We’ve been blogging for roughly one year now (that announcement is forthcoming!) and I’d like to share with my followers some of the questions we ask ourselves when we do a book review. I have already blogged about this topic for my friend Dawn over at Dawn’s Disaster but I decided to tweak some of the information, add some more thoughts based on feedback I received, and share it with my followers over here.
Our reviews of picture books are slightly different from those of middle grade books because they are such different genres. For this post, I will discuss our criteria when examining picture books only. I will post, at a later date, about our review criteria for middle grade books.
1. Do children identify with the main character(s)?
Gender and age is the most obvious way that a child will identify with a character. My daughter prefers to read stories about girls her own age or older and my son prefers books with a boy as the main character. My daughter loved Phillipa Knickerbocker Glory and the Ice Cream Castle, whereas my son preferred Chase Danger Super Spy. Can you see why?
However, some books transcend gender, age, and other such physical traits and seek to find a connection with the reader through a character’s emotions or thoughts.
For example, in The Day No One Played Together by Donalisa Helsley, the two characters were girls, but my son could identify with the younger sister and having to negotiate with an older sister around playtime. He gave the book 5 stars. Thus, I hesitate to claim that the target audience for a particular book is solely dependent on the gender and age of the characters. One needs to explore the larger context of the story and anticipate whether ANY child can identify with what the characters are experiencing in the story, rather than simply seeing the physical similarities between themselves and the characters. Although, it cannot be denied: gender and age does matter, especially as children get older.
2. Is the Book Cover Interesting?
When you are perusing books in the library, in a bookstore, or even on-line your first impression of a book will always be made based on the cover of the book. The cover does matter. Allow me to illustrate. Which of the following children’s books about monkeys do you want to share with your child?
I rest my case…
3. Are the illustrations inside a book appealing to children?
Speaking of the cover, it only follows that this applies to the illustrations within a book as well. Do you know why Goodnight Moon by Margaret Brown Wise is such a great book (IMHO)? The illustrations. I will never forget the day when my daughter (who had not yet uttered a spoken word) responded to my question “Where is the red balloon?” while reading Goodnight Moon by putting her stubby little baby finger right on top of the red balloon. Before kids can read to themselves, they look at the pictures. It’s very simple: the illustrations must go with the story.
There is no single style that will necessarily be more appealing. Think of the range of artistry in picture books from Eric Carle‘s use of collage, to the beautiful watercolour pictures used in books such as Mem Fox’s Time for Bed (illustrated by Jane Dyer) and Laura Krauss Melmed’s I Love You As Much (illustrated by Henry Sorenson) to the use of bold and bright colours in Sandra Boynton‘s distinctive style.
4. Does the story appeal to children?
Will a child be interested in the story? How does does the story make your child feel? Sad, scared, happy, excited, melancholy? A good story will elicit at least one or more emotions (preferably not scared!). Does the story have a start, middle, and end (i.e., does it make any sense whatsoever)? We can all appreciate that even adult fiction sometimes doesn’t follow these rules, but it’s no different with children’s books. A good picture book relies on more than great illustrations and interesting characters – something needs to happen. If you want a child to be engaged with and emotionally invested in a story there needs to be a series of connected events (i.e., a plot). The ultimate sign that of an epic fail: I can’t answer their “Why?” questions because even I don’t know! It took a while for my kids to realize that when I respond to their questions with, “Well, what do YOU think?”, that usually means that I have no idea. 😉
5. Is the book fun to read aloud?
I cannot reiterate enough my love of rhyming text. Does a good picture book need rhyming text?
Yes, maybe, well, not really. Perhaps rhyme is not necessary, but if there is going to be rhyming, I expect proper rhyming and good cadence. Let me illustrate good rhyming and cadence first using an excerpt from Gimme Jimmy by Sherrill Cannon:
One day his daddy said, “Jimmy, my boy,
You must learn to share, or you’ll have little joy,
You’d better be careful, you must understand,
Your greed may show up in the size of your hand.”
Now an example of rhyming that doesn’t quite work from our recently reviewed Baby Unplugged – Blanket by John Hutton:
Blanket for parties, Blanket for dolls
These are not blankets at all!
Here are two additional lines from Book (also by Hutton) to demonstrate a lack of cadence:
Turn the page – what comes next?
Farmyard friends? Princess? Tyrannosaurus Rex?
It is such a different experience to read to a child than to read a novel silently to oneself. The issues with rhyme and cadence become apparent when reading a book out loud.
One final consideration regarding reading aloud is whether there are opportunities for a child join in because there are parts that are repetitive such as in The Napping House by Audrey and Don Wood (“And on that cat, there is a mouse, a slumbering mouse, on a snoozing cat, on a dozing dog, on a dreaming child, on a snoring granny, on a cozy bed…) or there are natural places for a child to contribute such as in Chicka Chicka “BOOM BOOM” by Bill Martin Jr. & John Archambault.
6. Is the word density age appropriate?
You’ll often see me commenting on word density or the number of words found on a page. With books for babies and young toddlers, one or two words per page is usually appropriate as they are trying to grasp simple concepts. As children get older, they can comprehend more complex word combinations and thoughts therefore word density can increase. The trick is finding the appropriate number of words (or think of it as the amount of time needed to read a page) to match with the complexity of the accompanying image. With a very simple image, there should be a few simple words or sentences. If it takes too long to read a page and your child is “done” looking at the picture, they will likely do what my children did: turn the page themselves before you are done reading it. Here are examples of pages with different word density (of course, you have to gauge what you think is appropriate for YOUR child – not every child is the same). These books are targeting the same age group (roughly 3 to 6 year olds) but the word density is drastically different especially with regards to the complexity of the accompanying image.
7. Is the language used age-appropriate?
There’s nothing like watching your child’s eyes glaze over or witnessing the loss of interest in the middle of reading a book because the language is either too simplistic or too complex. Striking the right balance in a book can be very tricky. A good book will use language that is rich, flowing, and challenging to the imagination. A good book will introduce new concepts in the text and on occasion will include a glossary with definitions of these new concepts. As we saw in the book LouLou by Safia Guerras, which introduced us to a culture different from ours (i.e., Maldivian), the author provided a glossary for words and concepts such as encyclopedia, continent, and global warming. It is my opinion that this provides additional educational value even in a picture storybook.
8. Do you and your child want to read the book again?
Like it or not, a good book will get frequent requests to be reread, again and again and again until you find yourself changing the words in the story just to keep it interesting for yourself (much to your children’s chagrin if they are anything like mine!) In my opinion, the best indicator of the quality of a book is ultimately whether or not your child pulls out that same book over and over because THEY LOVE IT! Sometimes you’ll find it’s the most unlikely book that becomes a favorite. We’ve listed our favorite picture books on our website: Our Favorite Children’s Books for Preschoolers 3 to 5 Years Old.
9. Does the book contain inappropriate or offensive content or imagery?
I decided to add an additional criteria based on feedback from my bloggy friend Christy (Another Step To Take). Christy raises an excellent point about how sadly, some books still contain and perpetuate racist or sexist concepts, imagery, or themes. So many classic children’s books have been criticized for being racist and thus have been re-written or even removed from bookshelves, (e.g., Hugh Lofting’s Dr. Doolittle; Raold Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia; Jean de Brunhoff’s Babar’s Travels).
While it is increasingly unusual (although not unheard of) to run across negative racial depictions (most likely due to those books being rejected by publishers and/or being publicly castigated by reviewers), we still do run across examples of stereotypical depictions of boys and girls. As we pointed out in The Day No One Played Together by Donalisa Helsley, the two girls in the story were largely portrayed playing stereotypically “girlie” games such as dressing up and singing, playing with dolls, and playing Mommy. But what was interesting in this particular book is that, in the only illustration of the Dad in the story, he is drawn reading a newspaper at the kitchen table, completely disengaged as the Mom is discussing things with her daughters. So, while these are not offensive, they do perpetuate gender stereotypes.
*** So, what do YOU think? How do YOU decide on a “Good Picture Book”? ***