Bringing Stories to Life
As a big sister, I often was reading books to my younger sibling growing up. One of my favorite books to read with her was Good Night, Gorilla. A book of few words but many pictures. I loved adding my own dialogue when reading it, pointing out details in the illustrations, and making all the animal noises together. No two readings of this story were ever the same, which made it so fun to read each night.
Many books for our youngest readers such as Good Night Gorilla, But First, We Nap, and A Spring Stroll in the City have more illustrations than words. As I began teaching, I started wondering how do I keep my students engaged in a story without a lot of words? How do I keep stories fresh for myself? How do I manage the wiggles that naturally happen when little ones are asked to sit still for a while? What I discovered is that it’s all in the magical moments of storytelling and being silly, just like when I was a child.
Adding My Own Dialogue
Adding in your own dialogue is the easiest (and I think most fun) way to bring a story to life. Start by looking at the characters on the page, what non-verbal actions are they doing? What emotions are they displaying? The dialogue can be as silly or serious as you feel in that moment and what you see on the page. The best part? You don’t have to remember what dialogue you created that day; it can be new and fresh every time you open the book.
Asking questions throughout the story is a great way to promote engagement when reading stories with very little text. These questions can be focused on finding something in the illustrations, but my favorite questions are about sounds or emotions the characters are experiencing. I will ask questions like “How do you think the Rabbit feels not being able to wake up the Sloth? Maybe angry? Can you show me an angry face? What sounds do you make when you are angry? What sounds would you hear in the forest where the Sloth is sleeping?”
I always model faces, movements or sounds when I ask these questions so students can have an example to learn from. As your little ones get older, you can start asking them for ideas of what comes next and encourage them to look at the illustrations for clues of what might be coming up in the story. These little moments not only bring a story to life, but also help little ones connect with the characters and the setting.
It can be easy to get stuck in the mindset of “We are reading and must sit still,” however, there is no rule that says learning and reading need to be a still activity. Break up pages in the story by adding movement or sound breaks. If the characters in Come On, Calm! are blowing bubbles, maybe we take a break to blow bubbles together. If the rabbit in But First, We Nap is playing the drums, can we take a music break and make drums out of pots and pans? If Gerald the Giraffe is dancing, let’s put on our favorite song and have a dance party! It’s never too early to read with your little ones, and taking these breaks to engage the senses can make storytime more engaging for both you and your little one.
What Comes Next?
You can further explore your little one’s favorite story with simple art projects or by acting out the story together. You can talk with them about how the illustrations in a book help us know who and where the characters are and encourage them to create their own version of that character or setting. This can be as simple as drawing or as involved as creating hand puppets out of paper bags. Additionally, as your little ones get older, you can delve into the world of dramatic play by walking through their favorite book and acting it out together. The most important thing when reading with your little one? Have fun!
Bekah Elles is a theatre arts educator and has been teaching early childhood creative drama and dance classes for six years at arts organizations in New York City and the Washington DC area. Bekah has been featured on Let’s Learn NYC and The Trauma-Informed Toolkit for Educators with New York City Children’s Theater. She is passionate about instilling a love of theatre, movement and performance in her students and helping them find their voice through the arts.