Weave Christmas magic with the sound of your voice and a fairy tale.
Nothing quite compares with the warm, subtle pleasure of sharing aloud a beloved story or poem with a child for story-time. And, if your household is anything like mine, you have probably been assailed night and day with requests to “Read me a story, please?” Well, I don’t know about you, but I just couldn’t bear to see the disappointed look on my little girl’s face when I had to tell her, “Later, honey, I’m in the middle of fixing supper right now.” It was so frustrating (for me and for her) to have to send her off for the umpteenth time to explore her treasured book in lonely silence. (It’s especially disquieting to me because — having been a professional children’s theater director and a vocational storyteller — I know how vitally important the spoken word is to young people . . . particularly tots who haven’t yet learned to read.)
If finding enough time to read to your children has been a problem for you, too, and one that you’d like to remedy without neglecting your chores, then take heart: I’ve found a solution! I simply record my child’s favorite stories and poems (as well as other selections I think she’d enjoy) on cassette tapes. So now — when I’m unavailable — my daughter can plug in her earphones, turn on her cassette player, and listen to whatever suits her fancy . . . whenever she likes! Sure, it doesn’t replace my reading to her in person, but it’s the next best thing. Besides, listening to a rollicking rendition of a good story (such as “The Bremen Town Musicians”) is an experience a hundred times more individualized, imagination provoking, and mind-enriching than watching those all-too often mediocre television shows. Story-time tapes also make perfect Christmas gifts and stocking stuffers. The blank cassettes are inexpensive, and the finished products are easy (and fun) to create. On top of everything else, the recorded narratives are a snap for youngsters to use and wonderfully portable, so children can entertain themselves with them on trips.
Making Stories Come to Life
Creating a tape that has the power to rivet your children’s attention isn’t merely a matter of sitting down and reading any old story into a microphone. Remember, when your offspring hear the recording, you won’t be around to give it extra punch . . . so your voice (along with the voices of other folks you may round up to help out), what ever sound effects and/or music you use, and the basic tale itself will have to do al! the work in casting the spell of make believe.
Don’t worry, though, making a recording come to life isn’t difficult. With a bit of research, preparation, practice, and panache, you ought to be turning out imagination gripping tapes in no time! And, once you start delving into (and transposing) children’s literature, you’re probably going to discover that making tapes can be as enriching an experience for you as listening to them will be for your young ones.
To Begin With. . .
Finding a story that lends itself to this purpose will take a bit of searching on your part. You may already have some “old favorite” prospects at home. Even so, spend a morning or two at your local library or bookstore: Plant yourself in the children’s section and read, read, read. Ask the librarian or salesperson for advice. And look over every prospective story very carefully. After all, if a tale doesn’t enchant you at the first reading, chances are it won’t fascinate your child, either. On the other hand, if you find one you really like, read it over several times, looking for the following recordable characteristics:
 a clear plot with lots of action
 natural, succinct dialogue
 simple, straightforward characters
 an energetic, varied style
 plenty of humor!
Forget about abstract stories with ambiguous turns of plot, hidden and/or overly moralistic themes, and complex motivations. Children (especially those under eight) are direct creatures who take things literally. True, they love fantasies such as James Barrie’s Peter Pan or nonsense like Dr. Seuss’s The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins . . . but symbolism usually bores them. Therefore, beautifully written and exquisitely illustrated — but elusive — books (Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince or Roberts Vara’s Tiger Flower, for instance), which are often found in the children’s sections of bookstores, have more to say to adults than they do to young people.
If you plan to record a story that your youngster can follow with the text, pay attention to the illustrations, too. (Children under five can listen longer to a story that they can see, as well as hear.) These pictures should complement and enhance the plot . . . not distract from or overpower it.
Tactics for Taping
Pick a story you enjoy. I know I’ve said this before, but I can’t overemphasize the importance of recording a tale that you like . . . a lot! If it gives you pleasure, you’ll infuse your reading of it with immediacy and energy that’ll be transmitted to your children when they hear it later.
Never tape alone (if you can help it). Besides the fact that solo taping is less fun than group storytelling, you need other folks around (preferably two) to provide different voices and add pizzazz — plus sound effects! — to your tape. So grab some family members (older siblings may be gung ho for the project) or a couple of friends or neighbors to join in your taping sessions to add sparkle to your finished piece.
Know your material. Study the text well, and determine how the story is put together. Where are its high and low points? Where is the climax? What are the relationships of the characters to one another? Where does each thought begin and end? And where do you want to slow your reading down to give emphasis to a crucial point or speed it up to keep the action moving?
Does this sound complicated? It’s not, and all the preparation will pay off in a quality tape. Anyway, remember that you’re dealing with the likes of Peter Rabbit, so doing your homework should take you only half an hour or so.
Be prepared. Assemble everything you need ahead of time . . . such as tapes (I suggest you buy only those with 15 to 30 minutes per side, as longer recordings won’t hold most youngsters’ attention) . . . sound-effect gear (a piece of sheet metal for thunder, bells for Santa’s sleigh, and so forth) . . . and any musical instruments or records you need. And be sure to pick a time and place for recording that’s free from distractions. For example, if your “sound studio” is adjacent to the laundry room, don’t try taping when the clothes washer is chugging away . . . unless you want “monster machine” rinse-cycle sounds on your recording.
Choose a page-turning cue. If you want your child to follow a story in a book, you’ll need to have a uniform signal (for each story) to let him or her know when to turn a page. A bell, whistle, or buzzer will do . . . but it must be distinctive enough to catch your tad’s attention. (Why not pick one that fits the motif of the tale itself?) After you sound the signal, wait a moment before you continue reading . . . so that those little fingers have a chance to flip the page.
Speak clearly and with energy. Read slowly yet naturally, giving emphasis to consonants for clarity . . . without, of course, slipping into a stilted pattern of over-enunciating your words. You’ll probably find it worthwhile to make a practice tape to help you figure out recording levels and different voices for various characters. Play around with the text as you work, to see what effects you can produce. Certain words (especially action ones) can be said in a way that implies their meaning . . . such words as slowly, whisper, bored, and sleepily. Finally, as you read, see the scenes, images, and people of the story in your mind’s eye. This technique — if you can perfect it — will add a touch of enchantment to your interpretation.
Now, you should be able to create a recording that’ll transport your youngster out of the realm of the everyday into the world of make-believe. Following these tricks of the taping trade may sound like a bit of work, but it’s enjoyable work! And — believe me — you and your child will reap the rewards of story-time tapes for years to come. After all, a good story never wears out. Long after the “latest” Saturday morning cartoon has lost its appeal (and lies forgotten on the shelf of canceled TV shows), Rumpelstiltskin — and other classics — will still be mesmerizing young folks and oldsters alike!
EDITOR’S NOTE: Don’t forget that — if you’re game — you can always tell stories, rather than read them.
Need a little help deciding on a story to record? Welly here are a few. . .
Recordable Classics (To Jog Your Memory and Get You Started)
The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein
The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter
Make Way for Ducklings and Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey
Frederick by Leon Lionni
The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf
All of the Curious George books by H.A. Rey
Horton Hatches the Egg and The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins by Dr. Seuss
Millions of Cats by Wanda Gag
The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams
Stone Soup by Marcia Brown
Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel by Virginia Burton
The Red Balloon by Albert Lamorisse
The Tin Tin books by Herge
Collections of Stories
Grimm’s Fairy Tales (including “The Bremen Town Musicians”, “Rumpelstiltskin”, “The Three Spinning Fairies”, “Goldilocks”, “Little Red Riding Hood”, “The Golden Goose”, and “Clever Gretel”)
Just So Stories and The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling
Jack Tales and Grandfather Tales by Richard Chase
Uncle Remus Stories by Joel Chandler Harris (Be certain to find an easy-to-read translation of the original dialect.)
Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
Peter Pan by James Barrie
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
Rabbit Hill by Robert Lawson
Bambi by Felix Salten
Winnie the Pooh and The House at Pooh Cornerby A. A. Milne
Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers
A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson
When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Sixby A. A. Milne
Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T.S. Eliot
“The Night Before Christmas” by Clement Clarke Moore
“The Pied Piper of Hamlin” by Robert Browning
“Hiawatha’s Childhood” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
“The Creation” by James Weldon Johnson
“Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll
“Raggedy Man” by James Whitcomb Riley
“Ballad of Johnny Appleseed” by Helmer O. Oleson