Story recordings 'for children and others who share their good taste'

Walk into a music store and you'll find thousands of classical records, more thousands of rock and popular records -- and tens of children's records. The reason is simple. Children's records are not terrific moneymakers. If a major record company has to choose between making millions of dollars with a single popular album or not making millions with a children's record, you can guess where it will put its money.

At one company the philosophy is different. Pathways of Sound certainly is not averse to making money, but the overriding interest is in children themselves and a desire to do something for them.

That the company is unusual becomes evident when one walks into the office. The furniture includes a couch, desk, chairs, a few lamps -- and a hobby horse.Children's paintings decorate the walls, and well-thumbed children's books fill the bookcase.

The decor is appropriate for a company founded "for children and others who share their good taste," whose records include Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn reading "Wind in the Willows;" Julie Harris reading "Stuart Little;" Shakespearean actor Maurice Evans reading "Winnie the Pooh;" and E. B. White reading "Charlotte's Web."

Though Pathways doesn't rival giants such as RCA or Columbia in sales, its recordings are the sort many parents want for their children. In fact, Joe Berk , founder and president, admits one reason for starting Pathways in 1960 was to provide the type of records he wanted for his children.

"There was a dearth of children's records," he says. "Nobody had done 'Wind in the Willows,' or 'Winnie' in its entirety, or 'Stuart Little.' The list goes on."

Hearing a story read, he says, develops listening comprehension skills and reinforces any reading children might do. It gives them an awareness of good English, such as syntax, and helps sharpen children's vocabularies. It also stimulates their imagination.

Mr. Berk might not have come up with the idea had he not been born into a family of readers.

"My grandmother read to me -- that was a treat," he says. "I would sit in her lap.Sometimes I'd close my eyes and I could seem what she was reading. I loved the sound of her voice. My mother read to me, my father read to me, and there were always books."

The books chosen to record, he says, were either favorites of his when he was growing up, or his children.

Approaching a major record company with the idea of having noted actors read children's classics, he was told that such records would never sell. But five years later, he began looking for actors who would record.

It happened that the noted husband and wife team of Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn were in Boston for a play in which Miss Tandy was performing. Mr. Berk called the Ritz, where he assumed she'd be staying, and was amazed when the call was put through.

"When Miss Tandy got on the phone, I asked if she would be kind enough to consider recording 'The Open Road.' She said, 'that's one of my favorite books. I'd be delighted to.'"

Mr. Cronyn also agreed to read. After the two had recorded, other actors were more willing to do so. Mr. Berk says the "kindness and understanding" of people of stature in the theater and literature has helped make Pathways recordings what they are.

E. B. White, who wrote "Charlotte's Web," is a case in point. A very nervous Mr. Berk had set up a meeting with Mr. White at the author's farm in Maine. After they had had lunch and talked a bit about the book, Mr. White suddenly asked, "How would you like to see the barn"? and out they went.

"You know the rope swing in the book?" asks Mr. Berk. "We got out there, and he said, 'Like a ride? Hop on.' Then he put his hand on my back and started to run. He gave me one push. I went up once, and back once. The second time I went up from that one push I hit the loft in the barn. We went to see where Templeton had lived, walked around to see where thesheep had been, where Wilbur's pen was. It was an ineffable experience."

He says Mr. white's reading too, was out of the ordinary. On Page 94 of "Charlotte's web," for instance, the paragraph beginning, "Now for the R -- up we go. . ." Mr. White read it as though it was a call for a square dance.Nothing in the text gives a key that it might be done that way. but, says Mr. Berk, this is a farm setting, so it might be appropriate.

"Kids have written in to say that they had read the story before, but had never read it that way. They say how much fun it is. Some have even acted it out."

Mr. Berk says his intent has always been to have "tellings" instead of "readings." Book texts are used verbatim but are really told, which may be why youngsters often get so involved that they want to read along, or reread the books when the records are done. The records aren't meant to supplant parents or books but are intended to supplement them. Ideally parents will read to their children. But when they aren't readily available, records provide an alternative.

And while another company label -- Credo -- has adult material, such "Black Man in America" an interview with James Baldwin, or Julie Harris in "The Belle of Amherst," Joe Berk points out that the Pathways classics are also enjoyable for adults.

"I'm not trying to exclude anyone," he says. "You can't take a book like "Wind in the Willows" and say that's for children only. It's choice meterial, it's instructive, it excites the imagination. It gives kids a desire to read. That's really what the thrust of Pathways is all about -- to heighten appreciation of the printed word through the spoken word."

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