Why writing book reviews is great for kids
When I set up the children’s book review website Toppsta in 2014, my dream was to establish a space where children could come together and recommend books to each other, no matter where they lived and with no judgement on their book choice or reading ability.
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It makes my heart sing to see that 5 years on, we have 40,000 book reviews and welcome new readers to the website, each and every day. Clearly, readers love sharing their thoughts and it’s so helpful to see which books children are really enjoying, rather than those books which adults think children should be reading.
Anyone can sign up as a reviewer; as a parent myself, it was a conscious decision to create an environment with no photos, no real names and no forums. I also know that we have a lot of teachers and home educators on the site, so we also have a handy book review template for KS1 and KS2, which you can download and print out.
Reading children's reviews is a joy – and very inspiring. Whilst we naturally have a lot of reviews of David Walliams books, the bookworms in the community are brilliant at recommending lesser-known authors and unearthing hidden gems. At the other end of the scale, reluctant readers are more willing to try a book that has been recommended by another child. Plus we always shout about short books, illustrated books, non-fiction books and events such as World Book Day, when young readers can try something a bit different.
What I’ve learned along the way, however, is that the process of writing a review is as important as reading a review. Book quizzes can be quick and fun, but a book review requires genuine engagement and can reveal so much more.
Writing book reviews: the benefits for children
A review can show you how deeply the child has engaged with the various levels of meaning within the story. When my children write a review, I can see if they have just understood the basic narrative or if they have picked up on themes and issues, which are less explicit. Not only is this interesting in itself but it gives me a real indication of whether a book is at the right reading level for them or not.
By asking a child to describe their response to the book, they have to think about what they will include in the review, and what they will leave out. We find that younger readers are desperate to tell you the story but as children mature, they understand that this might spoil it for other readers. So then they start thinking about what they liked and didn’t like about the book and this can also open up an interesting conversation on the subjectivity and creativity of writing, very apt in these days of ‘fake news’.
The opportunity to reflect on the book can help the child connect events and themes and develop a deeper understanding of the story. As they think back, they often gain a different perspective and pick up on things that they missed when they were reading it initially.
As with all original writing, writing a review can be a great way to help children develop their vocabulary. They instinctively understand that it’s better to use a variety of words and phrases, so they’ll actively try and think of new descriptive words. It’s also the reason why I enjoy reading books aloud to my children (aged 6 and 10): if we’re reading together, they can just relax and enjoy the story and I can choose books that are a little more challenging that what they might read on their own, and I can stop and explain any words I think they might not understand.
If the child is encouraged to step back from the story and assess the book in more general terms, it can help them understand which ‘types’ of books they enjoy. We encourage children to think about the genre, whether the book has illustrations, whether it’s set in modern times or in a different time. If they can pick out the aspects they did (or didn’t) engage with, it helps to narrow down which book they might want to read next (or, conversely, if they have enjoyed one ‘type’ of book, whether it might be an opportunity to read a different type and branch out a little!).
Book reviews don’t need to be a labour of love. For KS1 just asking a child to finish the sentence “I love this book because…” can be enough but taking a few minutes after finishing a book to reflect back can be a fun and valuable activity for all ages.
Georgina Atwell is the founder of the book review community Toppsta, a judge for the 2019 British Book Awards and a mum of two.
Book review inspiration
As well as reading other children's reviews on Toppsta and online, children can access book reviews in video form. Bringing Books to Life is a BBC series in which celebrity presenters share what they love about their favourite books, with animations that bring the stories to life.