Performing Books by Carolyn Crimi
I reread Winnie the Pooh every year. It’s my favorite book of all time, and always, always after reading it I remember why I became a writer. I loved that book so much as a child that I wanted to live in the Hundred Acre Wood with Pooh and Piglet. I had it all planned out. I’d live in a tree, possibly, and I’d have honey at every meal. I’d fly with the help of a blue balloon and I’d hunt for Heffalumps every afternoon.
A big part of why I adored Pooh was because my mother adored Pooh. She would read it out loud for me, doing all the voices so perfectly that even Jim Dale would be impressed. (She could even differentiate between Roo and Piglet’s voices, which is no small feat.) She performed those books, and she was an excellent actress. Not only was the book entertaining and funny, she was entertaining and funny in a big, bold way that she wasn’t necessarily in everyday life. By performing the book she showed me a side of herself that she often kept private. Being her audience felt like being awarded a special, secret prize.
Seeing and hearing my mother do something that she so clearly loved made me love it, too. She was simply having too much fun. Those “book things” must be like toys, only better!
I am also a good actress, and books for me are also a performance. If I’m having trouble writing a certain passage I’ll read it out loud, preferably in front of an audience. I remember being thoroughly embarrassed once after reading one of my short picture book drafts out loud to a few writer friends. I had used the word “bunny” eighteen times in a five hundred word picture book. Now, I happen to love the word “bunny,” but only in small doses.
I’m also acutely aware of the fact that when I am writing picture books or middle grade novels for children they will probably be performed at some point by teachers, librarians, or parents. Like poetry, books for children are meant to be read out loud, so the cadence and musicality of the words are important, more so than, say, an insurance brochure. When I am writing a children’s book I am also essentially writing a script for the reader. As the author, one aspect of my job is to make that performance easier. He or she must be able to pick that book up without reading it first and perform it.
Of course not reading a book first can be deadly. I learned this the hard way. Years ago I worked at a children’s museum. One of our daily activities was story time. Our museum was a busy place, and we often didn’t have time to pre-read the books; this lead to quite a few disasters. I’m reminded of a book on death that started out as a sweet story about cute ducklings floating on a pond. Then, one by one, they were eaten by an alligator. Surprise!
Possibly not the best story time we ever did, but a very good writing lesson on setting the tone of the book right away.
Other books, like Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, were a delight to perform. They had rhythm and suspense. Not only were they good stories, they were also fun for the person performing the book. They were excellent scripts and made the reader look good!
My acting classes help me write better, more performable books. When I’m on stage I’m constantly aware of how my body is reacting to whatever my partner is saying or doing. I might raise my chin. I might slump, sigh, glare, or turn away. The physicality of a character is often as important as what they say, and I’m reminded of that each time I sit down to write. How do I show disdain? Fear? Resentment? I try to feel it in my body and see what happens.
And I’m aware of how important silence is. Characters may not say anything at all, and that is often just as powerful as a good line of dialogue. I’ve been transfixed by actors onstage waiting for a bus, not saying a word, watching in awe as their bodies and their faces told a captivating story. It’s often what’s not said that’s important to a scene. Or characters act one way and say something completely different, which makes the scene more interesting and layered.
Performing has also made me better at revising. I once had a director ask me to redo my delivery of one line twelve times. She just kept saying, “Take that again.” It was frustrating and annoying and I kind of wanted to kick her in the shins, but it lead to a better delivery. Directors, like editors, are not trying to make your life difficult, although it sometimes seems that way. They’re simply trying to help you see how else it can be done. Actors will throw their lines down in all different ways to see which delivery feels best for the scene and the characters. Writers play with lines the same way.
I didn’t know any of this when I listened to my mom all those years ago. All I knew was that being her audience was as magical as any Broadway performance, and that books were the gateway to that kind of magic.
Carolyn Crimi is the author of several books for children, including Where’s My Mummy?, Henry and the Buccaneer Bunnies, Henry and the Crazed Chicken Pirates, and There Might Be Lobsters. Weird Little Robots is her first novel. She lives in Illinois.