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TL v61n2:Bringing Storytime Alive
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Tennessee Libraries

Volume 61 Number 2



Bringing Storytime Alive with Acting and Storytelling Techniques: an Interactive Article


Christie Underdown-DuBois

Assistant Cataloger
The Center for Popular Music
Middle Tennessee State University


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Storytime should be an interactive experience where librarians share the sheer joy of telling tales with their young audiences. Fatal mistakes such as vocal apathy, monotone, and unpreparedness can distance children from a story and thus reading in general. Standing on one’s head, juggling or incorporating video games is not the only way to engage listeners’ interest. 

Traditionally, Storytime is the act of holding a book and reading/paraphrasing the story as the author wrote it. By a similar token, acting is memorizing a script and performing as the writer wrote it, while storytelling is learning a story by reading or hearing it and performing it with a combination of memorization and improvisation, as the original creator might have intended it. Through exploring simple acting and storytelling techniques, librarians can find their own blend of methods to hook their particular Storytime audience.

First, performing for children in any context requires the major commitment to playing. By not being afraid of “making a fool of one’s self”, a librarian can open a world of possibilities, letting go of preconceptions and becoming more comfortable in front of a group of any age.  The key to telling a story is expression- vocal and physical. The body is a reader’s instrument and tool, just like the book being presented.

One can become more comfortable in one’s body by simply getting up out of the chair and moving. Physical activities, such as the following warm-up exercises, help the blood to flow to the heart, jostling ideas to the brain and anticipation to the fingertips. If one knows children at all, one knows that excitement and enthusiasm is often their major language of discourse. Try some of the following activities and feel the difference. Repeat, of course, as necessary:

  • SPINE ROLL. Bend down from the waist. Roll back up slowly, feeling and stretching every vertebrae until the arms are stretching straight toward the ceiling.
  • SWING. Let go of any tension in the arms. Swing them around as if they were branches on a windy day. Don’t purposefully move them; just let go. Then let go of the upper body completely. Stretch and roll the shoulders, chest, waist, and hips. Swing the whole body.
  • FRONT, BACK, ALL THE WAY AROUND. First, swing both arms forward, backward and then in circles. Then swing both arms backward, forward, and then in circles. For more of a challenge, try swing arms in opposite directions.
  • BIG BODY / SMALL BODY. Stretch the arms, legs, and torso out as far as possible, outward and upward, pretending one is a giant or a boulder. Bring arms, legs and torso as close together as possible, even bending down and sitting on the floor, pretending one is a mouse or small pebble.

Of course, one cannot forget about the voice. It is simultaneously delicate and strong. By playing the following games, one can learn how to use, not abuse, one’s vocal resource. As before, try some of the following activities and feel if there is any difference, and repeat again as feels necessary:

  • OOO'S. Think Garfield’s™ enthusiasm and imitate it, feeling the stretch in your chin and your lips.
  • YAWN. Stretch those jaws wide.
  • TONGUE ROLLS. Pretend that you are French. Roll R's in the back of the mouth and the top of the throat. Feel the vibrations inside.
  • LIP ROLLS. Pretend you are a horse or a motorboat. Stick out your lips and exhale enough breath to make them move. Feel the vibrations outside, creeping up into the sinuses and around the nose.
  • NASAL EXERCISE. Pretend you are “Nanny” Fran Drescher and talk through your nose. Doesn't it tingle?
  • ARTICULATION GAMES. Practice things aloud with as much clarity as possible.

Vowel Twisters

  • Ma-na-la-tha-va-za    
  • May-nay-lay-thay-vay-za
  • Mee-nee-lee-thee-vee-zee
  • My-ny-ly-thy-vy-zy
  • Moh-noh-loh-thoh-voh-zoh
  • Mu-nu-lu-thu-vu-zu

Tongue twisters

  • Red leather, yellow leather
  • Toy boat
  • Rubber baby buggy bumpers
  • Nat's knapsack strap snapped
  • Bruce bought bad brown bran bread

Using the voice also means taking advantage of inspiration. Maybe while one is reading a particular book, one hears characters sounding specific ways. Mo Willems’ duckling in The Pigeon Finds a Hot Dog may sound like Droopy Dog ™ from the old cartoon or the picky eater from Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham has a stuffy British accent or the little sister from Neil Gaiman’s The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish really does have than whiney tone of a favorite younger sibling from one’s youth. Play with those ideas. The experiments may be rough at first, but the kids will appreciate the effort and will enjoy watching a grown-up try something new.

Changing voices, even slightly for different characters of a story, can help the listener distinguish speakers and clear up plot. When trying on a voice for the first time, consciously seek its physical origin in the body. Does a Scottish accent begin in the back of the throat, producing the brogue effect? Could a small child’s voice simply be produced by flattening one’s tongue and not moving it very much, except for articulation? To be Droopy Dog ™, one could pull out the cheek and talk into it. Fifth graders will be imitating that trick for days after Storytime.

Characters also develop their own gestures, like shy wandering eyes or straight postures or bent arthritic fingers. Notice what your imagination is inspiring, when the book is read aloud in practice.

Movement can also depend on one’s storytelling space. Some people like to work in a smaller space, such as the edge of a chair, while others may like to roam the room with wide steps. It takes practice to understand how one likes to work on this spectrum and how it can be used to the highest advantage. Standing usually gives one the most volume and energy, but one can choose to sit, as long as the posture does not collapse or slouch, which restricts the air flow from the diaphragm and lungs, key tools in projection.

Balancing the pace of a particular teller with the pace of story in hand can be a challenge, especially if the story does not fit the teller’s personal style. Some people are more comfortable with scary stories; others enjoy fairy tales. Know strengths and weaknesses, but also do not be afraid of stepping out of a comfort zone.

Also, don't be afraid of silence. Sometimes a pause can add emphasis or meaning to a significant scene in the plot. On the other hand, too long or too often pauses make the teller sound lost, causing the audience to drift away.

Over all, pretending, as well as play, is an important element of Storytime. If the teller does not use his or her imagination, neither will the listener. Practice the book aloud and note not only one’s own reaction to the characters, but also the text. By knowing the text, one will be able to emphasis significant words or concepts in performance. At the same time, try not to project into the next moment, only living the story with the characters and the audience who are hearing it for the first time. 

How does one catch the initial interest of an audience? Perhaps it is with an introduction, relating the story with familiar and age-appropriate concepts. More importantly, one needs to know the first line of the book and deliver it with confidence.  If one can memorize the first and last lines of the story, one always knows the frame in which the plot points will rise and fall.

How one is able to read a book, while also showing the illustrations to an audience is always tricky. There are the tried and true methods of reading upside down, and on either side, but there is also learning to Cheat Front. This technique enables the reader to look at the book straight on, even while it is held up to demonstrate the pictures, by moving the book from side to side between pages or phrases.

Sometimes dealing with a live audience in general is tricky, especially if they get bored. In these situations, there are two major philosophies, a teller can adopt:

  • WILD HORSE. One probably cannot get them to be still, but one can direct their movement.
  • SURFING. Learn to ride the wave. 

Four ways of dealing with a distracted audience are 1) make eye contact with particular individuals, 2) step closer into space of the disturbance, 3) laugh with the children until they get calmer, or 4) involve the distracted member in the story with questions that segue back into the tale. Please note that this last can be a risky technique, since it can easily lead down a “bunny trail”.

Always remember to honor the author and honor the story. Try to make choices that emphasize, not detract from that goal. It is always more about the tale than the performer. In addition to any embarrassment in front of a crowd, lose self-consciousness and ego as well.

Knowing one’s audience, the teller can find stories which have age-appropriate language (vocabulary and context) and plotlines. For younger readers, one has the option of giving the gist of the story rather than the verbatim reading, especially if there are difficult words. On the other hand, sometimes a high-level word or concept can lead to a teaching moment for discussion, definitions or even synonyms.

Tough words and oddly phrased sentences may not be the only trouble, though. Beware also of the sentences that break unceremoniously over pages and pictures that may differ from the text. The audience will notice, questioning the teller and the tale, interrupting the flow of the story. At the same time, if one finds ways to emphasize the author's strong spots via repetition or sound effects or onomatopoeia, the audience will stay engaged and interested.

In finding the arc (or main character's journey) and the rhythm of the story, ask if the characters change? How could one physically demonstrate that?  Usually a story can be divided into a Beginning, Middle and End, each with its own emotion attached.  Know the significant plot points or places where the story turns.  If a story has a happy ending, it usually has a sad or scary section.  How does this section sound?  For example, what physical changes would Mo Willem's Edwina of Edwina, the Dinosaur Who Didn't Know She Was Extinct possibly experience when she has all of the facts of extinction laid out before her by Reginald Von Hoobie Doobie? Perhaps her carefree shoulders may droop and eyes may seem confused, at least for a time until the end of the story brings about another change.

Storytime is a steadfast tradition in public and school libraries, bringing together not only children who may become lifelong readers, but also a community of parents and guardians.  When children’s librarians become comfortable in their own skins and the stories they present, they open literacy possibilities for all, bringing Storytime alive again.

For more information :

Turner, Pete and Christi Underdown-Dubois. “Bringing Storytime Alive”.
Includes a “Books we like to use for Storytime” bibliography.

 "Best Read Aloud Picture Books"

“ICDL International Digital Childrens Library”.

Sprengnether Keel, Lois. “Let Puppets Tell Your Story”.




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