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Reading aloud with Missy Higgins, Brian Nankervis and Nick Cave: We Talk to the Founder of Story Box Library

October 23, 2015

Storybox Jane KennedyImagine having Jane Kennedy (Frontline) read you a classic Bob Graham picture book; Missy Higgins share a quirky Australian read, or Brian Nankervis (Rockwiz) introduce you to a new author!

That’s the experience offered by Story Box Library – an online resource offering video read-alouds (with at least one new reading added to the collection every week) as well as fascinating short films about the process of creating a book and supporting resources including detailed classroom discussion notes and activity ideas.

Better Reading Kids spoke to Nicole Brownlee, founder of Storybox Library about her vision for the project, some of her favourite children’s reads, meeting Nick Cave – and what exactly is involved in ‘nailing’ a great read-aloud (leaf-blowers in the background not withstanding)!

Better Reading Kids: Story Box Library is self-funded and crowd-funded: a real passion project. What inspired you to create it?

Story Box Nicole BrownleeNicole Brownlee: The idea for Story Box Library came to me whilst volunteering in my daughter’s classroom a few years ago. The children were watching a story being read on the interactive whiteboard. They were engaged, and the story was lovely.  What struck me, though, was that it was an American actor, reading an American book.  I was inspired – why not create an Australian equivalent that Australian children can better relate to, that showcases our incredible local talent?

BRK: What do you think are the key elements of good reading aloud? Are there particular read-aloud rules you set for your performers?

NB: Reading aloud is a confronting act for many of us. It is essentially a performance, so nerves can set in, even if it’s just your child or grandchild that you are reading to! I am lucky to have gained experience in this area as both a teacher and parent – but I still recall the fear that would flood my body when I first started out.

When filming, we try to ensure our performers feel as comfortable as possible. We ask them to imagine they have a child next to them who is looking at the images as they read, which helps them to slow down the pace.

We encourage the use of character voices, but not everybody does this, and in some instances, it is unnecessary. The most important thing is to make sure that our storyteller is relaxed and enjoying the book they are reading. Asking our storytellers to add their own insights and comments at the beginning or end of the story helps give them ownership over their performance.

I truly believe the key element of reading aloud is to relax and have fun. Oh, and choose a good book. That helps!

[Editor’s Note: While SBL’s main aim is to help teachers, librarians, child care organisations and parents share the love of reading with kids, we were interested to learn the resource is also now being used by public libraries as a complimentary tool for their storytime sessions and organisations such a Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital as a fun outlet for their patients. And – because it’s a valuable ‘model’ for reading aloud, some universities are also now using it in their teacher training courses.]

BRK: Pairing each story with the right reader must be challenging and a lot of fun! Please tell us about some of your recent favourite story-reader combinations.

Greetings from Sandy BeachNB: Absolutely, this aspect of running Story Box Library is indeed a highlight of my job. I love matching stories with readers; it gives me a great deal of pleasure when the original creators are happy with result.

Recently we had Justine Clarke read Bob Graham’s Greetings From Sandy Beach. Bob is one of my favourite children’s book creators and Justine was the ideal match – whimsical, intelligent and full of heart. We had fun pretending we were enjoying the summer breeze despite the fact that it was a very chilly Melbourne winter day. Luckily the sun was shining on poor Justine who was wearing a very pretty summer frock.  What you can’t see is the blanket wrapped around her legs.

Another pairing that I am extremely proud of is Somali refugee, Mariam Issa’s reading CBCA Picture Book of the Year winner, My Two Blankets (written by Irene Kobald &  illustrated by Freya Blackwood). We had to wait quite some time for Mariam to be available for filming as she is an in demand public speaker and runs her own Not For Profit organisation RAW – Resilient, Aspiring Women.

BRK: Which books and/or readers are you most excited to have been able to include in the Story Box Library?

NB: As far as books go, that’s a really hard choice!

Possibly the best thing about my job is that I get to indulge my passion. All the stories that you find on Story Box Library resonate with me in some way and are therefore indicative of my favourite Australian children’s books.

Storybox Andrew HansenAndrew Hansen (The Chaser) reading What’s Wrong With the Wobbegong? makes me laugh every time I watch it. I still don’t know how he read it in one take with all of those character voices…

Perhaps my most exciting moment was receiving an email from Nick Cave’s agent to say that Nick would like to read for Story Box Library. She added a date and time when he was free. We had him for an hour, and we did all we could to make that hour work! The added bonus was that in matching Nick with Aaron Blabey’s The Ghost of Miss Annabel Spoon, I discovered that Aaron was also a huge fan.  It is an honour to have facilitated something so meaningful for Aaron, and I like to think that Nick has, in turn, become a fan of his!

BRK: Can you share any funny or surprising moments from the filming process?

NB: Our production team believes we are cursed. Whenever we find the perfect spot, get our storyteller comfortable and our videographer set up – a leaf blower, lawn mower or chainsaw starts up!  It is incredibly frustrating and we often have to abort the original idea and resort to the back up plan. Many more of our stories would be set outside if it weren’t for this.

We have a lot of fun with our storytellers; many often make rather cheeky comments at the end of their reading. Colin Lane recently read Ruth Park’s When the Wind Changed and went off on a rant at the end. It was (and is) incredibly funny and you can watch some of it on our website, the rest we had to cut as it was a little too bold! One day we will put together a clip of outtakes that will be rated R.

BRK: Please tell us about the reaction to Story Box Library?

Story Box library owlNB: The reaction has been incredibly overwhelming for our small team. We are constantly surprised by the generosity people continue to show helping us share Australian stories with children around Australia. From the storytellers who give their time free of charge (yes, that’s true), to authors and illustrators offering prints of their work as giveaways.

There seems to be a lot of love out there for Story Box Library and people are really starting to take notice of all that we have achieved. I guess there is no reason for them not to. After all, it’s designed to encourage kids to enjoy books and stories. What’s not to love?

BRK: What should we expect from Story Box Library in the future – any plans to extend or add to your offer?

NB: The fact that we are working in the digital storytelling space and in a world of rapidly changing technology means that future possibilities are endless and exciting.

At the moment we are working on producing many more stories (we are approaching our 100th story which is incredibly exciting), interactive Classroom Ideas, more short films that explore the creative minds of our authors and illustrators, a fresh look to our website, more indigenous tales and storytellers, and closed captions added to our clips.

It is important to us to continue collaborating with organisations such as Australian Children’s Laureate (ACLA), The Children’s Book Council of Australia (CBCA), Kinderling children’s radio, and Australian Library and Information Association (ALIA) to not only support their initiatives, but also adds another facet to what we can offer families, libraries and educators.

BRK: Please tell us about some of the books that had an impact on YOU as a child.

NB: I have always been drawn to historical fiction, and grew up with books of this type in my life.

Ethel Turner’s Seven Little Australians, Ruth Park’s Playing Beattie Bow and Harp in the South, and Joan Lindsay’s Picnic At Hanging Rock all hold a special place in my heart. It probably comes as no surprise that these are all Australian classics.

Watch and listen to Aaron Blaabey reading The Brothers Quibble for Story Box Library at or a teaser for the new Too Busy Sleeping at . More information about Story Box Library can be found on their website.

Who would you love to have read you a story? Please tell us in comments. And if you like this story, please share it using the social buttons.

For more on reading aloud:

Our article on what happens to kids’ brains when they listen to a story, how picture books can develop vocabulary, and the Number 1 reason kids enjoy being read to

Our article on why it’s important that dads are involved in reading aloud

Our article on truly great reading aloud and storytelling


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