Writing A Book Review
Welcome back, blog readers!
I promised you in my last guest post that I would say a bit more about writing book reviews. To recap, a book review has three main purposes:
- to persuade (or dissuade) a potential reader,
- to help out an author you like, and,
- to provide an opportunity for reflection and writing practice, particularly for those of us who are writers ourselves.
Obviously there are lots of different formats: a quick browse through reviews on Amazon, Goodreads, and even the New York Times will show anything from a quick two line gush about how much someone loved a book to a critical analysis resembling a term paper. If you’d like to go beyond the two-line review, you might think about some of the following points:
- Who would be the best audience for this book?
- What was the language like?
- Did anything about this book surprise or disappoint you?
- If there are illustrations (esp. for picture books) how do they complement the writing?
When I was in graduate school, professors frequently talked about the “triad” of literary connections:
- connect the text to yourself (and your experiences),
- connect the text to another text (What other works did this text remind you of?), and/or
- connect the text to the world (i.e. does it remind you of a similar situation in history or current events?)
Any of those connections can also make for a great foundation for your review.
I’m a big fan of the library comic strip “Unshelved,” by Gene Ambaum and Bill Barnes. On their website, they have a book club which includes book reviews. Most follow a format which covers some of the following points:
- Why I picked it up
- Why I finished it
- It’s perfect for
Book reviews on that site are concise and generally interesting to read, so when I decided to start reviewing picture books, I knew I needed to develop a similar format. I tend to ramble, so keeping myself within a few specific questions not only makes it manageable for me to write five in one sitting, but it also focuses my inquiry so my reviews don’t just say “Great book, I loved it, five stars!” (Though if that’s all you have time for, definitely still write the review-- the author will love you!). As a writer, it’s important for me to think about what the books I read can teach me about writing, so that makes up a good part of my review.
A note about negative book reviews: In the great Pixar film, Ratatouille, critic Anton Ego writes “We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read.” It can be fun to write a scathing review, and if you’re not a writer yourself, maybe a negative review is simply a way of warning others to steer clear of the book you hate. Just remember, authors are out there reading those reviews and they have feelings, too. Furthermore, if you’re a writer like me, you might want to save insulting your fellow authors for a bit of gossip at the bar. It doesn’t mean you can’t criticize anything, but if I truly don’t like a book, I won’t post a review on my blog. It’s a small world, and you just never know who is reading. Stay professional.
Now let’s take a walk-through of a sample review. I’ve chosen the adorable picture book Brett Bear and the Cheeky Chipmunks.
Title: Brett Bear and the Cheeky Chipmunks
Author: FM Clark and GK Sihat
Illustrator: Christine Price
Publisher/Date: Lightning Source UK/Milton Keynes UK (September, 2015)
The “gist”: Brett Bear comes to life when his family isn’t at home. Today he wakes up the chipmunks who are Lucy’s new pets and gets to know them-- but it doesn’t go so well. They are, as the title says, “cheeky”!
My favorite part: I felt so badly for poor Eddie, the pet dog, when the chipmunks jumped on his back and pulled his ears to make him go left and right around the house. It was a great high point of their mischievous nature!
[My second favorite part was the little bit in the kitchen which gave away how British the book is: the tea caddy falls over, and the chipmunks squirt “washing-up liquid” at each other.]
My response as a reader: To be honest, my first response was “Who in Heck gives a kid six chipmunks as a pet?” But seeing as we have chipmunks living under our woodpile and they are pretty darned adorable, it’s easy enough to suspend my disbelief. I would have liked to see the book continue just a bit more for Brett’s sake, but I won’t spoil the ending by explaining that!
My “take-away” as a writer: I loved the way the text in this story left plenty of room for adorable illustrations. There’s also a good amount of repetition as poor Brett says “Stop, you mustn’t do that!” Brett Bear’s character is a good “stand-in” for a typical child: curious and playful, but ultimately responsible and able to solve the problem he has created (Remember writers, your main character should solve his/her own problems!).
∞ ∞ ∞
My challenge to you? Think of the last book you finished reading and post a review on Amazon or Goodreads (or both!) Don’t think too much about it, just do it! If you like, share your review (or a link to it) in comments!