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Sunday, July 12, 2009

Day 2 of ALA, and reading things aloud.

Yesterday I had a breakfast with many librarians, then signed was interviewed in front of a crowd by Roger Sutton from Hornbook, signed for happy librarian-folk for three hours, then napped and went off to dinner with the Newbery Award Committee, the sort of dinner where you have each different course at a different table, and talk to everyone. Then I signed books for them (and for a few stray Printz Committee judges, who crept in).

This morning was Dim Sum with Jill Thompson for breakfast (Here is Jill. People always want to know where she got that bag, and she made it herself. I told her she should take orders for them for a ridiculous amount of money.) Then with Elyse Marshall, ace HarperChildren's publicist, to a local studio where I was interviewed for Barnes and Noble, then recorded some paragraphs from Kipling's The Jungle Book, Ray Bradbury's story "Homecoming" and James Thurber's The 13 Clocks. I loved doing them -- B&N will pick one sequence and have it animated and put up online.

Was fascinated by how different the voice of the narrator was in each case -- the voice of the book, and that reminded me that I had not yet answered this, and had meant to:

Neil ~ Thank you for many hours of entertainment, whether I'm reading your works, or you are! My daughter is finding that chapter books are a good thing, and wants me to read them to her. I'm glad to do so, but I'm looking for some suggestions from a masterful book reader (you) to a very coarse book reader (me). How do you keep the character voices straight in your head? I suppose it helps that you know the words particularly well since you wrote them, but any tips or suggestions? Any other pointers for engaging the listener? I know my daughter doesn't mind (she still wants me to read, after all!), but I'd like to be better for her and for me. Thanks and keep up the superb work, both here on the blog and in the offline printed universe! BRIAN

Let's see. Character voices are more or less easy: I sort of cast them in my head as I go. What's the person like? Who do they remind me of?

I'm appalling at doing accents, but not bad at doing people. And mostly you're not even doing impressions, just general brush strokes. How does a person sound? Well, you hold them in your head and generally sound like that.

When dealing with a larger than life story I'll sometimes go for a larger than life cast in my head: In (for example) The 13 Clocks, in my head, when I read it aloud, I tend to cast Marty Feldman as the Golux, and Peter Sellers (doing his Laurence Olivier in Richard the Third impression) as the evil Duke.

It's hard though, in a big book with a lot of characters, some of whom may nip off-stage for seven or eight chapters at a time. Do your best, and have a picture in your head. Borrow from your life. Steal voices shamelessly.

Most important, just do the voices (including the voice of the Book, which may not be your voice exactly, but should be close enough to it that it won't be a strain), and do not be shy. Even at your worst, you're doing better than you would if you didn't do the voices, and kids are a mostly uncritical audience, especially if you do it with confidence.

Read it as if you're telling a story. Read it as if you're interested and you care. And, the biggest and most important one, vary the tune.

I heard a young writer reading some of his own work in public a few weeks ago, and every sentence had exactly the same tune, the sime rising and falling cadences. They all ended on the same note. The beat that ran through the whole passage did not change from first to last. It was hypnotically dull.

Listen to people read who are good at it. BBC Radio 7 and BBC Radio 4 (here's the Radio 4 Readings website)are a great source of an ever-changing series of books and stories, fiction and non-fiction, all read aloud and read aloud well. Listen to the tune, where voices go up or down. Listen to what makes a reader speed up or slow down -- listen to what keeps you interested and where you lose interest. And do it as they do -- change the tune, change the pace, keep interested and it will keep interesting.

But mostly my advice is this: just do it. Enthusiasm and willingness to do it counts for most of it, and you learn by doing it and get better from doing it.

I've been reading in front of audiences now for almost 20 years. I've got significantly better in that time, mostly because I've done it so much. You learn as you go. You get better as you go. Practice makes if not perfect then at least pretty decent.

And that's all.


Except to wish Roz Kaveney happy birthday.

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