Through the Magic Door™ One of our most important activities is creating a review that can quickly and easily be scanned by a parent or teacher to understand to some depth the contents and nature of the story and more particularly so that they can form a view as to whether 1) this would be of interest to themselves and their child and 2) determine how best to handle material in reading or discussing with the child. We refer to this outcome as transparency, i.e. the reviews are a shortcut to the determination to buy the book and then can be used as a tool for the effective use of the book, without, in the beginning, having to read every book being considered.
When distilling a book to its essence, the art of the reviewer is in revealing as much as is necessary without turning the story to dust. This requires considerable judgment. The perspective we always need to use as our lodestar is that of the parent. Is there anything unrevealed in the review which is material to the decision-making of the parent in terms of deciding whether this is appropriate for their child?
We are creating this guide to ensure some consistency among reviewers. We encourage the distinctive voice and view point of our reviewers but we do want there to be some recognized commonality and consistency between reviewers. After the initial review draft, each review is subject to redrafting and final editing at the discretion of TTMD™.
Normal writing guidelines are expected such as use of active voice. See Strunk & Whites’ “Elements of Style” and Robert Graves’ “The Reader Over Your Shoulder”.
Keep in mind the audience of these reviews; very busy parents, very busy teachers, and curious fresh-eyed children. Brevity and succinctness are highly valued. We don’t want it to take more that a couple of minutes to read the review but having read it, the reader should have a good comprehension the nature of the book and have some ideas about how to use it with a child for discussion purposes.
We presume you will write what you want to say. We then ask you to review and tighten up your draft by eliminating everything from what you want to say except what you need to say. Finally, before sending in, please have one last review and remove everything except what your reader needs to know.
“Harold and the Purple Crayon”
Author: Crockett Johnson
Confirmation of Product Data Confirm that the provided information such as author, illustrator, pages, etc. are correct. Also confirm:
Category – Fiction or non-fiction. Use a tight definition – a fictionalized version of an historical event is still fiction.
Genre – What is the story genre, an adventure story, mystery, biographical, reference, etc.
Product – Book, audio CD, DVD, etc.
Language – What language is the story written in? If it was originally in another language and has been translated into English, then the designation is English.
Religious Tradition - Designate if it is clear and germane to the story and therefore to one’s comprehension. Otherwise, leave unspecified.
Author (Male or Female)
Illustrator (Male or Female)
Author Country of Origin
Illustrator Country of Origin
Protagonist (Male, Female, Multiple)
Reading Level For an objectively measured reader level, we are relying on the Lexile measurement which is available for most books through:
http://www.lexile.com/DesktopDefault.aspx?view=fa Separate from the attempted objective measure of reading level, there are traditionally four other broad categories of reading level which are actually kind of a mix of style of book and age of readers. We have tried to synthesize these mixed categories below. Please use the table that follows to designate the level of difficulty for Picture Books and Learning to Read books.
Picture Book – A book with illustrations on virtually every page or every other page and tightly integrated with the story text. Quite frequently the text is superimposed on the picture which fills the entire page. Typically a non-reading child can infer much of the story solely through the pictures and the illustrations are most often reasonably detailed so that a child being read to is simultaneously engaged in a sustained fashion with examining the illustration. The story attendant to a Picture Book can range from very simple to quite complex in terms of language, concepts and complexity of story structure. It therefore also covers a fairly wide range of ages. Examples: “Bread and Jam for Frances” by Russell Hoban, “Curious George” by H.A. Rey, “Goodnight Moon” by Margaret Wise Brown
Learn to Read - These books are characterized not so much by their nature (like a Picture Book) as by their purpose, i.e. they are specifically written and designed to assist children in the early stages of their learning to read. What this usually means is that while the book is heavily illustrated, with text on the picture pages, the illustrations tend to be simple in style. The intent is for the child to focus on the text and only use the illustrations as a supplement and aid to their reading. Because these books are written as a means to assist in the learning to read process, the age tends to be a little more compressed than with Picture Books. You would not typically use a Learn to Read book to read aloud to a two year old. Similarly at the upper end, the Learn to Read books may have reasonably extensive vocabulary but may not have some of the concept and story complexity that you might find in some of the upper end Picture Books. Examples: Berenstain Bears series, “The Cat in the Hat” by Dr. Seuss, “Go Dog Go” by P.D. Eastman, Magic Treehouse series by Mary Pope Osborne, “Little Bear” by Else Holmelund Minarik.
Independent Reader – Independent Reader books are usually (but not always) chapter books that still have a reasonable sprinkling of illustrations. At this stage, the illustrations are really more of an aesthetic compliment to the story rather than a reading aid. There are typically a range of levels of complexity in language, concepts and complexity of story but still usually not high levels around all three simultaneously. It is not uncommon that individual chapters still retain the characteristic of being able to be read independently, i.e. one chapter leads to another but each chapter is a story in its own right as well. Examples: “Pippi Longstocking” by Astrid Lindgren, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” by Roald Dahl, The Hardy Boys (Franklin W. Dixon) and Nancy Drew series (Carolyn Keene), “The Indian in the Cupboard” by Lynn Reid Banks.
Young Adult – Young Adult books are a final bridge to sustained, autonomous reading. Conceptual material and ideas are more complex and often broach more mature themes. There is often more of an emphasis on the characters, their decision making and what they do than just on what happens to them. Concepts and themes are not necessarily carried straightforward but are built in and then referred back to. Individual chapters no longer necessarily stand alone but can represent diversions and elaborations in the story. The readership of young adult books is often adults as much as they are young adults. Examples: “Tom Sawyer” by Mark Twain, “Little Women” by Lousia May Alcott, “The Once and Future King” by T.H. White, the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling.
Picture Book – Beginner
The hallmark of beginner picture books is very simple, straightforward language and storyline.
Picture Book – Intermediate
These books use a larger vocabulary and more complex storyline than beginner picture books. They tend to include more descriptive language in relating the story (for example “a new moon, thinner than the curve of a raccoon’s whisker”).
Picture Book – Difficult
These books can be classified as difficult for any of several reasons including:
Vocabulary or sentence structure. In this instance, the child might be able to comprehend the story if it is read aloud, but might not be able to read the story to himself.
Story line. These stories are generally longer and, perhaps, have more than one subplot.
Subject of the story. The main topic of the story may be about a subject that a child would find challenging or confusing. Similarly, the story may introduce issues about which discussion with an adult would significantly enhance a child’s enjoyment and understanding. An adult’s perspective is often very different from a child’s perspective and a candid discussion about a book can significantly aid a child’s comprehension of a difficult issue or topic.
Learn to Read-Beginner
These books use the 50 - 100 most commonly used words to tell the story. The focus is on short, simple words, and the story is often told in a rhyming pattern. There are few words per page and most can be sounded out using standard rules. Illustrations give good clues as to the meaning of the printed words and the plot of the story.
Learn to Read – Intermediate
In addition to the 100 most frequently used words, Intermediate Learn to Read books begin to introduce contractions and longer words in addition to words that may be pronounced differently than they appear (exceptions to the standard rules of pronunciation).
The sentence structure is also more complex, often with commas separating subordinate clauses. Often the illustrations provide clues to the meaning of the printed words and/or the flow of the story.
Sometimes beginner or intermediate Picture Books are good candidates for children who are learning to read and have reached this intermediate level. Often a child who is learning to read will enjoy going back to books they had when they were younger and finding that they can now read those books.
Learn to Read -Difficult
Difficult Learn to Read books often take the form of short “chapter books.” They have a fairly extensive vocabulary, but the child is still supported by illustrations closely linked to the text.
10 and upwards
Synopsis A factual one paragraph description of the key event(s) of the story. How does the story start, what happens and how does it end? This is the maximum level of distillation with a minimum (none) of opinion.
Judgment needs to be used with regard to how much to reveal. If there is a surprise twist to the plot, you might not want to reveal that in the synopsis unless it raises issues of which the parent ought to be aware.
This is the section requiring the synthesis of your opinion of the book. The value of the review though is not in the bare “I like this book because…” but rather, your description of why the book is worth reading. The only reason for mentioning such an obvious point is because, having recently completed an exercise looking at most of the commonly available reviews on the web, 99% of them fall into the “I like this book because…” category. Part of TTMD’s distinction is in being able to offer insight not otherwise readily available elsewhere.
Again there is a premium on brevity. Please try and summarize your review in a single paragraph but no more than three. Recognize that some of your points are embedded elsewhere in the Book Review and can be elaborated there.
DISCUSSION POINTS Under discussion points, we are trying to identify main categories of topics that parents and teachers may be trying to develop with their children and to identify the characteristics in this particular book and the types of questions and issues for discussion that might be most relevant.
Under each topic area (such as Illustrations, Story, Story Structure, etc.) there is the option to identify the primary category but also a secondary and tertiary categorization as well. For example, in this instance, the illustrations for the story of Harold are notable primarily for the simplicity of the drawings and secondarily for the effective but limited use of color. A very simple drawing style elevates the importance of the telling detail and therefore that becomes a tertiary marker.
Again, brevity and clarity are the overriding virtues and so it is preferred if the description of each topic area is constrained to a single paragraph.
Each Topic can be subdivided into an infinite number of Categories. What we are attempting to do here is to hit the main categories only. The categories are not the be all and end all. Remember that the search engine will return to the user key words from the written description you provide as well as the categories.
NOTE: Not all categories below are going to be relevant to all books. What we are looking for are those things that make this a distinctive read. DO NOT FEEL COMPELLED TO WRITE UP SOMETHING FOR EVERY SECTION BELOW. If the books warrants it, great. If there are some sections that aren’t especially relevant to this particular book, then that is fine as well. Brevity and succinctness are cardinal virtues in these reviews.
Illustrations What are the notable characteristics of the illustrator’s work? How do they accomplish their effect? Is there information you can share about the illustrator’s history that is relevant? How and in what way does the illustrator’s work reinforce the author’s story? In “Harold and the Purple Crayon”, there are a couple of story puns playing off the drawings. What other points can be made from the illustration of the book? With Harold, there are drawings within a drawing which can be used to contrast for a child the different styles. Why did the artist use one medium over another?
Subject What is the subject or topic of the story? This is an area where there is a temptation to ever further refinement. Don’t worry about it. Make sure there is at least a Primary Category designated but otherwise clarify and elaborate in your written description. It will still get captured. Remember that Genre captures the type of story, i.e. adventure, mystery, biography, etc. Subject is about the topic of the story. There are an infinite number of topics so if you do not find what you are looking for in the drop-down menu, leave it undesignated and indicate the topic in the text box.
While they would appear to overlap, there is an important distinction we are attempting to draw between Writing Style and Story Structure which are relevant to understanding the components of how a story is created and has its impact and therefore is especially important to teachers. One way of thinking about the distinction between the two is that Story Structure is about how the story is structured and how it is moved along; it is a macro view of the story. Writing Style is more of a micro view of the story and is about the decorative techniques used by the author within the larger story.
An analogy might be to cooking. Story Structure deals with the pots and pans needed and the basic ingredients of the meal. Writing Style is more about the spices, flavorings and the presentation.
Writing Style focuses on the style of writing; the way words are used to convey meaning or create a word picture. When classifying books for this category, select the most striking one or two characteristics of the author’s style in terms of frequency and impact. Does the author use imagery frequently? Does the author use metaphors? Dialect? Rhymes? Other mechanisms?
Story Structure Story Structure attempts to classify the various structural elements of writing (other than language) that shape the way a story is told. That is, the form of the story. For example, is the story told in the first person or the third person? How does the narrator’s point of view influence the way the story is told? Are the characters strongly developed or are they fairly one-dimensional? Is there a story within the story? Does the story flow in a sequence or is it a compilation of vignettes?
Setting of the Story There are multiple categories to be captured here. The two key tests are 1) is it explicit in the story and 2) is it germane? Inference without it being explicit is fine, if it is germane to the story. If the setting is not clear and it is not germane, then leave it blank.
Seasons Is there an obvious season in which the story is set? If there is not, then just indicate unspecified.
Is there an obvious holiday season in which this story is set? If so, please designate, otherwise leave blank. The holiday needs to be germane to the story in order to receive a designation. For example, if a story is set during the Christmas holidays while children are home from school but otherwise there is no relevance of Christmas to the story, then you would leave it blank.
Is there an explicit time period in which the story can be set? For example, Sarah Stewart’s “The Gardener” never references it but the story is clearly set in the Great Depression and therefore ought to be so designated. While not an explicit topic of the story, it is the circumstances of the Great Depression that drive the story in the first place.
As a contrast, one of Sarah Stewart’s other stories, “The Library” might be postulated to occur sometime in the fifties or sixties but it is neither explicit in the text nor is it germane to the story; there is nothing about the era that sets the context of the story. Therefore in the instance of the “The Library” there would be no Time Period designated.
Alternatively, sometimes it is more relevant to the story the specific century in which the story occurs rather than the era. It is your judgment call as to which is more relevant to the story, the date or the era.
If it is the date, is it clear (by explicit reference or by implicit inference) and relevant in which century the story occurs? Then designate the century. Remember that by standard usage, something occurring in 1323 (for example) is designated as occurring in the 14th century. If the story straddles a century, then make a judgment call as to which is more relevant to understanding the story.
If it is neither clear nor relevant, then leave the century undesignated.
If the story spreads across a stretch of time but is unclear as to when it occurs, it can be captured by the era description. For example a retelling of the Tristan and Isolde story may not be clear as to which particular century it occurs in but it would still be captured in the Time Period as Middles Ages.
Is there an explicit continent on which the story is set? If the country is known, then obviously the continent follows. The Dutch Boy and the Dyke is set in the Netherlands and therefore Europe. In contrast, Marcia Brown’s “Stone Soup” is set in a European country but it is not clear which country. Even though the country is unknown, it would still be designated as Europe.
If it is clear from the story that a particular region is being referenced and that is more pertinent than the continent for the context of the story, then indicate the geographical region.
Leave blank if there is no reasonably identifiable continent or region.
This is asking for the topographic location of the story. Does it occur in town, country, mountains, etc. If the action occurs in multiple locations, just indicate Unspecified.
In what country is the story set. Again it is not necessary that it be explicit in the text but if the action and events of the story are better understood by understanding in which country it is set, then designate the country. Enid Blyton’s Mallory Towers series are not explicitly set in Britain nor does the country location actually drive much of the plot but one’s understanding of the story is constrained without knowing that they implicitly are set in Britain.
Where a country has changed names, please use the current name. A story set in Ceylon would be designated as Sri Lanka.
Where a country’s borders have changed materially then you need to make a judgment call as to whether the geographical location or the cultural/national/historical context is more important. For example, a story set in the city of Vilnius in the Middle Ages poses the question of whether it should be designated as Lithuania (the country in which it is located today) or Poland, the kingdom that ruled that area in the Middle Ages. Which is more important to the context of the story, the physical location (then designate Lithuania) or the cultural circumstances (then designate Poland)?
Values Here is another hair that we appear to be splitting. There are a whole set of important concepts that overlap with one another: Emotions, Issues, Values, Character Traits, Actions, Decisions, etc.
What we are attempting with the distinctions between the category Emotions/Issue and the category Values is to capture the distinction between human (Emotions/Issues) and philosophy (Values). What we are really trying to get at is a way for parents and teachers to pull up themes that they have to address with a child. So if their child is being bullied, we want them to be able to pull up some books that touch on that issue. At the same time, addressing bullying requires the Value of courage and we want them to be able to pull books that illustrate courage that might have nothing to do with bullying.
Another way of thinking about it is that Values represent a standard against which we ought to hold ourselves whereas Emotions/Issues are what we actually deal with.
If we were to be plunked down in the middle of a forest with a map and compass and told to find our way out, then the barriers we encountered and how we felt and responded would represent Emotions/Issues while the map and compass would represent Values.
Values – Principles or standards of behavior. An inward belief or attitude that effects someone’s outward behavior.
When doing your review of the book, are there particular aspects of the story which demonstrate a particular value or set of values. If so, please so designate and then elaborate in the text box. It might be that the values are inherent in the actions of a protagonist in the story or it might be that the nature of the story itself highlights the value. Example: The King of Denmark in the story “The Yellow Star” would be a good example of a protagonist demonstrating the values of courage and leadership.
Emotion/Issues Emotions/Issues is intended to capture those components of the story related to how the protagonist feels or how they respond. It can also encompass how a reader responds to the story.
Just as with Values, if there are particular Emotions or Issues that are profiled in an especially effective way in the story, please designate so and elaborate in the text box.
This is an important area to prevent unpleasant surprises. We are strong believers that the author’s original words are important (no bowdlerizing) which is in part why we have a strong preference for unabridged editions of works. On the other hand, language that is appropriate in some circles or in the past may not be appropriate today or for all audiences.
Our solution to this conundrum is transparency. The work is what it is. It is up to the parent to determine if it is appropriate at all or if perhaps it is appropriate but with some discussion with the child before-hand.
In a world awash with self-centeredness and self-righteous outrage, it is easy to slide down a slope of escalating over-sensitivity and we don’t want to go that route. To some extent we fall back on Justice Potters quip on pornography – “I can’t define it but I know it when I see it”. The only real guidance we can provide is to put yourself in the shoes of the reasonable parent and assess whether the story has any of the attributes and describe the context.
Harshness – Usually emotional or social harshness
Language – Swear words, derogatory terms, etc.
Moral Ambiguity – Where the story seems to present an immoral or usually unacceptable decision as an appropriate outcome.
Nudity – In illustrations
Sex – In text
Social Anachronism – Attitudes and language used in one period that might not be considered appropriate today. For example in some of the Doctor Dolittle books, there is a very strong colonial attitude towards the “natives” that was not intended harshly and was not considered inappropriate at that time but now would be considered offensive.
Unspecified – Anything else that would raise an eyebrow and which should be elaborated in the text box. For example, Philip Pullman’s series are extremely well written but are pretty assertively atheistic. Would warrant a sentence or two in the text box.
Violence – Particularly gratuitous or especially explicit violence.
Suggested activities, either in a classroom context or at home, that are relevant to the book.
Related Books The assumption in this section is that if you enjoyed this particular book you would like to know about other similar books. Identify books that are related by topic or by impact, either by the same author or others. For example if you were reviewing a Mallory Towers book by Enid Blyton, you would note that it is part of a series and that Enid Blyton wrote two other similar series, the St. Claire series and the Naughtiest Girl series which are also about life in an English boarding school for girls. Likewise, if there are books by other authors that treat the theme or topic similarly, recommend those as well. So if you liked Sesyle Joslin’s “What do you do, Dear?” then you would probably like Munro Leaf’s “How to Behave and Why”.
Related Themes Here we are trying to identify books related to secondary themes within the book under review. So if “Harold and the Purple Crayon” is primarily about adventure, you might recommend books highlighting exploration, courage and imagination, all secondary themes in Harold. Similarly if you are reviewing Charlotte Craft’s “King Midas and the Golden Touch” you might want to mention Colin Thompson’s “How to Live Forever” which also deals with coming to the realization that what you desire may not end up being what you really want.
History of Author/Illustrator or Book
What we are looking for here is essentially bibliotrivia. What are some interesting facts about the author, who they worked with, how they worked, any special items about the writing of the book, how it was initially received, etc. In this instance, for example, that Crockett Johnson was married to another popular children’s writer, Ruth Krauss is noted as well as the fact that Maurice Sendak spent much time with them both and learned much about children’s illustration from them. Also mention any prizes that the book might have won.