Before I began writing middle grade, I wrote plays for fifteen years. I never thought—in a million years—that I would ever write fiction. There are many things I love about theater, but one of the main ones is the immediacy of the audience reaction. Every performance of a play is a unique moment in time, experienced only by the people in the room.
Of course, how a person experiences a novel may change each time they read, depending on what’s going on for them at the time. But the words on the page don’t change. Whereas both the performance an actor gives from night to night and the energy of different audiences can tremendously change how a play is experienced for both the actors and the audience.
But this blog is about middle grade books! Why am I talking about theater? I’m almost there.
My involvement with theater began to decline when I had my first child. (Surprise!) I still wrote plays, but I wasn’t able to be as active in rehearsals, I almost never got out to see a play, and I stopped reading plays, in favor of endless books on how to get my daughter to sleep, or just desperately trying to get through a single issue of The New Yorker.
Said daughter was obsessed with books. Book was actually her first word and her first sign. By the time she was one, she could sit through very long, complex picture books, like The 500 Hats of Bartholemew Cubbins. By the time she was three, we were reading The Chronicles of Narnia, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and E.B. White. When she was three I clocked how much we read aloud every day for a normal week, and it was an average of five hours a day.
So I spent 5 hours each day reading middle grade fiction aloud, and that combined with my lack of theater-involvement meant that the stories in my brain started taking the form of middle grade fiction. Before, I had been struck with play ideas. Now, I started getting fiction ideas. It freaked me out. (I only write dialogue! I don’t describe stuff! Designers take care of the visual!)
But I realized, as I began to play around with writing middle grade fiction and continued reading aloud to my daughter (all seven Harry Potter books over three months when she was five), that the experience of live theater and children’s fiction is not so far apart…at least when it’s read aloud.
As I read for my daughter, putting my very expensive acting training to the only use it gets these days, I started to realize that reading aloud to children is its very own unique live performance (even if you don’t have very expensive acting training). My reading is different each time, even if it’s our third time through The Order of the Phoenix. But more importantly—and this is what I find much more exciting as a theater artist, too—my daughter’s reaction adds the magic to the moment. Reading aloud to a child and catching glimpses of their wide eyes, hearing their gasps or giggles—it’s its own kind of theater.
The same book-obsessed daughter has struggled mightily with independent reading. As we’ve investigated resources like audio books to help her access books on her own, I said to my husband, “It’s not like we’re going to want to read Twilight aloud to her when she’s fifteen.” To which he said, extremely indignantly, “I will, if she wants me to.”
Have you experienced the magic of reading middle grade aloud to a child in your life? How does an added participant change your reading experience?