Book Reviews or Book Reports: Which are you writing?
I recently asked my students to take 15 minutes during class to brainstorm a book review for a novel we recently finished. The group–a small, remedial class–labored over the assignment, and as I wandered through the room it became evident that they weren’t reviewing the novel so much as retelling it.
While some students wrote lists of facts about the book, others drew elaborate webs with key plot points and details. It was heartening to see them employing some of the brainstorming techniques I’ve been teaching but not one student had any notes or points critiquing the story, writing, or characters.
I could have chalked it up to the fact that this was a basic skills group and their aversion to reading and writing hindered their efforts, but I realized that the students didn’t know that there actually is a difference between a book report and a book review. Instead of lamenting their weakness, I decided to teach them the difference.
As I prepared my plans for this week, I took a two-pronged approach. I created a mnemonic device to use as a writing guide and also brought in some professional book, music, and movie reviews to show as samples.
During our discussion and lessons, I emphasized that though my students haven’t actually written any books they are still qualified to voice their opinions and critiques so long as they offer support from the text. We also discussed how to diplomatically criticize a book, character, or writing.
We talked about the major differences between book reports (more topical, basically a retelling) and book reviews (an analysis of themes and the story). I used fairy tales as examples and the group was able to quickly determine that Hansel and Gretel employed the popular ‘good triumphs over evil’ theme and collaboratively wrote a short review of the story.
I didn’t feel that my students were quite ready for book review guidelines of a college caliber, but I did want them to write more sophisticated reviews and avoid retelling the story. To that end, I devised a mnemonic device to guide them. With the exception of the first and last steps, I encouraged the kids to play with the order of the steps.
- R: RELAY basic book and author information (Title, genre, a bit about the author and the book’s theme)
- E: EXPLORE the content and succinctly overview it without giving away too much detail
- V: VOICE your opinion. Are the characters credible? Are their actions and dialog authentic? What major problems or successes did you find?
- I: ISSUES (What issues does this book discuss? What is the author’s take?)
- E: ELEMENTS (Discuss exposition, characterization, symbolism, irony, etc)
- W : WINDUP your argument and assessment
My reviews tend to be a bit of both reviewing and reporting. I don’t feel academic pressure to do as much critical analysis as I would if writing for a class or journal because it’s more casual here. That said, I still want to write quality reviews that don’t just retell the story and offer my like it or don’t like it opinion. How would you characterize your reviews? Are you a book review OR a book report writer? Or maybe a bit of both?