I’ve regularly pondered how to choose "good" books in my eight years as a parent, as well as during my nine years of public school teaching before then. After all, we ought as Christ-followers to take very seriously our God-ordained calling to train up our children in His ways and to protect their minds and hearts. Yet, it’s a complicated issue. For one thing, there are so many books to consider that the task of discernment seems impossible. In addition, there exists a wide range of opinions – even among Christians – about what’s appropriate; thus, it’s surely impossible to absolutely agree on an acceptable “canon” of good books.
I use some of the print and online resources mentioned below. They're helpful. But, when asked – by our kids or others – to justify our decisions about particular books, we need to have the courage of our own convictions. In other words, we need to know what we believe and why when it comes to this topic, as with any other.
With that in mind, I’ve uncovered six “tests” I’ve heretofore used unconsciously when deciding about particular books for my children. They’re somewhat progressive, meaning that a book must pass muster on the first before I consider the second – and failing any of the tests usually disqualifies the book.
1. Does the book have some laudable literary value?
Not every book needs to be the kid equivalent of Shakespeare, but I’ve sometimes come away from reading a picture book or scanning the beginning of a young adult novel thinking, “A trained monkey could write better than that!” Unfortunately, such a response is not unusual because a lot of what passes for children’s literature fails to deliver in terms of basic story elements (For example, a book might lack a cohesive plotline, deep characterization, or a rich and age-appropriate vocabulary.). Since one of the keys to eventually becoming a good writer is reading well-written literature, I automatically winnow such books from my kids’ reading lists; I just see no purpose in exposing them to poor writing when plenty of good examples exist.
2. What’s my “gut reaction” to a quick-read?
I can scan a picture book quickly. With “chapter books” and works for older kids, it’s trickier because I don’t have time to completely pre-read everything my children will eventually want to consider. That’s where books and websites that provide reviews come in handy. But I believe it’s still imperative for me as the parent to read at least the first chapter or two of a book that interests my child – especially the first one he might read by a particular author. And first responses are important. Just this summer, I previewed two novels I thought my daughters might like, and each passed Test #1 with flying colors. However, each also contains thematic elements I think are inappropriate for my children at this time. I was on vacation so I read the books in their entirety, but I knew by the end of each one’s first chapter that they wouldn’t work right now. Reviewers don’t know my particular children so they couldn’t provide the “gut check” I got by reading just a little for myself.
Have these two tests piqued your interest? Got you thinking about certain books – whether your child is four or 14 – which you might use to “test the tests?” I hope so! And I hope you’ll look for our next issue when I’ll describe my remaining four tests.
Read Good Books, Part 2 here.
Read Good Books, Part 3 here.
DR. KATHY KOCH'S RECOMMENDED WAYS TO LEARN ABOUT AND CHOOSE CHILDREN'S BOOKS (from Vol. 4, Issue 18 of Authentic Hope from Celebrate Kids, Inc.):
* Ask a children's librarian and the librarian at your child's school for recommendations;
* Ask for recommendations at good bookstores, especially Christian bookstores. They'll know about the wonderful series for children, preteens, and teens;
* Read The Read-Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease (Penguin Publishers, sixth edition, 2006);
* Read Gladys Hunt's books: Honey for a Child's Heart, ... a Teen's Heart, and ...a Woman's Heart. (Zondervan, 2002, dated but still excellent);
* Read the appendix in MegaSkills by Dorothy Rich (SourceBooks, 2008). Children's books are categorized by these character qualities: confidence, motivation, effort, responsibility, initiative, perseverance, caring, teamwork, problem-solving, common sense, focus, and respect (Books are not annotated.);
* Go to Choices Booklists for these annotated book lists: Children's Choices, Teachers' Choices, and Young Adults' Choices. (International Reading Association);
* Go to ALA Library Fact Sheet 23 for many booklists from the American Library Association (Be careful. As with any source, just because they say it's a good book doesn't mean it's good for your child.);
* Go to Notable Tradebooks for Young People for annotated lists (National Council for the Social Studies);
* Go to www.parents-choice.org. On the home page, go to "reading" for annotated lists like these: "What-Kids-Who-Don't-Like-To-Read-Like-To-Read" and "A Book List for Boys." Also, on the home page, "Encouraging Invention" is marvelous;
* Go to www.factsonfiction.org. This site has an easy to use search engine. Click on the book's title and then on one of the categories in the chart to the right. The details that you'll see next are very helpful!
* Go to www.squeakycleanreviews.com. This site reviews books using a Christian perspective and also has an easy to use search engine. Click on the book's title for helpful comments, a plot summary, etc.