How to Evaluate Children's Literature

Michele Meleen
girl reading

Children's literature offers a chance to expand your child's imagination and understanding of the world. Before approving books for your child, evaluate each one with a critical eye for content and skilled writing.

Explore Subject Matter

Focus evaluations on the actual content of the book.

  • What is the basic plot and does it contribute to your child's life?
  • What are the themes expressed throughout and are they appropriate for your child?
  • Are there words, scenes, or societal messages you don't want your child exposed to?
  • Does the plot or themes promote stereotypes?

Reading Levels

There are several current leveled reading systems used to evaluate a child's reading abilities and the interest level of a book. Find your child's reading level and the system your school subscribes to by asking a teacher or administrator in your district. Once you know your child's reading level, use the Scholastic Book Wizard to search books by reading level or title and determine if the desired book matches her abilities.

However, if your child's reading level isn't readily available, you can use the five-finger test which is a quick and easy way to tell if a book is appropriate or too hard. This works especially well if your local library does not level books the same way that your child's school does. Take a page from a book you want and have your child read it. For every word they do not know, put up one finger. Use the following scale to determine readability:

  • One finger means the book is well within your child's reading abilities.
  • Two fingers mean the book is still OK.
  • Three fingers suggest your child might struggle a bit - this book is best read together.
  • Four fingers mean the book is too hard. You should read it out loud to your child.
  • Five fingers mean you should get another book.

It's important to note, child's age, grade, and reading level don't necessarily match up with each other. Children with advanced reading skills need books with challenging vocabulary, but age-appropriate themes and content. Children who struggle with reading seek high interest, low reading level books to keep their interest without causing frustration.

Highly Creative Content

A great book is highly creative in story, illustration or both. Often, the most creative books find new ways to tell familiar old stories. Generally, in picture books, you want unique explanations of negative concepts like anger or death or complex concepts like problem-solving and friendship. In chapter books and novels, you're looking for stories with a deeper meaning embedded within. To check the creative nature of a book, ask yourself a few questions:

  • Has it been done before? (If it is the retelling of a familiar story, is it done in a new way?)
  • Does it further ignite the reader's imagination?
  • Does it expand real possibilities or engage the reader? (There is a line between creative and just plain strange.)
  • Is it thorough in completing characters, setting, etc.?

Interests and Preferences

Your child is more likely to complete and enjoy reading books about things she is interested in. Look for in-depth book reviews, like those on Common Sense Media, to get an idea of a book's setting, plot and theme. Ask your child to read the plot summary and tell you what they find interesting about it so you can make appropriate selections. Take into account your family's:

  • Boy reading in bed
    Morals
  • Beliefs
  • Values
  • Lifestyle
  • Educational standards
  • Worldview

Seek out materials that echo or enhance these standards in subtle ways.

Great Illustrations

Some books are known for their phenomenal illustrations. In the world of picture books, the illustrations are as important, if not more so, than the actual words. Books featuring illustrations with creative mediums, like work by Eric Carle or David Wiesner appeal to children's sense of wonder. Timeless, beautiful artwork by illustrators like Maurice Sendak and Beatrix Potter make books relatable by showcasing realistic scenes.

Books for younger children featuring detailed illustrations with hidden elements help readers find deeper meaning in simple text. Great books for older readers focus more on text and may not include illustrations.

Worthy Prose

Even if a book is creative and deals with its subject matter in a new way, the story still has to be written well. When possible, read the first few pages of a book and look for these characteristics prized by literary scholars:

  • Lyrical language that doesn't necessarily rhyme or follow poetic structure is ideal. You want the words to flow naturally as you read.
  • The insertion of some challenging vocabulary or uncommon words contributes to critical thinking skills.
  • Language that is thought-provoking and paints a picture as opposed to simply telling a story.

Awards and Accolades

Books that win specific awards have survived rigorous professional scrutiny to do so. The Caldecott Medal is awarded annually to the most distinguished picture book illustrator in the United States. Winning books feature a bronze medal on the cover to distinguish them. The Newbery Medal is awarded annually to an author from the previous year who contributed most to American children's literature and is also noted on winning book covers.

While these awards are two of the most famous in children's literature, there are hundreds of other accolades. The American Library Association lists all book awards in alphabetical order. The Database for Award Winning Children's Literature features a search option where you can input preferences to find quality books.

Reader and Expert Reviews

Critical reviews are helpful, but reader reviews also provide great insight. Goodreads is an established and trusted platform where parents can find honest book reviews from a variety of readers. Many online retailers feature customer reviews on each product page that can be sorted by their number of stars on the rating scale. Look for well-written, in-depth reviews that include a plot summary and thematic discoveries.

Elements of Great Literature

Professionals don't always agree on how to evaluate children's literature. Because the reading experience is largely subjective, there's no definitive set of standards on what makes a book good. When your child asks for a particular book, start by researching the title. If your child wants book suggestions, explore your resources together. Evaluating books for your kid doesn't have to be a solitary process; online resources are available and local professionals like librarians and teachers are always willing to share their expertise.

How to Evaluate Children's Literature