Evaluating picture books is an important part of a children's librarian's work, and at least a small part of the lives of anyone who works with or has children. Below are ten of the strategies I use to determine a picture book's quality. I wrote the list from a librarian's point of view, but many of the points listed can be applied to blog reviews, personal library purchases, and classroom use.
- Listen to the language.
A truly great picture book will flow smoothly, with no clunky rhymes, confusing transitions, or awkward sentence structures. Most picture books are intended to be read aloud, either one-on-one or in a group, so reading the book aloud, even just to yourself, should give you a good idea of its quality.
- “Read” the illustrations.
A picture book is nothing without pictures! Take some time to really explore the illustrations separate from the text. Look for those little details that children will linger over as their caregivers read to them. Pay attention to the way the illustrator portrays characters and setting based on the cues given by the author. The illustrations should enrich, not detract from, the author’s work.
- Observe cooperation between words and pictures.
In a successful picture book, the words and illustrations work together to tell the story. There will be details in the illustrations that are not directly mentioned in the text, and vice versa. In the ideal situation, the pictures are just as important as the words and the story’s meaning is dependent upon both elements.
- Imagine the intended audience.
Some picture books are for adults, others for teens and tweens, and still others for beginning readers, or babies. Figuring out who a book is geared toward can help you decide how to think about it as you consider its strengths and weaknesses. If the book doesn’t work for a preschooler, think about a group for which it might be more developmentally appropriate and imagine how they might respond.
- Reflect on all the possible uses of the book.
Many books are intended for story time, but many others are not. Be careful not to dismiss a well-written book simply because it doesn’t suit the purpose you have in mind. If you can’t share the book in story time as is, brainstorm ways to adapt it to a more crowd-friendly format, such as a flannel board or puppet show. If it’s just not a story time book, suggest it to individual readers, either in a reader’s advisory transaction or through a display. Ranganathan’s third law, every book its reader, requires us to consider the many possible readers of a book, and not just whether or not we like it or can use it ourselves.
- Eliminate “cute” from your vocabulary.
Some books are cute. There is no question. I want to cuddle the animals in Zooborns, and there is nothing more adorable than the illustrations in the Stella Batts books. Cuteness, however, says nothing about quality. Other words to drop from your repertoire include interesting, neat, fun, and nice. Instead, use meaningful terms that describe the book’s focus and function.
- Keep an eye out for errors and stereotypes.
Many older books - even some considered classics - are plagued by stereotypical language. Try to be aware of these issues before promoting a book heavily or using it in a program. Also consider weeding - or at least putting into storage - books with outdated or inaccurate information. (The worst offenders right now are books like So You Want to be President? the older editions of which state that there has never been a president of color, and any space book where Pluto is identified as a planet.)
- Consider the design.
A book’s design often contributes to its reader’s enjoyment. Notice how the author uses page turns to create drama and suspense. Pay attention to how the illustrator works with the book’s gutter (the place in the center of the book where the pages come together.) Books also sometimes include important information on the end papers, front cover, title page, and back cover, all of which contribute to the book's overall effect.
- Compare to canon.
It can be difficult to evaluate a picture book in a vacuum, but you really don’t have to. Become familiar with the classics and the award winners to give yourself a strong foundation in what is already in the canon. Then, when you evaluate a new book, you have context. By comparing a book to others of high quality, it becomes easier to see its strengths and flaws, and also to figure out which readers might like it best.
- Look beyond your personal preferences.
Do I like this book? and Is this book any good? are two different questions. I like certain types and genres of books, but that doesn’t mean those titles are the only quality literature available. Using the criteria on this list you should be able to take an objective inventory of a book’s strengths and weaknesses that will help you decide whether a particular picture book is successful separate from whether or not you personally enjoy it.