In my elementary school days, I was immensely shy except when it came to one thing: reading aloud. I’d always raise my hand to volunteer and my usually soft voice carried. Books and me, we had a rapport.
But even as I grew less reticent in my day-to-day life, I’ve never been much of a performer insofar as doing voices or being overtly silly. And yet, when I had kids, I suddenly discovered a zeal for playing with voices and sound effects as I read to them.
Getting a laugh or hearing cries of “again! again!” when we reach a funny scene allows me those moments we parents hope for, when it seems like we’re doing alright. I think the key to a good read-aloud performance is finding the right books for you. Here are a few picture books that I love…
Besides being literally colorful tales, the best thing about these books is that each crayon has its own story, and thus a unique persona. It’s quite fun to give beige an oh-so-glum voice and depict an impassioned feud between orange and yellow over who’s the true color of the sun. Plus, reading your kid’s favorite color’s tale with extra gusto gets you parental bonus points.
Mo Willems knows a thing or two about creating funny kids’ characters —the Piggie and Elephant series are faves around our house (and those characters are great for silly voices). But for my money, there’s no character funnier than Pigeon, who always wants something and can never quite get it. In one short picture book, he goes through the full range of human (okay, avian) emotion, from hopeful to proud to begging to angry. I have to say, Meryl Streep has nothing on me when I read these books to my sons.
For me, I think good material starts with the emotion of a book (see Pigeon above), and in this story, Adam hates his toy koala, who LOOOOVES him. There’s a lot of fun to be had between Adam’s protests and Koala’s overtures and bids for affection. (Though Koala’s part in the book is a non-speaking role, I like to add silly grunts, “hmms,” and sundry other noises to the mix. If I surprise my child by flipping back to a giant two-page illustration of Koala’s face, I get a giggle fit. Priceless.)
Sometimes, it’s not about the characters but the rhythm of a book that grabs you. In this classic, you can play with tempo, tone, and timbre as you shimmy and shake your way through the rollicking alphabet tale. One note of warning: If you think Adele and Taylor Swift are catchy, you haven’t heard the rhythms of Martin and Archambault — be prepared to have the song stuck in your head for days.
This is the book by which to channel your Lawrence Olivier, your Morgan Freeman, your Oprah. Gaiman’s fairy tale-inspired guide to life requires gravitas. The words and pictures are so beautiful, and the allusions to other stories so deft, that as you read aloud, you actually feel like you might be part of the magic, too.
No pictures, no characters — how are you going to sell this to your kids? Aha! By making it so the adult reading HAS to say whatever total nonsense appears on the page. Reading this book aloud, no matter how stoic you might normally be, well, try all you want, you can’t not sound silly. And isn’t that one of the things our kids like best?
Knock-knock Joke Books: If it’s laughs you’re after — impromptu or part of a cheer-up session — try some knock-knock jokes. Yes, there will be days when you wish you never opened that door, so to speak, but if puns are really the highest form of wit, the moment your child starts to grasp wordplay feels like a major parenting milestone. (Or is that just me?)
The Classics: Sometimes, if I want to get my English professor on (I have my bachelors in journalism with an English minor but I can pretend, right?), I will read my younger son, who is only 1 and thus won’t protest to ask for something else, Shakespeare or Dickens or poetry (I like T.S. Eliot and e.e. Cummings). The nice thing is, at this age, you can just enjoy allowing the many words to wash over your child and you. No dissection of each stanza is necessary and it’s good for hearts, minds, souls.