Reading Aloud, Naturally

It was one of those cozy family scenes you dream about: My daughters and I were housebound by a freak storm that had turned the entire world into one big skating rink. Rather than brave the elements, we lit a fire in the hearth, prepared hot chocolate, and snuggled in to enjoy a long, lazy afternoon.

"Okay, what book do you want me to read first?" I ventured. Well, you'd think I had just asked whether they'd rather have broccoli or lima beans for dessert. "I want a video," insisted my three-year-old Brittany. And much to my chagrin, her five-year-old sister backed her up. "Tapes are better. They're more exciting."

More exciting than shipwrecks and tree houses? More enchanting than yellow teddy bears that float to the sky on the ends of balloon strings? Come on! I thought back to my own childhood, when my mother's voice would breathe life into the simplest stories, weaving emotion in and out of the printed words until tears filled my eyes or the hair stood up on the back of my neck.

Clearly, times have changed. But then, my mother didn't have to compete with the Internet, television, videocassettes, and a theater complex with three new blockbusters for kids. How, I began to wonder, can a parent hope to claim a child's attention with nothing more than a plain, old-fashioned storybook?

"Easy," says professional storyteller Norma Livo. "Parents can weave their own brand of magic with books just by hamming it up, taking their time, and making the most of the techniques that storytellers have been using for centuries to delight audiences of all ages."

In fact, children's books contain many of the same elements that draw kids to movies and TV--action, drama, rhythm, and dialogue--but it's up to the person reading the story to bring it to life. Parents already do this, often without realizing it, when they recite nursery rhymes in that singsong voice that's appropriate for simple, rhythmic poetry. But when it comes to more sophisticated books, they may get so absorbed in the story themselves that they simply read straight through; or maybe when they're tired, or they've been reading the same book night after night, their energy flags.

If you're finding that story time isn't quite the pleasure that you want it to be, relax. Here are some tricks of the trade from professional storytellers that will show you how to infuse more drama into the telling. If you're already an avid story reader, maybe you'll pick up a pointer or two to enhance the experience. But if you're uncomfortable about your reading-aloud skills, these suggestions will provide some of the technical know-how to help you work out the kinks. Remember: kids are an extremely eager--and forgiving--audience. If you have fun, they'll have fun, and that's what counts. That, and knowing that in addition to giving your children more chances to be cuddled by Mom or Dad, you'll be introducing them to a limitless world of exciting characters, places and ideas.


1. Pace Yourself

One mistake many parents make when reading aloud is to go either too fast or too slow. In both cases, the result is the same: You lose your listener. Reading at breakneck speed will overload a child and make her tune out halfway through, but maintaining a snail's pace will put her to sleep. The trick is to vary your pace according to the demands of the story.

"Many children's books are paced like a ball rolling down a hill," explains Lois Duncan, a popular author of books for young readers. "They begin slowly, with the introduction of the hero, a statement of his goals, and a blueprint of the obstacles standing in his way. They gain speed each time the hero has to surmount another obstacle, and the pace gets faster and faster as it nears the end of the journey." In "The Three Little Pigs," for example, the story begins on a leisurely note, as the personalities of the pigs are established. The action accelerates as they confront the obstacles to their survival--the flimsiness of the straw house, the brittleness of the stick house, and the cleverness of the wolf--and by the time the story reaches its climax, it (and the reader) races along at top speed as the wolf zooms down the chimney and splashes into the soup kettle.

But even in books that play out in a steady march forward, there are ways to vary the pacing. Slowing down and speaking deliberately at just the right moment, for example, builds excitement as effectively as surging ahead, especially during portions where tension is already thick. The first part of the following sentence, for example, could be read quite slowly, with the final portion getting faster and faster: "The lion crept closer...and the boy...and it raced forward, growling and baring its teeth!"  


2. The Volume Button

While much of a story should be told in a normal tone of voice, there are many occasions that call for raising or lowering the decibel level. Luckily, authors often supply the reader with words that serve as stage directions for when and how to do this. "Get out of here!" yelled the old man to the boy. "I don't want to go to school," the child whispered to his teddy. Ignoring these vocal cues will result in a monotone presentation, which has a tranquilizing effect on any audience, so follow the lead of the writer. Raise your voice when the old man shouts; lower it to talk to the teddy bear.

Once again, the key is contrast. "Be careful when increasing your volume," suggests Jeannine Pasini Beekman, a storyteller. "It's great for emphasis, but if you speak too loudly for too long, you'll take the kids right out of the story." Michael Cotter, a Minnesota farmer and storyteller, agrees that a soft touch can be very compelling. "You can always tell if a child is caught up in a story by dropping your voice. If she leans forward, that means she's hooked."

Sometimes you may want to turn off the volume altogether. A second of utter quiet, strategically placed, can be used to signal a change in the direction of the story, or to build suspense. "I love that moment right before a climactic point when you just kind of hold your breath for a minute," says Livo. "You can see a child's mind racing as she tries to imagine what's going to happen next."

Pausing also gives the reader an opportunity to gauge a child's response and make sure she is still interested and involved. If you've got her rapt attention, you might encourage her to reflect on what has happened so far and to think about what might be coming next. When a child has license to contribute, she's more likely to feel personally engaged by the story and want to stick it out until the end.


3. Watch Your Wordplay

If speed and volume help to shape a plot, then texture is what adds character to individual words. It's the difference between reading, "Look at that snake slide through the grass," and "Look at that sssssnake sliiiiiiiide through the grass." Let the words slither off your tongue, imitating the action. Animal noises in particular lend themselves to "texturizing." If a kitten is purring, that r can roll around on the roof of your mouth before you let it out; if a mother cow is calling to her calf, round your lips for an expressive "mooooo."

Verbs, especially, sound like the actions they describe. Rush, whine, howl, moan: You voice should take on the quality of the word. If the door squeaks, make the word itself sound like fingernails on a blackboard. If the dog is snapping at the mailman, click your teeth at the end of the word.


4. The Sound of Music

For the youngest in your audience, the musical nature of language--the rhythm of the prose--is often the most compelling part of a story. It's what draws listeners in before they even understand the meaning of the words. In many cases, the rhythm of a passage will be obvious, as in the classic, "Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water." But don't feel obliged to stick to the more conventional rhyming patterns. Vary them to emphasize whatever section of the narrative you find most interesting.

Take advantage, too, of the leavening effect of actual music. In The Gunniwolf, by Wilhelmina Harper, a little girl heads off into the jungle singing happily to herself: "Kum-kwa, khi-wa, kum-kwa, khi-wa." Instead of simply reading the words, warble them in your best trill. Use any tune--make one up if you want to--but it's a good idea to use the same one in subsequent readings: When your child becomes attached to a story, she'll expect it to sound the same every time.


5. Act the Part

One area where some parents feel especially uncomfortable is in reading dialogue. "My children never know which character is speaking," frets one mother. "By the time I get to the end of the story, they're so confused, they don't know who said what." But dialogue adds life to a story by breaking up descriptive narrative and allowing the reader to hear the characters, instead of just hearing about them. So it's worth trying to master.

As any acting coach will tell you, the first thing you need to do is get to know the personality of the person you're portraying. The same is true when you're reading aloud. A book's characters have any number of identifying features that can be reflected in the way they speak: age, gender, disposition, nationality. If you have the time, it's a good idea if you can read the story all the way to the end at least once before starting. You don't want to discover halfway through, for example, that the sweet young thing you pegged as the heroine is, in fact, the nasty villain. (On the other hand, if that's the surprise of the story, you don't want to give it away.)  

Once you've assembled a "character profile" of the book's leading players, follow your instincts when speaking their parts. If the heroine is a nervous Nellie, use a high-pitched voice and read more quickly. If she's a forbidding schoolmarm, drop down an octave, turn up the volume, and pronounce each word with real conviction. Or try to affect an accent when reading the part of a courtly gentleman from France.

Whatever you do, keep in mind that it's nearly impossible to fail when you're reading aloud to young children. The personal, one-on-one attention they get makes up many times over for the fact that you might not sound as eloquent as Meryl Streep. And once you've established a tradition of reading aloud, there's no reason to stop just because your children have graduated to Dickens or Dostoyevsky. One family of five has been reading together for years; the oldest daughter, who's now sixteen, says the family storybook session is still a real treat. "It's great to connect at the end of the day and be calm all together," she says. "It's like we're all little kids again."

Some things, it seems, we never outgrow.


K. Mahrer is a parent and writer.

Ways to Start

The following children's books lend themselves to lively reading aloud.


Chicka Chicka Boom Boom

By Bill Martin, Jr., and

John Archambault

(Simon & Schuster; ages 2 to 6)


The Very Hungry Caterpillar

By Eric Carle

(Philomel; ages 2 to 6)


Good Morning, Chick

By Mirra Ginsburg

(Green Willow; ages 2 to 6)


The Stupids Die

By Harry Allard

(Houghton Mifflin; ages 4 to 8)


Sylvester and the Magic Pebble

By William Steig

(Simon & Schuster; ages 4 to 8)


The Little Old Lady Who Was

Not Afraid of Anything

By Linda Williams

(Harper Trophy; ages 4 to 8)


D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths

Retold by Ingri and

Edgar Parin D'Aulaire

(Doubleday; ages 7 and up)


Whoppers: Tall Tales and Other Lies

Retold by Alvin Schwartz

(HarperCollins; ages 7 and up)


I Never Saw a Purple Cow

and Other Nonsense Rhymes

Edited by Emma Chichester Clark

(Little, Brown and Co.; all ages)

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