Reading aloud

Mark,

We were talking at Thanksgiving (IRL) about reading aloud and about how children can listen to a book that has much more complicated language than they can read. As I recall, the examples that came up were Roald Dahl books. Your brother Stephen is reading Matilda to his 6 1/2-year-old daughter Kayla, and you have read it to Elsa (4). Kayla is capable of reading it herself. But you brought up The B.F.G., and said you thought that while Kayla would also enjoy listening to that, she might find it tough going to read it herself, because of the made-up words, and the way the B.F.G. talks.

I started thinking about how both reading books aloud and listening to books (in my case, audio books, since hardly anyone ever reads to me any more) can change the reading experience.

One example that popped immediately to mind was the Robert Heinlein juveniles. I had read and enjoyed several of them, in particular The Tunnel in the Sky and The Door Into Summer. Great, fun adventure science fiction stories, and two of Heinlein’s best. (The great thing about his juveniles–or, as we’d no doubt call them today, his YA novels–is that he left out most (not all) of the political/sexual philosophizing and just got on with the story.)

Anyway, at some point, when I was reading every day to you and your brothers, I picked up one of these–Tunnel in the Sky, I think–to read to you. And, oh my goodness–I couldn’t believe how badly it was written. It was really excruciating to read aloud. The painfully bad dialogue. The short declarative sentences. Even some of the absurd plot points I hadn’t noticed before. It really changed my whole perspective on Heinlein and  on these previously beloved books.

Interestingly enough, I’m not sure it would have hit me as hard if I had been listening to the books, rather than reading them. I suspect that in listening, one gets as caught up in the story as one does in reading, and that makes it easier to overlook the infelicitous phrases.

I know from personal experience that a good audiobook reader can elevate a book beyond the author’s actual words. I do love to listen to audiobooks that are read by people who can get the accents and idioms right–Australian actors reading books by Australian authors, and so on. But reading a book out loud (and often also listening to one) can bring out things I might not have noticed in reading a book. One I have frequently noticed is word or phrase repetitions. I’ll hear something and think, “Didn’t he already say that?” or “He sure likes to use the word x.”

I think we’re more inclined to notice things like alliteration and assonance when we’re reading aloud, too–the eye tends to glide over those things.

I’ll tell a story about my Printz committee experience, without giving away any details. There was a book that many committee members were quite excited about. It did something that was a bit new and different, and I think a lot of us were hoping to be able to honor it in some way. Then one of our committee members said, “Really? Are you all sure? Listen.” And she proceeded to read aloud a few paragraphs. By the time she finished, we were all looking around the room at each other in silence. The writing was very pedestrian, but somehow most of us had missed that in our enthusiasm for the subject matter. Reading it aloud brought the writing to the fore. Now, undoubtedly, re-reading the book would have brought out some of those same faults–as I recall, the book had been nominated shortly before our first meeting at Annual–so I suppose reading aloud that passage saved us all a lot of time!

Anyway, since you are now in the major reading-aloud stage of your life, I imagine you have more thoughts on this subject, so please share!

– Mom

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1 Comment

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One response to “Reading aloud

  1. Jen J.

    I listened to Michael Scott’s The Alchemyst on audio (a book recommended by some of my colleagues and liked well enough by others) and absolutely found things in the writing annoying that I think I would have skimmed over if reading. He uses the two main characters full names throughout the book and refers to a certain ritual as dangerous and perhaps deadly about 20 times. Over the past couple of years, I’ve become an audiobook junkie so I’m definitely noticing these sorts of things more and more.

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