February 24 was World Read Aloud Day. As part of my second grader’s class activities, parents and other guests were invited to read to the students. Even though I had only 15 minutes, I arrived with arms full of my favorite picture books to share with these excited little ones. What a glorious start to my day!
I had a diverse selection of books, but it soon became clear which ones got the kids’ attention. This caused me to ponder: What makes a great read-aloud book?
Josh Funk, author of LADY PANCAKE AND SIR FRENCH TOAST, and PIRASAURS! once said that a picture book is actually a performance piece. If you think about it, most picture books are read aloud by adults to children. And following this logic, picture books should thus have clear stage directions. As writers, how do we cue our readers?
Knock five times, hand over a bag of squirmy worms, and you can crawl inside…
All those commas, those stacked phrases, the ellipse, and the use of the power of three (times two) masterfully build so much tension on the very first page, that by the page turn, your kid will be in your lap. And you will be reading in your very best horror-movie trailer voice.
Other times the stage directions come in the form of negative space. Negative space in language is created by pauses and silence. In RAGWEED’S FARM DOG HANDBOOK (Anne Vittur Kennedy), the humor of the delivery lies in the variation of long and short sentences. The short sentences (“Pigs lie in the mud all day and get bigger and BIGGER. That’s their job. That’s not your job. Don’t lie in the mud. Mud is lovely.”) allow for a deadpan delivery. As we know, comedy is all about timing and Kennedy brilliantly helps her readers deliver that timing with her sentence structure.
Whether it is voice, cadence and rhythm, typography, rhyme, negative space, or punctuation, these tools help readers read our books the way we intended. This is why it is so important to read our works in progress aloud. And to read books in print aloud. And to read aloud to children, bringing printed language to life.
I will be more aware of these tools as I work on my own manuscripts and hopefully, one day, they will become great read-alouds. In the meantime, is there a job where I can just read aloud to kids?