you could have the Old English Nursery Rhymes from Saydisc (£7 including p+p, 01453 845036)? These are so beautifully sung by Vivien Ellis and Tim Laycock that the 500th playing still brings tears to the eyes. It is particularly commendable that the words of all 50 songs, arranged by Jeremy Barlow, are printed inside the dust-jacket, together with impressively scholarly notes. Graced by a Kate Greenaway cover, Old English Nursery Rhymes is the perfect present - I've given five so far, and I know they last longer than Babygros. Furthermore, Saydisc's Sea Shanties, accompanied by a deep-chested chorus of what sounds like the jolliest of drunken sailors, is the best method for quelling tantrums on the back seat yet discovered.
Roald Dahl's Revolting Rhymes (HarperCollins, £4.99), read with exquisite comic timing by Prunella Scales and Timothy West, is a great help with those of three and over. Who can resist his Little Red Riding Hood, who, instead of being swallowed by the wolf ("compared to her old grandma/This kid'll taste like caviar"), whips a pistol from her knickers and gains "a lovely wolf-skin coat"? Alas, when called to the aid of the three little pigs, she seizes the opportunity to add a pig-skin travelling case to her wardrobe. From Snow White, who steals her stepmother's looking-glass to assist the gambling- fixated dwarves, to Jack, who learns the advantage of a daily bath after his smelly mum gets eaten by the giant, Revolting Rhymes (and its companion, Dirty Beasts) will lift the spirits of even the glummest driver. Would that all Dahl readings were so good: Matilda is almost inaudible in a car.
Stories about quests are ideal for holiday drives, and Philip Pullman's The Firework Maker's Daughter (Cavalcade, 01225 335336, £7.95) actually stopped my own children from being sick while we swerved along the Amalfi coast this year. This classic story of how young Lila must journey to the terrifying Fire-Fiend's cave to become an artist in fire is given full range by Nigel Lambert. From the lugubrious voice of Hamlet the elephant to the whiskery sing-song of Lila's father, this is a perfect tape.
The BBC version of The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle (£8.99, 0181-576 2236) is another delight. I'm usually tired of hearing Alan Bennett drawl through yet another children's classic, but Lofting's story of how Tommy is befriended by the saintly doctor, learns to talk to animals and sets off for the mysterious Spider Island is pure enchantment.
So, too, is that other classic quest, The Hobbit (HarperCollins, £15.99). Even if you think you hate Tolkien, this gravelly reading by Martin Shaw edits out the whimsy and retains the vividness of a great adventure. Slightly younger ones will delight in Ivory Shell's latest additions to its fairy tales from different countries (all £7). The Adventures of Robin Hood, read with ringing clarity by Clive Swift, and the luscious Caribbean Tales, accompanied by joyous steel band music, are two new stars to add to a constellation of outstanding recordings (Ivory Shell, 6-10 Lexington Street, London WIR 3HS).
Music is, as you might expect, partly what makes Naxos's Junior Classics so extraordinarily good. My six year old was riveted by Nicolas Soames' Famous People in History, partly because each tale - from Columbus's voyage to Anne Frank's tragic diary - is underscored by passages of classical music that highlight the drama. Naxos's Junior Classics range from the best Jungle Book on the market to The Railway Children, and at £8.99 are worth every penny.
With even Harry Potter on tape, from Cover to Cover Cassettes (01672 562255), what is missing? The answer is so obvious it should not need stating. There is almost no poetry for children. Penguin does both Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats and Roger McGough's delicious Bad, Bad Cats on tape (£8.99 and £6.99 respectively), plus Ted Hughes's 101 Poems by Heart; but as far as verse goes, there is almost nothing else. Where are Belloc's Cautionary Tales? What about The Rime of the Ancient Mariner? Naxos has a superb collection in The Pied Piper of Hamlin, which includes "The Ballad of Patrick Spens", "Goblin Market" and "Kubla Khan", but there are a number of other good poetry collections published for children - notably Charles Causleys' selection for Macmillan, Bloomsbury's Book of Lullabies and the Oxford Book of Children's Verse - which would seem ideal. But then, if a two year old can learn to love Chaucer through listening to him on tape, what are the limits?