Book Review Writing
Download the PDF version of this lesson plan.
If you love to read, at some point you will want to share a book you love with others. You may already do this by talking about books with friends. If you want to share your ideas with more people than your circle of friends, the way you do that is by writing a review. By publishing the reviews you write, you can share your ideas about books with other readers around the world.
It's natural for young readers to confuse book reviews with book reports, yet writing a book review is a very different process from writing a book report. Book reports focus on the plot of the book. Frequently, the purpose of book reports is to demonstrate that the books were read, and they are often done for an assignment.
A book review is a totally different task. A book review's purpose is to help people decide whether or not the book would interest them enough to read it. Reviews are a sneak peek at a book, not a summary. Like wonderful smells wafting from a kitchen, book reviews lure readers to want to taste the book themselves.
This guide is designed to help you become a strong book reviewer, a reader who can read a book and then cook up a review designed to whet the reading appetites of other book lovers.
Form: What should the review look like?
HOW LONG SHOULD IT BE?
The first question we usually ask when writing something is "How long should it be?" The best answer is "As long as it takes," but that's a frustrating answer. A general guideline is that the longer the book, the longer the review, and a review shouldn't be fewer than 100 words or so. For a long book, the review may be 500 words or even more.
If a review is too short, the review may not be able to fulfill its purpose. Too long, and the review may stray into too much plot summary or lose the reader's interest.
The best guide is to focus less on how long to write and more on fulfilling the purpose of the review.
HOW DO YOU CREATE A TITLE?
The title of the review should convey your overall impression and not be overly general. Strong titles include these examples:
- "Full of action and complex characters"
- "A nail-biter that will keep you up all night"
- "Beautiful illustrations with a story to match"
- "Perfect for animal lovers"
Weak titles may look like this:
- "Really good book"
- "Three stars"
- "Pretty good"
- "Quick read"
HOW SHOULD IT BEGIN?
Although many reviews begin with a short summary of the book (This book is about…), there are other options as well, so feel free to vary the way you begin your reviews.
In an introductory summary, be careful not to tell too much. If you retell the entire story, the reader won't feel the need to read it him/herself, and no one appreciates a spoiler (telling the end). Here are some examples of summaries reviewers from The New York Times have written:
"A new picture book tells a magically simple tale of a lonely boy, a stranded whale and a dad who rises to the occasion."
"In this middle-grade novel, a girl finds a way forward after the loss of her mother."
"Reared by ghosts, werewolves and other residents of the hillside cemetery he calls home, an orphan named Nobody Owens wonders how he will manage to survive among the living having learned all his lessons from the dead. And the man Jack — who killed the rest of Nobody's family — is itching to finish the job."
"In vivid poems that reflect the joy of finding her voice through writing stories, an award-winning author shares what it was like to grow up in the 1960s and 1970s in both the North and the South." Other ways to begin a review include:
- Quote: A striking quote from the book ("It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.") can make for a powerful beginning. This quote begins George Orwell's novel 1984.
- Background: What makes this book important or interesting? Is the author famous? Is it a series? This is This is how Amazon introduces Divergent: "This first book in Veronica Roth's #1 New York Times bestselling Divergent trilogy is the novel the inspired the major motion picture."
- Interesting Fact: For nonfiction books in particular, an interesting fact from the book may create a powerful opening for a review. In this review of The Middle East by Philip Steele, Zander H. of Mid-America Mensa asks, "Did you know that the Saudi Arabia's Rub' al-Khali desert reaches temperatures of 140 degrees Fahrenheit in the day and plummets to the freezing point at night?"
- Explanation of a term: If a word or phrase in the book or title is confusing or vitally important to understand, you may wish to begin the review explaining that term.
Process: What should I write about?
Deciding what to say about the book can be challenging. Use the following ideas as a guide, but remember that you should not put all of this into a single review — that would make for a very long review! Choose the things that fit this particular book best.
What the reader ought to know
- What kind of book is it? (Picture book? Historical fiction? Nonfiction? Fantasy? Adventure?)
- Does the book belong to a series?
- How long is the book? Is it an easy or a challenging read?
- Is there anything that would be helpful for the reader to know about the author? For instance, is the author an expert in the field, the author of other popular books, or a first-time author?
- How does the book compare to other books on the same topic or in the same genre?
- Is the book written in a formal or informal style? Is the language remarkable in any way?
- What ages is the book geared to?
- Is the book written in normal prose? If it is written in poetic form, does it rhyme?
Writing about the plot is the trickiest part of a review because you want to give the reader a feel for what the book is about without spoiling the book for future readers. The most important thing to remember is that you must never give away the ending. No one likes a spoiler.
One possibility for doing this is to set up the premise (A brother and a sister find themselves lost in the woods at the mercy of an evil witch. Will they be able to outsmart her and escape?). Another possibility is to set up the major conflict in the book and leave it unresolved (Sometimes the waiting is the hardest part or He didn't know what he stood to lose or Finding your purpose in life can be as easy as finding a true friend.)
Try to avoid using the tired phrase "This book is about…" Instead, just jump right in (The stuffed rabbit wanted more than anything to live in the big old house with the wild oak trees.)
Who lives in the book?
Reviews should answer questions about the characters in fiction books or non-fiction books about people. Some possible questions to answer include:
- Who are the main characters? Include the protagonist and antagonist.
- What makes them interesting?
- Do they act like real people act or are they too good or too evil to be believable?
- Are they human?
- What conflicts do they face?
- Are they likeable or understandable?
- How do they connect with each other?
- Do they appear in other books?
- Could you relate to any of the characters in the story?
- What problems did the main characters face?
- Who was your favorite character, and why?
- We learn about characters from things they do and say, as well as things other characters say about them. You may wish to include examples of these things.
What is the book about at its heart?
What is the book really about? This isn't the plot, but rather the ideas behind the story. Is it about the triumph of good over evil or friendship or love or hope? Some common themes include: change, desire to escape, facing a challenge, heroism, the quest for power, and human weaknesses.
Sometimes a book will have a moral — a lesson to learn. If so, the theme is usually connected to that moral. As you write about the theme, try to identify what makes the book worth reading. What will the reader think about long after the book is finished? Ask yourself if there any particular lines in the book that strike you as meaningful.
Where are we?
The setting is the time and place the story occurs. When you write about the setting in a review, include more than just the location. Some things to consider:
- Is the book set in the past, present or future?
- Is it set in the world we know or is it a fantastical world?
- Is it mostly realistic with elements of fantasy (animals that can talk, for example)?
- Is the setting unclear and fuzzy, or can you easily make the movie in your mind?
- How much does the author draw you into the setting and how does s/he accomplish that?
OPINION & ANALYSIS
What do you really think?
This is where the reviewer shares his/her reactions to the book that go beyond the essential points described above. You may spend half of the review on this section. Some possible questions to address include:
- Why do you think other readers would enjoy it? Why did you enjoy it (if you did) or why didn't you (if you didn't).
- What ages or types of readers do you think would like the book?
- How does it compare with other books that are in the same genre or by the same author?
- Does the book engage your emotions? If a book made you laugh or cry or think about it for days, be sure to include that.
- What do you like or dislike about the author's writing style? Is it funny? Is it hard to follow? Is it engaging and conversational in tone?
- How well do you think the author achieved what s/he was going for in the writing of the book? Do you think you felt what the author was hoping you would feel?
- Did the book feel complete, or did it feel as though key elements were left out?
- How does the book compare to other books like it you've read?
Are there parts that are simply not believable, even allowing for the reader's understanding that it is fiction or even fantasy?
- Are there mistakes?
- Would you describe the book as for entertainment, self-improvement, or information?
- What was your favorite part of the book?
- Would you have done anything differently had you been the author?
- Would any reader enjoy this book? If not, to what ages or type of reader would it appeal?
Special situations: Nonfiction and young reviewers
Some of the tips and ideas above work best for fiction, and some of it is a little too complicated for very young reviewers.
What to do if it's real
When reviewing a book of nonfiction, you will want to consider these questions:
- What was the author's purpose in writing the book? Did the author accomplish that purpose?
- Who is the target audience for the book?
- What do you think is the book's greatest value? What makes it special or worthwhile?
- Are the facts shared accurate?
- Is the book interesting and hold your attention?
- Would it be a useful addition to a school or public library?
- If the book is a biography or autobiography, how sympathetic is the subject?
- Is it easy to understand the ideas?
- Are there extra features that add to the enjoyment of the book, such as maps, indexes, glossaries, or other materials?
- Are the illustrations helpful?
Keeping it simple
Reviewing a book can be fun, and it's not hard at all. Just ask yourself these questions:
- What is the book about? You don't need to tell the whole story over — just give an idea of what it's about.
- Do you think other people would like it?
- Did you think it was funny or sad?
- Did you learn something from the book?
- l Did you think it was interesting?
- Would you want to read it again?
- Would you want to read other books by the same author or about the same subject?
- What was your favorite part?
- Did you like the pictures?
Remember! Don't give away the ending. Let's keep that a surprise.
GENERAL TIPS & IDEAS
Use a few quotes or phrases (keep them short) from the book to illustrate the points you make about the book. If there are illustrations, be sure to comment on those. Are they well done? Has the illustrator done other well-known books?
Make sure you include a conclusion to the review — don't leave it hanging. The conclusion can be just one sentence (Overall, this book is a terrific choice for those who…).
You can use the transition word handout at the end of the Writer's Toolbox to find ideas for words to connect the ideas in your review. If you would like to read some well-written reviews, look for reviews of books for young people at The New York Times or National Public Radio.
How to award stars?
Most places you post reviews ask you to rate the book using a star system, typically in a range of from one to five stars. In your rating, you should consider how the book compares to other books like it. Don't compare a long novel to a short poetry book — that's not a valid comparison.
It's important to remember that it's not asking you to only give five stars to the very best books ever written.
- 5 Stars: I'm glad I read it or I loved it (this doesn't mean it was your favorite book ever).
- 4 Stars: I like it. It's worth reading.
- 3 Stars: It wasn't very good.
- 2 Stars: I don't like it at all.
- 1 Star: I hate it.
Continue to examples
- Chart paper and markers
- Book Review Writing Tips Checklist printable
- Computer and projector
- Write a Book Review With Rodman Philbrick: A Writing with Writers Activity
- Scholastic Video Booktalks
- Writing paper and pencils
- Access to online book reviews (start with Goodreads and Book Loons)
- Sample Student-Friendly Book Reviews printable
- Students' reading notebooks and book responses from throughout the school year
- Setting the Stage printable
- Book Review Rubric printable
- Share What You're Reading online activity
- We Recommend... Example Class Magazine Cover printable
- Students' food and movie reviews from the first two lessons of the unit
- Optional: Space Odyssey music
- Optional: Plot Diagram printable
- Optional: Book reviews written by former students
- Optional: Template for Student Book Recommendations printable
- Visit Goodreads and Book Loons to compile example book reviews. The abundance of wealth within these links will allow you to modify your lessons as desired. You will definitely want a set of multiple reviews that provide different opinions of one particular book. You can compare and contrast the reviews in class.
- Make class sets of the Book Review Writing Tips Checklist, Sample Student-Friendly Book Reviews, and Setting the Stage printables.
- If you want students to use a plot diagram to help them organize the patterns they find in book reviews, make a class set of the Plot Diagram printable.
- Decide which rubric you want to use to assess student writing (the Book Review Rubric, the Writing With Writers Book Review Rubric, or your own version) and make a class set for students to review.
- Print a color copy of the We Recommend... Example Class Magazine Cover or plan to display it with the projector.
Part 1: The Final Frontier — Where No Other Writing Had Gone Before 1994
Assessment Note: This is a culminating unit lesson on review writing. A heavier weight and responsibility should be given to content and conventions. Individual conferences should continue to drive instruction for areas of need individually and one on one.
Note that this is not a spin on book reports, which are usually grounded in a summary report. Book reviews require higher-order thinking/application and assume a solid knowledge and understanding of the book. Through the use of ongoing conferences, we don't need to use a book report for assessing understanding.
Step 1: With the Space Odyssey music playing in the background, announce to your class that you have reached the final "frontier" of review writing — the most important review writing of them all, the review study that is becoming popular online, the one they will need to know well for their remaining years on planet Earth — dramatic pause — book reviews. If your students groan, this would be a good time to explain the difference between a book review and a book report.
Step 2: Announce that you have saved the best for last, as your students' writing will reach new levels and go where no other students' writing had gone before 1994: the internet.
Step 3: Start a conversation with your class on the importance of book review writing. Let this develop into the evolving importance of using technology to promote ideas, such as book selections. Ask students if they have ever read an online book review before. Have students share their experiences with doing so and share your own.
Step 4: On a blank piece of chart paper, write the following question: What makes a good book review? Allow time for students to discuss and post their thoughts.
Step 5: Pass out the Book Review Writing Tips Checklist printable. Compare the class thoughts with the printed review tips. What was missing? Use this information for an area of focus with instruction.
Step 6: You will want to follow this up with a class visit to the Write a Book Review With Rodman Philbrick: A Writing With Writers Activity. This is a fantastic resource and should not be overlooked. Author Rodman Philbrick leads writers through a thorough step-by-step look at book review writing.
Step 7: Another fantastic resource is Scholastic's video booktalk collection. What's especially nice about the reviews is that they are about popular books, short, and well written. Take time to show off this resource with students and invite them to visit the site at home if they would like some new book suggestions.
Step 8: Ask students to turn to a partner to share some of the things they have learned so far about book review writing. Listen in as students are talking and use this time to record what you are hearing and not hearing from the students.
Step 9: Have students return to their desks and complete a written reflection.
Part 2: Review of Reviews — One Small Step for Books, One Giant Leap for Readers and Writers of All Kinds
Assessment Note: This portion assumes that your students are completing weekly written reflections on what is being read in class and at home. Each of my students use the Reader's Notebook by Fountas and Pinnell to record their reflections.
Look closely at your students' selection of book reviews and responses. Sometimes poor writing is an indicator of a lack of understanding. Take this opportunity to consider meeting with students individually to help select books of high interest and readability. You may need to give an informal running record if a student seems to be lacking comprehension of the book they are reviewing.
Step 1: Hand out the Sample Student-Friendly Book Reviews printable and share the resource links. The printable offered here came from Goodreads and Book Loons. On Goodreads, I was able to find multiple reviews from registered visitors, as well as professional book reviews.
Step 2: Focus on multiple review listings for one particular book. Compare and contrast two reviews that provide different opinions. How are they alike? How are they different? Use this information to review the reviews. Review more reviews to see if there is a pattern (e.g. Do they provide a summary? Any spoilers?).
Step 3: Continue reading book reviews for writing assistance. Incorporate saved book reviews written by former students, if available. Post the patterns noticed by the class on chart paper (e.g. describes setting, has a central character, conflict, etc.). Utilize the Plot Diagram printable if desired.
Step 4: Ask students to pull out their personal book responses and reviews. Ask students to read their own work with the eye of a reviewer. What do they notice? Have students record their notes on a separate sheet of paper.
Step 5: Have students select one personal book response to share with a partner. Have the partner take the separate sheet of paper and record their observations as well. If you are concerned that some of your students will be too critical, try implementing the two stars, one wish method. For every item you recommend for revision, you provide two things that they are doing well.
Step 6: Inform students that they will be reflecting critically on their own book review/response writing before writing a review that demonstrates their very best writing capabilities.
Part 3: Writing for the Web and Beyond — Blast Off!
Assessment Note: Although I stress being mindful of writing conventions for the audience, I don't expect my students to master skills not addressed yet in the school year or that are developmentally inappropriate. If a student, for example, uses a compound sentence in their writing but forgets to place the comma, that's okay. You may determine during a conference that this is the one skill you would like to address with the student and make the corrections, but I am not advocating error-free writing for publishing. We use a "this is my best" approach for assessing where a student is during the school year.
Step 1: Remind students of the importance of revision and editing when publishing for an audience. Share an example of how a student piece (from another year) made it difficult to read and keep interest. Discuss how thoughtful consideration of conventions is a courtesy for readers and imperative for larger audiences. Set guidelines on convention standards for your group and assist your students with spelling strategies such as circle and return, using a no excuse list for checking, and consulting their spelling dictionary.
Step 2: Pass out the Setting the Stage printable to each student, as well as copies of the Book Review Rubric printable. Another excellent online rubric that you can complete and print quickly is the Writing With Writers Book Review Rubric.
Step 3: Using the Setting the Stage printable, have students imagine the opening to a great movie. Remind students that a great beginning grabs the reader's attention and makes them want to read more. Hold a discussion on how writers set the stage by jumping into a scene of a story, describing what they see, or going straight to the action. Take a minute to look back at student movie reviews. Just look at the first sentence or two of the reviews students have written.
Step 4: Have students take time to create their book review introduction using the Setting the Stage printable.
Step 5: Have students exchange book review introductions with partners for review and suggestions.
Step 6: Review the rubric that will be used for assessment and ask students to give their best. Again remind students that this writing is geared for a large audience and deserves the care of revision and editing.
Step 7: When students have completed their book review, give them the option to visit Scholastic's Share What You're Reading online book reviews written by students and follow the directions for posting their book review online.
Step 8: Collect students' final book reviews and place them in a class magazine with the food and movie reviews from the first two lessons. Have students work together to create a fun cover for the magazine (see the We Recommend... Example Class Magazine Cover).
Writing a book review allows students the support of writing about a book that meets their individual needs. From your students that are reading far above grade level to those who are not quite there yet, each child is able to write about a book that interests them as a reader and writer.
- Invite students to start sharing their reviews for your reading community. I have students use the Template for Student Book Recommendations printable that follows the pattern of a popular bookstore. Post these recommendations, with the book, in your classroom.
- With the help of a green screen, create a book review in the fashion of Reading Rainbow. You can import a picture of the book for the background.
- See if you can pair up with a local bookstore to provide an area for displaying books with your students' reviews.
- Support reading reviews year-long by responding back in writing. This could simply be a post-it note placed in your students' reading logs.
- Encourage students to place small notes of recommendation on or inside the sleeves of a book in the classroom. Students enjoy the nice surprise of an impromptu book review a la post-it note.
The most important home connection you can make this year is helping students read deeply in and out of school. Help provide the resources as well as tips to creating a comfortable reading environment at home. When students authentically enjoy reading, they will want to share the good things that they are reading with others.
- For posting book reviews online, consider waiting until you have a scheduled visit to your technology lab. You can work with your coordinator to help work get published quickly and efficiently.
- For book report writing, I recommend incorporating other options that supports multiple intelligence research. This includes options such as acting out a scene in a book or creating a comic strip to demonstrate an event in the story.
- Provide flexibility in your schedule. If your students take the interest somewhere not planned, be open to shifting reviews.
Considering that we ask our students to respond to and reflect upon what they are reading on a weekly basis, all year long, I feel we need to provide the time and resources to show students what good review writing looks like, feels like, and sounds like ("If it sounds good, it is good!"). So when it comes to assessing students and this study, you are setting the stage for a year-long study and progression of assessment.
I recommend the continued use of individual conferences, small group discussions and talk, book talks, use of rubrics, and increased level of responsibility on conventions as the year progresses. Small, workable steps will aid in creating a steady progress for each of your students this year.
- Students read a wide range of print to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world.
- Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.
- Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print.
- Students conduct research on issues and interests by generating ideas and questions, and by posing problems. They gather, evaluate, and synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g., print, artifacts, people) to communicate their discoveries in ways that suit their purpose and audience.