“Reading to your kids is important however you do it—at bedtime or during the day, with picture books or novels, on your own or with zany sound effects. Hey, science says so. But if you’re feeling like your readings are becoming a little lackluster, or you just want to up your game, here’s some advice from those who make a living out of reading aloud: audiobook narrators.
Choose the right book
Even if you love a certain book, it might not be the best pick for reading aloud. Mary Robinette Kowal, the voice behind audiobooks including Seveneves and Digging In, suggests looking for stories with a small cast of characters (if there are too many, it becomes difficult to vocally distinguish between them, unless you’re Mel Blanc), self-contained scenes (narratives that jump around in time might get confusing) and “language that lends itself to an almost onomatopoeic sense.” She gives the example of Rudyard Kipling’s Just So stories, which were written specifically to be read aloud. “He uses rhythm and onomatopoeia to make really dynamic sentences that are just plain fun to read,” Kowal explains. There are tons of great read-aloud book lists out there for every age group—I usually love any selection by Sarah Mackenzie, founder of Read-Aloud Revival.
Do a pre-reading
To make sure your reading flows, do a quick read-through before it’s game time. Suzy Jackson, who has narrated more than a hundred titles including the Dory Fantasmagory series, tells Vox that while she’s preparing to read a book, she’ll underline character names and draw an arrow next to it so that she always knows who’s talking before she launches into a specific voice. “It’s this weird mental trick of staying really present but also kind of always reading a little bit ahead.”
In general, many audiobook narrators recommend reading slowly—even slower than seems natural to you. “As you become more familiar with the text, you will naturally speed up.” Kowal explains. “You should be painfully slow, in your own ears. A period means pause and count to 2. A comma means pause and count to 1.” But when it comes to dialogue, you can play with vocal speed. Lyssa Browne, an audiobook narrator who voiced the Audacity Jones series, explained on the Read-Aloud Revival podcast that if you don’t want to make up a new voice for every character, changing your tempo can have a similar effect. “Some characters can have a really fast voice and then if you give it a slower pace, it seems like somebody else entirely, even though you don’t change your voice,” she says.
But really, do the voices
“How often does a child get the chance to hear their mom or dad using silly voices or strange voices?” Jim Dale, a famed audiobook narrator, told the New York Times. Dale invented 146 distinct characters while recording Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. This is a time to let go of your inhibitions and be evil Aunt Spiker and Sponge in James and the Giant Peachor the pestering little Ramona Quimby.
Allow for diversions
While you’re the reader, remember that this is for your kids. Make it an interactive experience. Let them ask questions, request that you do that one silly voice again, or announce that they too have superpowers like the book’s protagonist. “A story that should only last five minutes can take an hour, which is wonderful,” Dale tells the Times.
Finally, relax. Unlike the pros, you don’t need read a book perfectly. Your kids will still love it, and if they don’t, the great thing is you can try again tomorrow.”