Friday, December 7, 2012

How to Read a Story from the Story Lady

"You don't know the meaning of the word 'defeat' until you look into the eyes of a six year old and realize you are not making it as a toad,"-said the judge (portrayed by Charles Durning) to The Storylady (portrayed by Jessica Tandy).

In this 1991 CBS Christmas movie, one of our favorites which I taped long ago, an elderly lady named Grace moves in with her daughter (her real life daughter plays the part) and son-in-law. Bored, she looks for something to do and discoveres vanity tv, as her son-in-law calls it. He says the odd programs on there are because anyone can have their own show, as long as they spend a bit of money, like $20 to have their own show. Secretly she goes to the cable tv studio where she and her beautifully illustrated classic children's books that she used to read to her daughter, become an instant hit. Her young producer/camerman soon becomes enchanted and borrows the book to cut the pictures into the tape for free, to enhance the show. When the show airs, bored tv viewers from children to adults, find her show while channel surfing and are immediately drawn in. When her show is discovered by a marketing company, they have her sign a contract to produce her show for syndication. Unfortunately their interpretation of her show causes her to lose her charm because of the pressure. The big company even wants her imperfect teeth to be replaced by dentures. Since her contract is impossible to break, unless she breaks the morals clause, she purposely shoplifts in a fine department store on Christmas Eve...she must face the judge.

The judge, after hearing her story, fusses that she has caused him much trouble with his granddaughter. The Storylady's original cable show was cut in the middle of the reading of The Wind in the Willows, when she is contacted by the marketing company. The judge complains that he couldn't please his granddaughter when he tried to finish the book for her because he lacked a voice, the voice of the toad. Grace thinks for a moment and exclaims that she never used a voice but was just trying to be toady...all pompous and arrogant. She quotes some lines from the book in a puffed up proud and arrogant toady voice which the judge at first poorly imitates. After a few minutes of great coaching they are both pompously quoting from toad in grand arrogance.

Like Grace, when I read a book aloud, I try to become the character. Yet my first inspiration in reading a story was Richard Thomas, when he has portrayed different parts like John Boy on The Waltons and Richard Evans in The Christmas Box. Who can improve upon the rhythmic quality of his voice? I can't, but I do try to attain.

Not all books make great read alouds. Some are quite duds unless read silently. There are books that lend themselves to the lyric quality of the human voice and action in coming to life. If a book is coming out stilted as a read aloud, it's probably meant to be a thinking book, to be read silently. For tips on which books make great read alouds, I highly recommend Jim Trealease's Read Aloud Handbook. In the first half of the book he makes a case for parents to turn off the television (which dulls the brain) and turn on the books. The second half of the book is a list of great read alouds with a synopsis of each one. As mentioned, these are updated periodically.

There are times to read a book silently, to slowly savour its meaning and let the words seep into your soul. There are other times that are meant to be shared with reading aloud, expressing the sounds and emotions, that pull a group of people together. Sometimes it's a read aloud that draws the listener in to daringly attempt a book on his own. This is how I encouraged many children to read books on their own.

Anyone can read a book aloud. The finesse is in bringing a book to life do that it inspires many students who have been beguiled into the tale beyond their resistance, so that when reading time for the day must come to an end, Grace encouragingly asks, "What do we say?" And all her listeners reply, "To be continued!"

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