PUBLISHED MAY 2015
by Aaron Shepard, self-publisher
Authors of children’s books have many opportunities to read their stories, and children love to hear them. If you can bring your stories to life, you unlock their potential for young listeners—and perhaps the potential of reading in general. You are living proof that reading is not boring.
I’ve learned those things over the years as the author of 18 picture books and early readers along with several chapter books for middle grades, and resources for storytelling and reader’s theater. With some help from friends in storytelling and reader’s theater, here are some hints for effective readings for children.
If you can, check out the room and PA system ahead of time to take care of potential problems. (Just to be safe, I usually bring along my $100 karaoke machine, which is better than many school PA systems.)
For a forceful presence, stand up. For a more relaxed image, use a stool or chair. But in all cases make sure you’re high enough for every child to see your face.
Introduce the book by showing its cover and announcing the title, to help your listeners find it later. Your introduction can also mention something intriguing about the story or some background on how it was written or on what it means to you. But if your listeners don’t already know the plot, don’t give it away.
Wait for silence before reading. After that, do not stop at every little noise. If the story is working, noise will be minimal and will probably taper off, because your audience will be listening intently. If some child is making a disturbance you can’t ignore, you can perhaps tactfully ask that child to stop, explaining that it distracts you.
But don’t come down hard. Remember, you’re a celebrity to those kids, and an attack by you could be devastating, with long-term effect.
If you choose to show pictures from your book while you’re reading, hold the book to the side at about your eye-level, grasping the bottom edge with one hand and looking sideways to read. Turn the pages by reaching up without moving the book. Remember to swing the book toward the sides of your audience once or twice for each illustration.
If you’re not showing pictures, hold the book in front of you with one hand, leaving the other hand free for gesturing and page turning. With a hardcover, the spine can lie loose in your palm, or you can grasp the top edge. Keep the book low enough so you can see everyone up to the front row. Remember, anyone you can’t see can’t see you.
Give your listeners the full force of you. When sitting or standing still, keep your back straight and face your listeners squarely. Don’t sit or stand sideways; don’t slump, sag, or shift from foot to foot.
Make sure you are heard well. If you’re using a mike on a stand, keep the mike at a steady distance—close enough so it picks your voice up properly, but not so close that it distorts. If you’re not using a mike, speak loudly, aiming your voice at the back row.
Good volume requires good breath support, so be sure you breathe from your diaphragm. This is the muscle that lies below your chest and controls the expansion of your lower lungs. To check yourself, place your hand lightly on your stomach and inhale deeply. If you’re using your diaphragm properly, it will push your stomach out. (The extra air in your lungs may make you a bit dizzy until you get used to this exercise.)
Make your words ring by pronouncing each syllable distinctly. (Tongue twisters provide good practice.)
Take your time and read slowly. Your listeners must recreate the scenes in their imaginations, and that takes time and unhurried concentration. Many readers speed up when they sense they’re losing their listeners’ attention. In most cases, they should instead slow down.
Look out at your listeners as much as you can—ideally about half the time, and especially at the ends of sentences. This requires knowing what you’re reading well enough so you can look at the page and “gather” the words ahead of what you’re saying. With a book held in front, you can keep your place in the text with a finger or thumb, running it down the page or along the edge.
When you’re reading a page in front of you, lower only your eyes, not your whole head. If you also look up often, you will hardly seem to be reading at all, and the effect will be akin to true storytelling.
Use variety to put life into the story. Vary each of the following: pitch, volume, tone, speed, and rhythm.
Respect and use pauses—between clauses, sentences, paragraphs, and scenes. Today’s editors may delight in throwing out commas, but you need to read them back in.
Don’t be afraid to gesture and move around. Movement adds interest and holds attention. And a little miming is fun as well.
Don’t forget sound effects, either — a rooster crowing, a car engine revving, an explosion.
Make the characters live. Try to sound and look and move as you think each character would. Express the way a character feels by your voice, face, and gesture. If possible, make each character sound different from other characters and from the narrator.
When using special character voices for dialog, make sure you drop those voices when you read the tagline “he said” and “she said” phrases. These should be in your normal narrator voice. However, if you’re using special voices, most of those taglines can just be left out.
If you’re adventurous, try using different “focuses.” Most of the time, you’ll be looking straight at your listeners (“audience focus”) when you’re not looking at your book. But when you’re portraying a character, you might pretend to be looking at someone or something over your listeners’ heads (“offstage focus”). Remember to switch back to audience focus for taglines you retain.
If you’re reading a scene with two characters conversing, you can try “cross focus”—standing at a different 45 degree angle for each character. If the characters are supposed to be at different heights, you can also look upward or downward, depending on which character you’re speaking as.
Make your ending definite by reading the last words of your story slowly and with rhythm. Everyone recognizes the ending “happily ever after.” But the same effect can be achieved with almost any words by reading them slowly, with three syllables heavily stressed, in a “slow three.” (As an author, you can make sure your stories end with appropriate rhythm.)
When you’ve finished, pause a moment for your listeners to return from the world you and they have created. Then close the book, again show the cover, and repeat the title.
Good reading requires practice. A tape recorder and a full-length mirror can give you valuable feedback. It’s also helpful to listen to professional storytellers and readers, live or on tape. But don’t take it all too seriously. Even without trying, you’ll get better as you go. Besides, you’re a professional author, not a professional performer—so no one will expect you to be perfect.
Relax, play, enjoy yourself. Even if there’s nothing else you give your listeners, you can show them reading is fun.
Aaron Shepard has combined his career as a self-publisher with writing a number of traditionally published children’s picture books, and his work has been honored by the American Library Association and the American Folklore Society, among others. This article is excerpted from The Adventures of Writing for Children, a companion to his earlier book The Business of Writing for Children. To learn more: aaronshep.com/kidwriter.