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.
Why 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.