My family roots are in the South. When I visit my extended family, I am surrounded by expressive storytellers who make everyday occurrences sound fantastical, no matter how many times you've heard them told. So I suppose I am spoiled, having grown up with that level of storytelling as my gold standard.
My parents read to me and my brother throughout our youth, and shared family tales when we were old enough to find them entertaining. While I have the ability to craft a story in written form, and to deliver it orally in a way that captures an audience, I do NOT have the ability to think on the fly - to make up stories on the spot and deliver them around a campfire. Or to create an impromptu bedtime story when all the favorite books have been consumed. I also have a hard time recapturing the full essence of those family yarns - to remember all of the details that make your eyes glisten with anticipation and your belly ache from laughing. So no, I did not inherit those fantastic storytelling genes in their finest forms. But if you give me a book and a room full of kids, I can get them interested and hold their attention - teaching them a thing or two in the process.
So you can imagine my disappointment and utter bewilderment when I began bringing my toddler, Sammy, along to story times at the library, or to organized play groups which incorporate reading into circle time, and to play dates with other parents where an interlude with a book was a welcome respite to reckless games of chase, and discovered that truly very few of these grown-ups know how to make reading as fun for a child as the rush they have when flying down a slide.
Time and again over the past year or so I have had to sit on my hands and suppress the inner urge desperately begging me to tear a book out of the hands of the librarian, the facilitator, the volunteer, the parent - and take over the damn effort.
Because that's what story time feels like in the hands of such folk, not gifted with the storytelling gene. An effort. Sometimes it is an effort because the reading selection is just not the right level for the full age spectrum of the audience. Sometimes it is an effort because they obviously didn't bother to read the book ahead of time and can't focus on anything beyond getting the words right. Sometimes it is an effort because they are shy in front of a group that includes kids and their parents. Sometimes it is an effort because they don't know how to compete with surrounding distractions.
For me, it's simple - innate in a way. If you love books, and the particular stories within them, you want to share that joy of experiencing the tale for the first time. And you will do anything it takes to make sure you don't blow your one shot. So for anyone who has the occasion to read to a child, here are my suggestions to make the process a positive one for everyone involved:
- Know Your Story. Select books to read that you have read yourself. Know the plot. Know the themes. Know the characters. Know the illustrations. The more you already know, the more you can focus on the experience for your audience. If you don't have the luxury of advance reading, take it slow from page to page - ask your audience questions you're considering yourself when wondering what happens next. But always make sure that you know whether or not the book contains anything potentially sensitive or upsetting for your specific little one(s).
- Know Your Audience. Select books that are geared for the right age range. Books that are not too long or not too simple for the children you are reading to. Books that encourage movement for younger ones, and books that encourage rhyming or refrains for older ones. Consider how many children may be tasked with listening and save more detailed reads for smaller groups, and find an oversized book for large crowds so everyone can see.
- Engage, Encourage, Interact. Attention spans are fleeting. Some children's bodies may be more inclined to work on their gross motor skills than their listening ones. Some children may have read your selection one too many times already. Others may not understand the book's main points and lose interest as a result. As the storyteller, your most important job is to be the most interesting option in the space. Capture their attention with energetic language. Introduce participatory actions for the children to do throughout the tale. Give them shakers to shake, or toys to squeak. Refrains to shout or motions to make during repetitive spots. Put something in their hands and give them something to do. This captures their attention, encourages listening and allows for participation - which will keep their attention focused on you, your story, and the lessons it introduces.
- Have No Shame. You don't need to pretend you're up for an Oscar, but you should give the story's characters some life. Perform for your audience - act out the way a character walks, use silly voices to distinguish one from another, use props to emphasize key elements, use music, use puppets. It only takes a little expression to bring a page to life for a child, and when pages come to life, they stick more strongly in a child's memory.
- Speak Up. There is no rule that stories should be read quietly. Have you ever spent time in the children's section of a library? It can be one of the noisiest places on earth. So wherever you read to a child, be it in a library, in a school, in their room at night - make a joyful noise. A commanding voice attracts attention. Extra emphasis on certain lines provides entertainment and keeps their focus. And the natural ebb and flow of crescendos within a tale teaches conversational skills and more than anything else, it makes a story a heck of a lot more interesting and fun for all involved.
- Move On. Not all audiences can be won over. You could deliver the most magical read-aloud in the history of mankind, and still have your audience crying, day dreaming, disrupting or picking their nose out of total boredom. They just may not be in the mood. It's not you - it's them. So know when the battle is an uphill one and make a strategic move. Stop in mid-book - with a dramatic flair. This alone will often redirect their interest back to you and what you are doing. Ask them to sing a song instead that fits the book's general feel. Play a game that could be connected to the book's character or theme. Pull out some crayons and paper for them to draw their own ending. The best part about a story is that it can be changed. It can be told in different ways - in different mediums. Disinterest in the traditional approach can often be a window of opportunity to explore creativity and expression. Becoming a part of the story, or having a chance to tell your own can be very empowering, and fun, for children especially.
There is no such thing as a child who doesn't like stories. There are certainly those who find listening to them a challenge - especially if the subject matter or reader is not all that interesting. But if you give them the opportunity, you just may discover that those children are the best storytellers of all.