Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Magic of Reading Middle Grade Aloud

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?


  1. First, I have to ask, Joy, did you daughter not cry hearing Order of the Phoenix? That was the first time (As a teen) a book made me CRY! (Because I was moved, not because it was bad, just to clarify!)

    Moving on, I wasn't read to as a child so I'm playing catch up in this regard. Your daughter was so lucky.

    I had to rely on audiobooks a few years ago when envy of my "Rivals" tainted the reading experience for me. I still have to fight the envy, but I can read on the page with joy now, more or less. I know aren't the same as reading aloud to others or just yourself, but I do believe hearing a story told has a unique impact for those of ANY age.

    On top of my shyness that I still have to work through. I have the annoying habit of talking like a stereotypical chipmunk auctioneer.

    I'm not confident in my own read aloud skills yet.

    I don't read my own work aloud much because I can't even understand myself when I've tried to record myself read aloud and play it back.

    I use text to speech software when I edit because my fast talking doesn't get in the way.

    Now that I do video I'm trying to get better with that but it's SLOW progress...(My welcome video on T.A.A.'s homepage/YouTube channel was a BIG STEP for me in terms of audibly addressing my audience)
    If anyone's interested: http://youtu.be/bojLuGQ3xRg

    I did my best and hope I don't sound horrid. Anyway, take care to you and yours, Joy.

    1. Ooh, excellent points!

      First, no, she didn't cry, but I struggle with crying at certain points during the HP series and then she looks at me like I'm bonkers. :-) I actually just read Sirius falling behind the veil last night.

      And you're right - hearing stories aloud is so important at any age. My sister and brother-in-law do a lot of reading aloud to each other, which I think is very cool.

      I also read my own work aloud, as expressively as if I were reading it to a child. I find it helps the revision process. But I can understand reluctance if someone never felt confident reading aloud. I marvel at my husband who gamely reads Harry Potter and the like to our daughter, even though English is not his first language.

    2. I cry during the later stages of Harry Potter also, Joy. My kids think I am nuts. I just tell them "wait till you're a parent."

    3. Taurean, you did a great job with your video! I loved the graphics,and the music, and your voice was soothing--not "chipmunky" at all! Good job.

    4. Thanks Michael, I'm glad I didn't sound like a manic auctioneer.

      I had to do it a few times to get it right. I'm possibly one of the rare few of my generation who's not used to filming/recording himself. It was partly nerves but also because I do talk fast and hard to understand. If I had a dime for every time I hear "Can you repeat that?" because I talked too fast, I could afford my first home! (LOL)

  2. I'm a fifth grade teacher, and read aloud is my favorite part of the day. And I'm lucky enough to get to do it twice a day, once for each of my reading classes.

    I love getting that immediate reaction and greatly look forward to certain parts of the books that I KNOW will make them laugh, or gasp, or tear up a little.

    1. Dianne, I had the same marvelous teacher for 4th & 6th grade, and I still remember many of the books she read aloud to us, especially an adventure series by Willard Price. You are creating memories!

  3. I love to read, but have had some wonderful discussions about books that have been read aloud together. They make for some great memories!

  4. Oh yes, the discussion! I feel like I would miss so much if my daughter was reading all these books independently.

  5. Reading aloud to kids is essential. I don't have kids but maybe I should volunteer somewhere and read to some. Beautiful post.

  6. Thank you! I know in my area schools and libraries have opportunities for volunteer reading!

  7. I just started reading MG aloud to my kids, both because of books whose covers caught their interest. My almost 6-year-old wanted me to read HALF UPON A TIME, and my 3 1/2-year-old wanted me to read FAIREST OF ALL. I've been surprised at how well they sit for these books. It's fun!

  8. I've always loved to read books out loud, and I've never known my kids to turn down a story offer. Now that they are into chapter books I'm enjoying it much more than the endless Berenstein Bears days. ;)

    1. But so fun to be Papa Bear!

    2. :-) I was so glad to bid adieu to the Berenstain Bears...and then my little one got big enough for them.

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    4. Joy, I can understand reading aloud the same kind of book day in and out can wear on even the most patient souls glad their kid's (Biologically or student) reading SOMETHING or in this case, hearing a story read to them.

      That said, had the Geronimo Stilton series existed when I was a kid, I'd have driven my grandmother (my stand-in parent) who tried to get me into pleasure reading, absolutely nuts!

      I own nearly all the ones in the main series (Haven't explored the spinoff series yet) but I do read other things, of course, but they are my "Nancy Drew" comfort. What can I say?

  9. My wife and I used to laugh, when our oldest started school and the teachers encouraged us to read "at least twenty minutes a day." We were reading many times that!

    However, none of our boys are great independent readers. Perhaps all that reading aloud made them want to hear only my voice. (I love reading Harry Potter: all those English accents!)

    Thanks for a super post, Joy!

  10. Ha, Michael! Yes, I was recently editing a parenting book, and it went into great length about reading "at least 20 minutes a day." CRACKED ME UP.

    And yes, who could blame anyone for wanting to be read aloud to when there's an Englishman in their house!


    1. Michael and Joy,

      I understand your stance and why, but you need to remember that not all kids had parents who read to them and/or encouraged reading as entertainment, so they need this reminder, especially if they're parents of kids who have a harder time with mechanics of reading than they did.

      As I always say, it's not always developmental reasons why kids don't like reading, but sometimes it is. But like many social activists say these days, "You can't be what you can't see."

      There are exceptions to this, of course, but if you didn't grow up with something you could've used as a child, you have to work harder at giving it yourself, and your children should you have any.

      (Be they yours or students you serve/kids or teens you mentor)

      Or parents, who HAVE to work more than they'd like to do make ends neat, and while it's sad when joy of non-survival interests are put aside, that's how it is for some families.

      Plus, like Dianne said in the post above, if the parents didn't have a great school experience themselves (for whatever reason) that adds fuel to the proverbial fire. Whether the kids involved have learning challenges or not.

      When people in the education/parenting sector say to make time for reading for minutes a day, those are the people their speaking to, I don't think it's (at least INTENTIONALLY) meant to mock or condescend parents who already establish a positive reading culture in and out of the home, even those who go above and beyond like you do.

      If that's the stance this parenting book you're working on takes, I'm truly sorry, Joy, but know as a non-parent I don't think that way at all.

      Especially since I had to take the extra initiative to find joy in reading myself.

      This was LONG BEFORE I became a writer.

      To be Continued...

    2. My Grandma tried to spark it sooner, but she didn't read to me because she needed to work (both for our survival and her personal need to busy in a non-parental context), and I found more solace with TV and film (that's part of why I squirm when I hear writers say they don't watch TV, like there's NOTHING good about it, period), there are sub-standard books, why can't there be great television?

      We certainly accept that movies are nuanced like that. Why is television seen as so much more trashy on the whole?

      To your credit, Joy, I feel the same way as you (re: reading as extra effort when it's effortless for you) when I read books where it's UNJUSTLY assumed that boys and men can't be gentle and sensitive without being wimpy, but changing culture/social norms (harmless or harmful) takes time, possibly more time than getting published, Is that not a fair point, too?

  11. This is great!

    I had the same WTF moment when I transitioned from screenplays to MG stories. I'm glad I'm not alone in that. :)

    And reading aloud is awesome. My students love it. Not just MG fiction but picture books, articles, comics, anything they can become an audience with they love.

    Awesome post!

  12. We read to each other all the time in our house! This is a great post, Joy. I wrote theatre and screenplays,too, and dialogue, still, is something I hear in my head when I write. I think our modern love of audiobooks brings us back to the pure pleasure of having someone tell us stories and read us books. THANKS!

  13. I was so sad when my girls grew older and wanted to read on their own. I think I'd still be reading aloud to them if they wanted to (but trust me, when you're in high school that's too much time with your parents). So glad I at least have my kindergarten students to read picture books with!

  14. Great post! As a middle school theatre teacher, I really related to this, especially to your point about missing the immediate audience reaction when you write. And, as a terrible student, school was awful for me. Just awful--the times when the teacher would read aloud were about the only good times during the day :)


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!