who_asked_youWe asked Terry McMillan, what’s your favorite…

Book you’ve written: Mama

Book written by someone else: One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez

Reading place: Airplanes

Quote: “Man will become better only once you make him see what he is like.” (Anton Chekov)

Vacation spot: Paris

Fast food restaurant: In & Out Burger ;-(  (Shameful)

Ice cream flavor: Vanilla

Pizza topping: Tomatoes

Snack: Potato chips (Shameful)

Workout: The kind where I don’t move but get results as if I did.

TV show: Judge Judy!

Movie: Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight

Male performer: Bruno Mars

Female performer: Adele

Clothing brand: None (Am not a label whore)

Sneaker brand: Vans! (Slip-ons)

Gadget: None! I hate them all!

Color: Orange (Summer); Purple (Winter); Yellow (Spring); Red (Fall)

Number: 11

Time of day: 5 a.m.


all_good_thingsThere are places in the world that need no introduction – the mere sound of their names automatically triggers postcard images. Paris happens to be one; Tahiti is another. Both destinations make people dream, one for its man-made beauty, the glorious monuments and handsome buildings, the other for its natural splendour and lush landscape. Everyone from Bougainville to Brando has raved about Tahiti, calling it the new Utopia, Garden of Eden, Isle of Love, among other superlatives. So the reaction when we announced our move to the celebrated Pacific island was perhaps unsurprising. ‘From Paris to Paradise’ exclaimed one friend enviously.

The setting for our new life truly was idyllic. We chose to live not on Tahiti but on neighbouring Mo’orea, only thirty minutes by fast ferry from Pape’ete and less developed and congested than the main island. From our front door we could gaze at the spectacular spires of mountains, surging up from the interior. Round the back, just metres from the porch where we mostly lived, the turquoise lagoon spread out from the shoreline like a silk petticoat. I could go on and on about this wondrous womb of water, where I began each day with an early swim. City girl that I was, the submarine world was foreign and thrilling to me: the wiggling webs of refracted light; the euphoric greens and blues of the lagoon; the spotted eagle rays that glided by, shy and graceful.

Yet All Good Things is not, I’m afraid, a tale of paradise found. If in places it might seem to fan the myth of Tahiti, other parts of the book might be said to debunk it – though in fact I didn’t set out to do either. As in Almost French, my memoir about life in Paris, my aim was to look beyond the fantasy. Real life is never postcard-perfect. I wanted to celebrate all that I loved about our new home while also being honest about the particular challenges I faced there – challenges that stemmed as much from the private dreams and hopes I’d brought with me as the reality of living on a small, remote island.

There’s an element of escape in every big move and ours to Tahiti – the ultimate escapists’ destination, after all – was no different. The opportunity arrived out of the blue in the form of a job offer for my husband, Frédéric. At a different point of our lives we might not even have considered it. But an unwelcome poignancy had cast a shadow over our carefree Paris existence. Years of infertility treatment had produced nothing but a string of failures and we were beginning to despair of ever having a child. Tahiti offered us a fresh start – a new professional challenge for Frédéric, a chance for me to write the novel I’d been researching in an environment with few distractions. And perhaps, we dared hope but not say aloud, a beautiful, unpolluted, fertile island would be an ideal place to fall pregnant naturally.

It’s as old as the hills, this idea of islands as earthly paradise, and it helps explain why Tahiti was hailed as a dream come true the moment the first Europeans set eyes on it. Yet once we were settled on Mo’orea another enduring perception of islands sprang to mind. From my writing desk I’d stare at the sparkling lagoon and the inky ocean beyond the reef, uplifted by the sight even as I felt trapped by it. From that tiny coin of land amid Earth’s grandest ocean, the rest of the world seemed like another planet. ‘Every island is a potential Alcatraz’, writes Thurston Clarke in Searching for Paradise.

This paradise-prison dichotomy heightened my daily experience on Mo’orea, adding drama and meaning to aspects of ordinary life. The full moons that rolled runners of gold light across the lagoon were the hugest, most marvellous moons I’d ever seen; the kind generosity of our Polynesian neighbours seemed boundless. I’d never known time to be as elastic as during those long hours between my early morning swim and Frédéric’s return from work. My own sense of inner emptiness expanded too.

When people comment how lucky I am to have lived in exotic places, I can only agree, though not for the reasons they might imagine. I didn’t find paradise on the island, I didn’t find serenity among the coconut palms. Yet perhaps the exuberant glare of the lagoon did throw light on some essential truths. Tu te retrouves face à toi-même sur un île, people warned me when we first arrived. You come face to face with yourself on an island. It’s true, you do. I’m grateful now for the way things came to a head. Unexpectedly, indirectly, the island helped my dream come true.


Lisa Gardner Conway Shelter CampaignNew York Times bestselling author Lisa Gardner recently hit 30,000 fans on Facebook (and she’s still going, visit her page). To celebrate she donated $10,000 to the Conway Area Humane Society. She shared with us her thoughts on the special bond between writers and animals:

I think authors even more so than most value the human-animal bond.  It’s hard to picture a writer out there who doesn’t have a dog at her feet or a cat on her lap.  Certainly, all my novels have been penned with a great deal of furry support and tail-wagging encouragement.  The love and companionship of my pets is the one thing that keeps the writing process from being totally isolating.  Let’s face it, caring for animals makes us and them happy, and the world a better place.  And there is something magical about going to a shelter and meeting an animal you realize instantly is the One.  Your perfect friend.  Your four-legged soul mate.  The new member of your family.  Shelters make all sorts of happily ever afters come true.

Lisa Gardner’s next book is out in January 2014. Learn more about Fear Nothing.


gallery_of_vanished_husbandsI’ve now written three novels (that’s three if you don’t count the awful one lurking in a box beneath the bed—we don’t have monsters living in our house, we have failed novels). I suppose that means I should have some confidence as I know, if nothing else, how to write and finish a book. I should know what the process is like. But I’ve found writing each book to be a very different experience.

The Gallery of Vanished Husbands has been the most emotional book to write. Shortly after I started writing, I discovered that I was pregnant, and then, as often happens, I miscarried. For the first time in my life I was too sad to write. I’ve read Keats and I know that melancholy is supposed to be literary rocket fuel, but it didn’t work like that for me. Or perhaps it only works with melancholy—that beautiful sadness—but simple, dragging unhappiness and grief left me empty and quiet inside and for a while, unable to write.

After a couple of months, I picked up the novel, re-read it like a stranger and started to slowly write myself out of unhappiness and back into the book. Then, a few months in, I found I was pregnant again. This time everything was fine and my excitement and anxiety about impending motherhood worked its way into my novel. The children in the story had voices that very much wanted to be heard. I had to get out of the way and let them speak.

The novel grew in time with my belly. I’d intended it to be on the short side (I always do, it’s not happened yet) but by the summer, it was quite clear that it would be touch-and-go as to whether manuscript or baby was delivered first. In the end, I finished the novel first, but only by a matter of days and only because our son, Luke, had the generosity to be late.

After the baby came the edit. Much like children, novels don’t arrive fully formed and ready to go off into the world, but take a good deal of nurturing. I worked while Luke slept—sometimes in a Moses basket at my feet, sometimes on my shoulder as I typed with one hand. Those days are merged with my memories of new motherhood, when time feels like it’s on fast-forward and each moment is so precious and fleeting, I found myself growing nostalgic for the present. It was an odd experience to re-read passages about my protagonist, Juliet Montague’s views and experiences of motherhood, which I’d written before becoming a mother myself. Sometimes I was tempted to change details but in the end I realized that her experiences were simply different from mine. I might have created her, but we didn’t need to agree on all things.

I’m now starting to write something new. For the first time in a few years, I don’t have all day to procrastinate and think about writing. There’s no time for rituals—when I have a moment to myself, I’m at my desk. I’m not sure how the process of writing will turn out. All I know is that much like a child it will be unique and quite different from the others.


new_york_storiesThe 1939 short story “Bread Alone” by John O’Hara, one of his most insightful and most moving, is a great favorite of mine, not least because it is largely set at a major league baseball game, specifically in Yankee Stadium.  If I have spent months of my life reading O’Hara’s work, and writing about it (and I have), then I estimate my time mulling over baseball statistics to be measurable in years—how many, I do not care to estimate. But it’s a lot of years.
In reconsidering the story recently, I realized that I had the tools, thanks to baseballreference.com, a website responsible for enabling baseball freaks like me to fritter away their lives, to answer a question about this story, and indirectly about the writing habits of John O’Hara: I could tell whether the baseball game O’Hara describes actually took place or if it is a purely fictional creation of his.
O’Hara enjoyed baseball, though he only rarely wrote about it, and his writing career was built on the no-nonsense training he absorbed as a young reporter, so it seemed entirely possible that O’Hara based the story on an actual game, possibly one that he had seen himself at Yankee Stadium. All I had to do to verify this would be to review every single game the Yankees ever played, and see if one conformed to O’Hara’s description of the game in his story.
Or that’s what I would have had to do without the baseballreference.com website, anyway, which is why I never thought of researching this question. (I may be baseball-crazy, and O’Hara-crazy, but I’m not crazy-crazy.)  In the game O’Hara describes, Joe DiMaggio hits a late-inning home run into the grandstand near his protagonist’s seat, and the story’s climax concerns the search for the souvenir baseball. Furthermore, O’Hara gives other specific details about the game: the Yankees won it easily, they scored five runs in the fifth inning, DiMaggio’s home run came in the eighth inning, and the unnamed opposing team went down quickly in the top of the ninth inning. Since the game took place at Yankee Stadium, I can naturally disregard all their away games, and O’Hara specifies that this game took place late in the season. Perhaps the biggest help is the publication date:  it appeared in the September 23, 1939 issue of The New Yorker.  For O’Hara to have described an actual historical game, it must have taken place no later than Labor Day of that year, give or take a week.  Joe DiMaggio first played in Yankee Stadium in 1936, leaving me a little fewer than four seasons of home games to peruse in search of “Bread Alone”’s setting.
This is where the website came in very handy: it has catalogued every home run DiMaggio (and thousands of other players) ever hit, and it provides details about the opposing team and pitcher, the score at the time, the box score of the game, and about thirty other bits of data.  So I searched for all the home runs DiMaggio hit at Yankee Stadium in the bottom of the eighth inning in games the Yankees won after scoring five runs in the bottom of the fifth from 1936 through 1939.
My conclusion? John O’Hara wrote fiction.
But there were a few games that came very close to satisfying O’Hara’s fictional conditions. The closest (I will spare you my spreadsheet ranking the ten closest games) took place on August 3rd, 1939 against the Detroit Tigers. Exactly as O’Hara described, the Yankees won the game comfortably by a score of 12 to 3, they scored the bulk of their runs in the bottom of the fifth inning, and most significantly Joe DiMaggio hit a home run in the bottom of the eighth inning. (It differed from O’Hara’s description in that the Yankees scored 6 runs, not 5, in the bottom of the fifth, and that the Tigers had their strongest inning, not their weakest, in the top of the ninth.) And, not that this is textual, but I always imagined that the game in the story took place on a Sunday, since the point of it is that the protagonist is a working man who cannot just choose to take a day off work to go to a ballgame.  August 3rd, 1939, however, was a Thursday.
So O’Hara, not too surprisingly, created a plausible scenario that we have every reason to believe could be historical but which turns out to be lovingly embellished. This conforms closely to his stated method of spinning stories, in which he would actually witness some event, typically a conversation between two people unknown to him, and then imagine the backstory and the result of the snippet of overheard conversation.  I’m sure O’Hara’s imagination made for a livelier narrative than the true backstory and the actual result, as it did here—it’s hard for me to read “Bread Alone” without misting up a bit.
The boxscore to the game I reference above can be found here.


in_falling_snowHandwriting is a skill we no longer need in a texting, emailing, wordprocessed world, so it’s hard to argue why we keep teaching it to children. And yet we do teach it to them, sort of. What’s worse, I find myself hoping we won’t stop any time soon, we might even rediscover handwriting, we might see a “slow page” movement like slow food, leading us to enjoy the moment of writing itself.

The teaching of cursive writing, the writing we each develop into a unique handwriting style, is already being phased out in elementary schools in the US, replaced by keyboarding proficiency. In Australia too, increasingly handwriting is being dropped from curricula under pressure from other learning areas. And even when it is taught, in Australia at least handwriting is now more likely to be printed letters joined together. It’s not handwriting at all as most of us know it.

We called it running writing when I was at school. You learned it after printing, like a new language. We practised it a lot as I recall. I was never any good at it but I love it still, the capital D that looks like it was made for words like “Delight” and “Delicate”, the beautiful S with its supreme loopiness and potential for curlicues, those hills of small ns and ms that could just keep going. Oh God, I am starting to sound nostalgic. Quick, put on Radiohead and get out the iPad.

I confess I have a conflict of interest when it comes to handwriting; I write novels by hand. Not in a beautiful script, mind. I look at anything written by my grandfather, who was taught in an English public school, or my son, who’s taught himself various styles of writing, and it’s art. My writing is not art; it remains cramped, small, illegible even to me at times. I could have been a doctor with writing like mine. And I didn’t always write by hand. I typed my first novel on an Apple Classic II. Quite the techo, I didn’t even print it until I had a finished manuscript. But I soon found a computer file too linear for the way I work.

Since that first novel, I have written three more, all by hand, initially on cards of different colours, which had the advantage that you could shuffle them when totally lost as to what to do, now in a particular kind of notebook that I love for its narrow lines and plain cardboard covers. I write with a fountain pen. My favourite is a Waterman in a burgundy lacquer covered in little gold squares, given to me when my first novel was published. It only has one drawback – it no longer writes. I had an efficient little Montblanc that came with a leather notebook case, but I left it on a plane and like everything left on planes, it immediately vapourised. My day-to-day pen now is a lovely big Visconti made with cellulose using a refound technique – given me when I was researching In Falling Snow. In my hand, it feels like a pen that will never let me down. I am also coveting a vintage Waterman, to replace the one that doesn’t work, although you really only need one pen to write and the more I focus on which pens I might buy, the less I focus on getting a novel written.

I can’t say why I handwrite, in an age where handwriting has all but disappeared from our lives. I can type faster than most people can talk, I was using email before anyone had heard of it except my computer room colleagues (one of my first jobs was as a computer operator), and I mess about on the internet in favour of just about any real job. But I can say that for my novels, handwriting feels about the right pace. Even Scrivener, which I love later in a project, is too structured early on. I write little sketches and scenes and eventually they coalesce into a novel.

Many things we don’t need in life fade from view. If handwriting is dying as an art, perhaps I shouldn’t mourn its passing. I imagine the rationale is that it’s hard enough to teach children one set of letters, let alone two. And since few of us end up with a hand that even vaguely approximates that beautiful script we were taught, why try to teach it at all? Joined up printing will do.

But before we altogether consign handwriting to the land of outdated technologies, we should take a moment to consider this small fact of history. The very first Macintosh computer, not the one I typed my novel on but the one that preceded it, was a winner, its creator Steve Jobs said later, because of its beautiful typography, which was unlike any other computer before it. Jobs had sat in on a calligraphy course on the way to dropping out of college and had seen the art of handwriting, the art in the science, he called it, which had inspired him.

So every time I type an email, thumb a text, or flick a page, I try to remember the technology I’m using, the technology with which we are fast ridding the world of writing by hand altogether, is only available because the person who dreamed it up was in love with handwriting.

 

Visit Mary-Rose MacColl’s website.

 


mortal_artsSometimes the plot of a story develops out of a character’s development. Sometimes it comes from a picture or an article or a real world event. Sometimes it arises from the setting itself. And sometimes it grows from one single, vivid scene that the author simply can’t get out of their head.

When I began working on the plot for the second novel in my Lady Darby Mystery Series, Mortal Arts, I already had several elements in place. I knew I would be continuing Kiera, Lady Darby’s journey, as well as that of the other characters, and I knew where I wanted their development to take them in the second book. I knew I wanted Kiera to travel to Edinburgh, and I knew I wanted her to team up again with gentleman inquiry agent—and romantic entanglement—Sebastian Gage. I had also decided I wanted art to play a major role in the second novel, as Kiera is a gifted portrait artist. But beyond that, I was stumped for ideas as to what I wanted the actual mystery to be.

I researched the history of the area at that time for interesting events, but nothing leaped out at me. It also seemed important not to rehash the same elements of the first novel in the series, so that restricted by natural temptation to delve into the aftermath of the Burke and Hare murders.

And then it came to me. This one emotionally intense scene I could see so clearly. I knew immediately I had to use it, but to do so I had to figure out what was going on. Where was this room that looked like a bedchamber? Who was the man in the corner, and why was he drawing on the walls? What was Kiera’s connection to him? And why was the scene filled with such sadness and despair?

As I began to answer these questions, my story developed. I learned of Kiera’s childhood friends, the Dalmays, and how the oldest son William acted as her art tutor one summer. I discovered how William had been damaged by the war with Napoleon, and how his own father had him locked up in a lunatic asylum. And I met the younger brother, Michael, who managed William’s release, but worries that perhaps his brother should not be out. That perhaps not everyone is safe with him allowed to roam free.

That is where Kiera and the estimable Mr. Gage step in—to find the missing girl everyone is so concerned about, and to prove William’s guilt or innocence, once and for all.

Whether it starts with the character development, or the setting, or a single scene—it is always the questions that drive the story, for the author and the reader. The who, what, when, why, how of our characters, and the crimes they may solve or commit.

Read an interview with Anna Lee Huber on the Penguin website.


philosophers_tableRegardless of age, you can feel it. As August days creep by, it’s time to get ready for school. A fresh start beckons.

Looking back at my college years and many more years as a college professor, memories almost always circle around food. A dinner bell brings people together as nothing else can. Happy college evenings spent lingering over coffee in the dining hall and more friends pulling up chairs and delaying their departures…students breaking bread over good conversation in faculty homes and forever changing the classroom dynamic…parents coming to visit and picnicking with a group that expands with every wave of a hand…  As a college professor, hearing the expected request after just a few weeks from students wanting to fix food for the class, thereby making a large group more intimate…study sessions congregating over potluck dinners and nervous pre-exam breakfasts…dinner parties celebrating semester’s end and contact information exchanging…

Today I glanced at some of my upcoming book events and once again plates are passing—in Maryland to meet with educators and parents, we picnic—at the University of Virginia, students and I have dinner before the evening’s discussion—local eateries in Charlottesville supply their specialties, and a philosophizing afternoon takes a festive turn.

Here’s what culinary guru Alice Waters knows: “Our full humanity is contingent on our hospitality; we can be complete only when we are giving something away; when we sit at the table and pass the peas to the person next to us we see that person in a whole new way” (In the Green Kitchen: Techniques to Learn By Heart). In contrast, I know far too well, from far too much student testimony and personal observation, about the damage done by reliance upon technological substitutes for genuine human interaction. Heads bowed as students walk down hallways, cell phones clutched…the discomfort when a text message sounds during our conversation, not because of the interruption but due to the mounting anxiety to check it immediately…earbuds tuning out the person in the adjacent desk, also waiting for class to begin…social media postings unraveling with unforeseen and unfortunate consequences…

The best college meal plan is to make one. Whether your field of study is engineering, business, chemistry, or philosophy, you can make the commitment to join with others and pass the peas. Be smart about the technological revolution that brings with it so many wondrous advances—don’t allow it to replay the isolation and loss of community that was wrought by the industrial revolution.

Some possible meal plans for you and old and brand new friends: Bring your lunches to a set place on campus at the same time, every week, and enjoy the familiar routine and camaraderie. Cook together one night a week.  Choose a setting and a time frame—and any morning know that there may well be friends there to share coffee or tea. Find a place in town, with prices that suit every pocket, and reserve a table twice a month. Get outside when possible—cookouts and picnics, complemented by walks, ball tossing, a board game. For the school year, set aside one night a month to assemble a feast from different cultures, with everyone contributing something.

What happens at dinner, among other things, is the sharpening of the art of conversation. When we are glued to things rather than to each other, we easily lose the ability to listen attentively, to reply thoughtfully, and to give discussions room to breathe. We need to practice—and chewing, swallowing, and passing the hot soba noodles and the yakitori naturally slows us down. Conversation finds its rhythm.

When your college years are memories, what will matter, after all? Forging relationships…belonging to the world and to each other…feeling part of life’s unfolding. I love the way renowned chef Yotam Ottolenghi, a native of Israel, reflects on his craft and his partnership with Palestinian-born Sami Tamimi: “It takes a giant leap of faith, but we are happy to take it—what have we got to lose—to imagine that hummus will eventually bring Jerusalemites together if nothing else will” (The New Yorker, December, 3, 2012: “The Philosopher Chef” by Jane Kramer).

Study, laugh, and eat. Pass the hummus, please.


troubled_daughtersEarlier this summer, I became – there’s really no better word to describe this – obsessed with a crime story emerging out of Poughkeepsie, New York, just a couple of hours’ train ride north of the five boroughs. An elderly man named James Nichols had died in his house last December, more or less surrounded by a cavalcade of items he’d hoarded for decades. He died alone, without heirs or loved ones, and was thought to be a quiet man, maybe a little strange. Then, a few months later, in the process of cleaning out his house, Poughkeepsie authorities discovered a body, encased in a plastic container and hidden in the basement.

The body was of Nichols’ wife, JoAnn, a first-grade schoolteacher who had disappeared around Christmas of 1985. Townsfolk were suspicious, but had little proof. The police questioned Nichols numerous times, but he stuck to his story: JoAnn, increasingly despondent after the death of their only son three years earlier, had disappeared, leaving behind a note that wasn’t quite suicidal, but hardly cheery. Nichols carried on with his life. But was it much of a life?

That story haunts me because it is the perfect example of horror lurking beneath a seemingly mundane existence. The relationship between a husband and wife involves great intimacy, supreme trust, and, when it sours, tremendous betrayal. Love transmutes into hate at the drop of a hat. We’ll never know why James Nichols killed his wife, but we know he got away with murder, that his awful act hid in the plain sight of his community despite the swirling rumors. But how did he stay so cool? Why did he go over the edge? Or, more awfully, did he never have an edge to begin with?

JoAnn Nichols’ disappearance and murder took place almost thirty years ago. But it’s a story that could have happened years, even decades earlier, that in fictionalized form would have been a fascinating, terror-laden work of domestic suspense. I wonder how a writer like Celia Fremlin, who understood the desperation of a post-partum-afflicted mother in The Hours Before Dawn, or Margaret Millar, who understood the toxicity of marriage like few others, would have used the Nichols tale, or something like it, as source material. Nichols’ truncated life is full of frustrating gaps. But fiction could give her a powerful voice, one that underscores that the most violent urges are acted on by the ones you think you know best.


Zemanta Related Posts ThumbnailWhat makes for a good read-aloud experience?

The answer to that query can be found in two disparate read-aloud experiences. One is a long-term Congressman reading aloud (in the dry, mind-numbing monotone) a newspaper editorial into the Congressional Record before a hundred inattentive colleagues. The second is a 72-year-old grandfather reading aloud a fairy tale parody to twenty-two attentive and enthusiastic inmates at a minimum-security prison facility.

Why did the first read-aloud fail and the other succeed? A two part answer: subject matter and reader.

In the first instance, the politician was simply going through the motions to please some constituents and he read it accordingly. If he were being graded for the performance he might be indicted for attempted murder of the spoken word. The material (as with most editorials) was boring and so was he.

In the second instance (and I must admit to bringing a certain bias to the case with myself as the reader), the positive response came because of the narrative and the reader’s effort to bring it alive. The inmates in question were taking an in-house class on parenting skills, which included reasons for and methods of reading to their children.

Choosing the right material should always be a prime consideration but tempered by the intended audience. After much consideration, the book I chose was I Am So Strong by Mario Ramos (Gecko Press, 2011) Here is the synopsis I included for the book in the Treasury of Read-Alouds for the seventh edition of The Read-Aloud Handbook:

Give me a book with some good old-fashioned yelling in it, throw in a handful of familiar characters like that wolf and Red Riding Hood and those three pigs, add a couple of dwarfs, and then round it off with a baby dinosaur and his huge mother. The end result is one terrific read-aloud.

The main protagonist is a loud, boastful wolf who struts through the forest asking each fairy tale character he meets, “Who’s the strongest in the woods?” Each cowed response inflates his ego a little bit more until he encounters what he mistakes for a toad. That tiny creature names his mother—who suddenly appears as big as a dinosaur on the final page.

prison storytimeWhy that book choice for the inmates? Because the audience could easily identify with the subject matter: ego, bullying, shouting, comeuppance, surprise ending, and gentle humor. There wasn’t one listener that morning who could not identify with either the wolf or the creatures he was intimidating in the forest.

But just as important as the choice of material was the way I read it. Already familiar with the book from reading it to myself several times in the previous year, I still read it aloud twice in preparation for the class. I noted where I needed to lower my voice, where to make it boastful or sly (“Hello there, Sugar Bun,” the wolf says to a small rabbit. “Tell me, who do you think is the strongest around here?”), and where I needed to be ready for the wolf to lose his temper when the last little creature boasts his mother is the strongest.

It’s unrealistic to expect that every parent has the time to prepare ahead each book for reading aloud as I did the wolf story but they can certainly improve their performance with repeat readings on successive nights. But no classroom teacher should consider doing a read-aloud without rehearsing it the night before. (Just for job security alone, read the book or chapter ahead of time! The last thing you want is an unexpected word popping up in the text.)

So where does that leave the parent or teacher who isn’t Morgan Freeman or Meryl Streep with the spoken word? Children don’t expect Academy Award performances but they do expect fluency and effort. What they don’t deserve is a Congressman-reading-into-the-Congressional-Record performance. But what each of us can and will do, if we stay with it long enough, is improve because of the confidence we gain with repeated readings until we achieve the ultimate goal when a child or class exclaims, “Read it again!”

As for good read-aloud material, I try to make that easier than walking into a library and coldly making choices. Not every book is meant to be read aloud (some aren’t even worth reading to ourselves, never mind reading to others). The whole second half of my book is the Treasury of Read-Alouds with hundreds of titles and synopses, along with listening/grade levels for each book.

The usual criteria for selecting a book to my list is Plot, the wind beneath the story’s wings. Does anything happen that we care about? Do we want to turn the page to see what happens next? How long does it take to get things moving? Are we begging for more when the final page is read?

Conversely, the author who spends a whole page in a novel describing the butterfly on the pinewood plank on a spring morning by the lake may be a fine poet but the end result is not going to hold an audience for long unless the butterfly soon turns into a dangerous . . .

If plot is so important, where does that leave nonfiction? They’re usually not great read-alouds, unless the audience is especially interested in the subject. This means if you have a child who is very keen on one subject (Civil War, baseball, horses, etc.), he or she will usually be ripe for a read-aloud on that subject—but a whole class might not be.

On the other hand, today more than ever before there are excellent picture books that incorporate plot into nonfiction, focusing on singular events (plot) in a famous person’s life. My favorites include: My Brother Martin by Christine King Farris; Nurse, Soldier, Spy by Marissa Moss; Odd Boy Out: Young Albert Einstein by Don Brown; POP! The Invention of Bubble Gum by Meghan McCarthy; Thank You, Sarah: The Woman Who Saved Thanksgiving by Laurie Halse Anderson; and The Kid Who Invented the Popsicle by Don Wulffson.

They are entertaining, informative, and, unlike textbooks or Congressional Records, seldom dull.