word craft


Listen to Those Feet

Start­ing this week, I will be read­ing a new book to a class of 6th graders. I’ll be read­ing it even though it is not tru­ly fin­ished. Indeed, even as I read it, it sits on my editor’s desk, wait­ing for her first response. I’m doing this because this kind of read­ing is a vital part of my writ­ing process. That’s why, as I read, I will have a pen in my hand. 

Many, many years ago I worked as an appren­tice in a sum­mer stock the­atre com­pa­ny. The the­atre was a con­vert­ed barn, which meant it was built entire­ly of wood, so it was rather like a sound studio. 

For one pro­duc­tion I was in charge of props and sta­tioned under the floor of the audi­to­ri­um. Being in such a place I dis­cov­ered some­thing fas­ci­nat­ing. When the pro­duc­tion was going well, when it had achieved a cer­tain emo­tive rhythm, the feet of the audi­ence above me were still. When the per­for­mance mis­fired or lacked ener­gy, the feet moved a lot. Ever since I’ve learned that it’s not the applause at the end of a per­for­mance that’s vital to note. You have to lis­ten to those feet. 

Speak­ing for myself I have always want­ed my books to not just read well, but to sound well. I love the notion that they will be read aloud. In this, I con­sid­er myself a fol­low­er of Jim Tre­lease, and his thoughts and teach­ings about read­ing aloud. (His Read Aloud Hand­books are still great guides to the prac­tice and choic­es of books for read­ing aloud.) 

The school where I read, the Den­ver Acad­e­my, offers as its mis­sion: “Our pas­sion for learn­ing allows stu­dents who may not thrive in a tra­di­tion­al set­ting, includ­ing those with dyslex­ia and ADD/ADHD, to achieve their dreams.”

Denver Academy

From my per­spec­tive, this means I am read­ing to stu­dents who often have trou­ble read­ing, which actu­al­ly makes them excel­lent lis­ten­ers. At the same time, this is a school whose librar­i­an, Jolene Gutiér­rez (an up-and-com­ing writer in her own right), has as her mantra a quote from Ray Brad­bury: “There’s no use going to school unless your final des­ti­na­tion is the library.” 

Crispin The Cross of Lead

The first book I read in the school was Crispin: The Cross of Lead, my New­bery win­ner, so I have been doing so for a good num­ber of years, the pan­dem­ic peri­od excepted. 

Read­ing my new book aloud allows me to note things in the text that I can rewrite, cut, and adjust. And—my the­atre back­ground persists–you may be sure I am also lis­ten­ing to the feet. I will sense where atten­tion lags and mark my text accord­ing­ly. The student’s polite silence teach­es me much. 

I make revi­sions and ship them off to my edi­tor, who will there­by read a bet­ter manuscript. 

It is not beside the point that the teacher that I’ve worked with for many years, Joe Senne, is not just in the class­room when I read, he is an intent lis­ten­er. I’m sure his stu­dents note that. 

Let it be admit­ted that I am some­what ner­vous as I approach my first read­ing of this new book. It’s a bit like the open­ing night of a new play. 

But it’s not the cur­tain I can’t wait to open, it’s the first page. 

3 thoughts on “Listen to Those Feet”

  1. We are so hon­ored by your vis­its, Avi! Over the years, you have helped our stu­dents (and me) see that with hard work and per­se­ver­ance, any­thing is pos­si­ble. You’ve been vul­ner­a­ble in the shar­ing of your expe­ri­ences and your sto­ries, and you have inspired count­less stu­dents to read, write, and dream. I’m for­ev­er grate­ful for your gen­eros­i­ty and friendship.

  2. Dear Avi,
    As a par­ent, I am so hon­ored that you would read to our stu­dents!! Your words about how you lis­ten to the feed­back from stu­dents, spo­ken and unspo­ken, are beau­ti­ful. Thank you SO much for doing this for our students!!
    Michelle Klem


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