Making Books Come Alive! Have You Heard a Good Book Lately?

Guest Post by Jim McKenna, “The Story Reader”

Jim McKenna is a retired speech therapist who has devoted his life to helping children improve their language skills. His goal is to make children want to read for themselves, and he does it by combining many years of teaching experience with a lifetime of work in community theater. Now he’s devoting his time to helping teachers and parents do the same.

I wish I had your job! I hear that line, usually from teachers, whenever I give school presentations. My response is always, “Take my job please!” I just want all teachers to have the same fulfillment I have every day. I have been enjoying this job for over 40 years, and I know there are not enough story readers. We all should be story readers, to help make books come alive for children.

My goal as a speech therapist was to help kids with their speech and language. I thought the way to do this was to let them hear speech and language daily, so I started to read to them. I soon realized I did not have any good books, so I went to my school librarian and explained what I wanted to do. She introduced me to some new children’s picture books. Eventually she told me about some great chapter books that had just arrived. I took a lot of them home and started reading. I fell in love immediately with children’s books.

Everyone can make books come alive. When you pick up a good book and read it silently, and suddenly realize that the writing is special, you then concentrate on the mood or emotion the author is trying to convey. You then discover that the way you read changes. You realize the author is talking through you. That is when the book starts to come alive. You are telling the story. You are the voice in the book. We all can make books come alive. It just takes practice.

So take my job. Teachers, find some great books that you love, and practice, by reading it aloud to your class. Pile your favorites into a big bag and ask your librarian if you could read to a class. I think every teacher should be a daily story reader. Think of one of your favorite teachers who read to you and how inspired you were with the story and the way the teacher read it—how they made it come alive for you.

There is a right way and a wrong way to read to a child.

Take your time when reading to children. Read with expression. Try to capture the emotions of the story. The author uses certain words, and we should honor the fact that a great deal of thought went into the creation of the story.  The reader must be the voice of the author as well as the characters in the story. I always try to envision how the author wants it read. Make sure that your diction and articulation are precise and clear. Pauses are particularly important when used to set up a great moment or surprise. If we read slowly, pauses come quite naturally in conversations.

When I started to read to kids in my speech classes, I thought of my mother and how proud she would have been. I even wrote a poem, “When my mother reads to me,” and used it when talking to parent-teacher groups. When I started to read the books that I loved, I found myself reading better, and the children were responding with laughter and applause. The librarian told me that there was always a demand for the books that I was reading! I was not only helping them with speech and language; I was inspiring them to want to read.

As parents and educators, our goal should be to inspire kids to want to read. Unfortunately, many children have just not found the right book for them. When they do find that special book, it becomes the book they cannot put down. On one occasion after I had begun reading to children in schools, I read a chapter or two of “Saving Winslow” by Sharon Creech to a third-grade class, and at the end of the day the teacher came into the media center where I was presenting. She said there was a boy in her class who never finished any book that he brought home from the library. She said that after my presentation the boy had “Saving Winslow” on his desk, and the bookmark was in the middle of the book! He had discovered a book that he could not put down. That is a life-changing moment in a young person’s life! That also shows the power of reading aloud.

My reading changed after hearing different authors talk about the art of writing, and the time and passionate approach that all these authors put into their writings impressed me. I saw them and heard them and respected them differently. I realized these artists cared about children and the art of reading. The way a certain word sounded on a page was not only important, but crucial to the story. I honestly think the children’s authors of today are writing better books and challenging all of us to become better.

When choosing a book to read to a group of kids, make sure that you like the book. I tell kids I like books that make me feel something. I think readers should read the book they are planning to use a number of times before actually reading it aloud to a group. They must know the story almost as if they had memorized it. They should know where the story is going. They know they must save the best part for last and build the story toward that point. That is where pacing is important.

“When (children) do find that special book, it becomes the book they cannot put down…That is a life-changing moment in a young person’s life!”

When you find your book, read it slowly and thoroughly. Now read it again with the thoughts of how to read this aloud. Who is talking? What does the voice sound like?  What does the author want this voice to sound like? Are there other voices? And what can I do to make them real? What emotions are there in this chapter, and what can I do as a reader to make it more real? The more times you reread, the more you learn about the book and that will help you do a better job of reading it aloud. Feel comfortable that you have read enough to know how you’re going to read it.

Find a comfortable stool that is high enough, so your audience can see the illustrations. If it’s a picture book, hold the book in one hand and even switch hands when the picture is on the opposite side of the book.  If you are reading a selection from a chapter book, the children should be able to see your facial expressions or body language as you “act out” the scene. Read slowly and keep in mind this will be their first time hearing these words. Slow down!! Wait for laughs; wait for dramatic moments. Enjoy the book the way you did when you first read it.  Now watch their faces as they become mesmerized by the words and phrases that tell the story. Enjoy that. It will help you read slower. Hold the book as if you are holding a treasure that you cannot give up. That is exactly what it is. They will notice this. That is what a really good book does to a reader, and that is what it also does for the listener.

Have you heard a good book lately?

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