How to Read Aloud to Children
Originally posted at New York Times
Don’t infantilize. “Talk to a child as you would a friend,” says Jim Dale, 81, an actor and Grammy Award-winning audiobook narrator of more than two dozen children’s books, including “Peter Pan,” “Around the World in 80 Days” and the Harry Potter series. If a passage contains a tricky or antiquated word, encourage your listener to figure out its meaning. Allow for questions and tangents. “A story that should only last five minutes can take an hour, which is wonderful,” Dale says. Researchers call these story-time interruptions “nonimmediate talk,” and studies have found it benefits children’s language development. Think of the interaction between reader and listener as a collaboration more than a one-way transaction.
Whenever you see dialogue, do voices. “How often does a child get the chance to hear their mom or dad using silly voices or strange voices?” says Dale, who created 146 distinct characters while recording the “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” audiobook. (“Sometimes I’d come home at night, and I wouldn’t even know who Jim Dale sounds like.”) Note any physical descriptions that indicate a character’s manner of speaking. In picture books, this information can be gleaned from illustrations. Neuroimaging research suggests that dialogue in a story activates a part of the brain known as the right temporo-parietal junction, a key region for what’s called theory of mind, or the ability to attribute mental and emotional states to others.
Still, don’t overdo it. “The most precious thing a narrator has is his voice,” Dale says. Be gentle with yours. Don’t yell or squawk. Take care of it as you would an instrument. If you’re feeling hoarse, swallow a spoonful of raw honey. When Dale’s mouth gets too moist while recording a story, he takes a bite of green apple, chews it and then spits it out. “Every word should be clear and distinct,” he says.
Choose worthy books. Before accepting an audiobook job, Dale weighs whether a book merits the considerable effort, just as he did when selecting books to read his children, and now his grandchildren. He prefers classics like “A Christmas Carol.” Pick age-appropriate stories complex enough to withstand repeated recitations. (Obviously, an infant won’t understand Dickensian London.) “The second, third, fourth time you read it, even more lovely things should come to the fore,” Dale says.