Monday, August 31, 2015

Once upon a time...the art of reading a picture book

This summer I read aloud "My Wilderness" to many groups of children. It is always the last part of my children's program presented at each sitting. This simple act, of reading my own picture book to a living, breathing audience, makes a great and personal impact. In one neat and tidy seven minute interlude, it boils down why I write and create books for children. It's me, the book, the child, and imagination. Period. In fact, I don't believe a book is fully alive until the author reads it aloud herself to kids. The act of reading, and being read to, has to be one of the top most human experiences.

Reading out loud however is not as easy as I assumed. Here's some practical advice on reading to kids as a picture book author.

1. The Established Storytime Hour

Many storytimes I read at are scheduled, weekly event slots in book stores or libraries. This is great for good attendance, but these audiences tend to be a wide age-range. Scanning the crowd a few minutes before reading helps me to define the medium age and if I'll need to paraphrase some of my text. I want everyone to get something from the reading if I can. I don't want to dumb-down my work but when the group is mostly wriggly toddlers, it pays to keep it short and sweet and let the pictures do most of the talking.

2. Let's get physical! 

I had eyes like an eagle until a few years ago, but now I succomb to wearing glasses when reading. I realized at one of my first storytimes how difficult it is to read out loud while holding a book for the audience to see, especially wearing bi-focals. The words tend to blur out at this side-ways on angle! I felt like a flamingo bird trying to bend my neck to ensure the book could be seen but I could still read! I've now memorized more of the longer stretches of text, which helped improve my timing and expression and frees me from having to look at the book as much. It is also note-worthy to say practicing reading aloud is beneficial.

3. Props to you

I've alway been on the shy side regarding public presentations, so I enjoy a good prop or two to hide behind! Revelent objects to share help me and the story gain connection with the kids before I read.  For "My Wilderness", a "real" Squirlie  (the beloved stuffed animal in the story that I have a replica of), accompanies me to help illuminate my words and my research process.

4. Know Thy Own Work

Every picture book is different of course, but assessing what particular book you've created in audible terms is worth contemplating before reading (even before writing!). "My Wilderness" is historical fiction, rather long (about 1000 words) for a picture book, but narrative in flow, with several "suspense" page turns. I now anticipate what I've indentified as the "good spots" of the book at each reading. The kids always love the question-answer page turns, where Rocky "sees" potential dangers that turn out for the best. Kids also predicably love the "naked" page, where the characters run out sans clothes to bathe in snow! I also get a surprising reaction when I read the page about a pair of ladie's boots Rocky had to wear out of necessity. One young man defended Rocky quite indignantly at one reading, calling out to me "Well, they were the ONLY boots he had!!!".

I loved that moment. Rocky had made a friend in the front row.

4. Relax!

There can be an awful lot going on in a 20 minute program for kids; potty breaks, melt downs, severe cases of the wiggles, complete and utter boredom, even parental indiscretions (cell phone use or talking!). All can distract from the cozy reading experience I had in mind. Go with the flow. I'm always amazed at what kids will pipe up and share about the story afterward that remind me that my young audience is used to absorbing through white noise. Just do your job and have fun even if it gets rowdy!

With every reading, I learn something about myself, my work and children as readers. It has opened my eyes to how stories are absorbed. It makes me hungry to create more stories. It makes me hungry to hear them, too!

From "My Wilderness".

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