Judging a Book by its Cover : My Top Tips on How to Choose a Good Book for Your Child


How often has this happened to you? You are the bookstore - maybe a bookstore at the airport - and you’ve told your ten-year-old child that she can pick a book. In five minutes she comes back to you - clutching yet another book of the popular series that she is currently reading.  

“Not another one of these,” you complain.

Your child pouts, “But I want this book.”

“No, pick another one please.”

“Then you pick a book for me.” Rebellious folding of hands.

You scan the binders of books on the shelves - they look bright, shiny, and colourful. You pull out a few books and scan the blurbs on the back cover. You have no idea if the books are good or age-appropriate.

You weigh ‘know devil’ against ‘unknown devil’. You can’t risk the next few hours with your child griping about a bad book - especially in an airplane with no escape. You sigh and opt for the known devil.

How can you change the outcome in this situation? What if as a parent you were equipped to quickly assess if a book is good? Here are my top tips on how to pick a winner for your child.

Starred Reviews and non-starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, School Library Journal (SLJ), Booklist and other reviewing agencies  - Have you come across the words “Kirkus Starred Review” or “Publishers Weekly Starred Review” on back covers of books but don’t really know what they mean? Starred reviews for books are the equivalent of Michelin stars for restaurants. Did you know that Michelin, that awards stars to chefs and restaurants, is a tyre company? Much like it, starred reviews are awarded by journals that you’ve probably never heard of  - Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, School Library Journal (SLJ) and Booklist amongst others. These are the publications a bookstore, a librarian, a literary agent, or a magazine would refer to when deciding whether to buy or review a book. These serious journals are inundated by several hundred books - they choose the books to review and award a ‘starred review’ to the best books. So getting a non-starred positive review from one of these journals is great but a starred review awarded to a book is a really big deal.

Book Awards - While individual countries have their own children’s book awards, the Newbery Medal and Horn Book Award conferred in the USA, and the CILIP Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medals awarded in the UK, are the best known and most prestigious children's book awards. Caldecott Medals are awarded to outstanding illustrators in the US - here, think picture books. If the book is part of a book list or has been given a country-specific award (for example, the Crosswords Award in India) - these are further indications that the book may be worth purchasing.

Reviews and Praise from Publications including the New York Times, The Independent, Sunday Times, The Guardian, etc. These prestigious publications are very picky about the books they choose for review - so, if they’ve given a good review, it's another indication of a good book.

Watch out for Book Specific Praise vs General Author Praise- if you see blurbs praising the specific elements (plot, narrative, writing style) of the book on hand - that’s a good sign. If general praise for the author is highlighted, be aware that while the author is generally a good writer, it's not that the particular book in hand is necessarily a good book. Another trick I resort to - if I see ‘From the New York Times Bestselling Author who wrote XX’, I try to see if ‘ XX title’ is available. 

Praise from another author - If you see your favourite author write a line of praise, that’s very creditable but be aware it could be a friend offering support. Pay attention to what the author as  written - are they praising the book specifically or are they praising the author in generic terms?

Age appropriateness - Age suggestions are indicated on some books but please be aware that this is offered by the publisher who has a vested interest in selling the book; more often than not they underquote the age appropriateness. This becomes a problem especially if your child is not an avid reader. As a ballpark, the midpoint of the range of ages suggested is typically the right age for the reading level for that book. For example, if the age suggestion is ‘8-12 years’, you can safely estimate that kids aged 12 and 11 can definitely read the book, and kids aged 10 can probably read the book, while a child aged 8 can read the book if they are avid readers. But middle school books are a doozy where sometimes attention is not paid to the emotional maturity quotient of the child reading the book; most times an eight-year-old child in the third grade should not be reading what an eleven-year-old sixth grader or twelve-year-old seventh grader is reading. The second important indicator of age appropriateness is the age of the protagonist of the book - rare is the book where the age of the main character does not match the age of the intended audience ballpark, add or reduce a year.

What if you don’t have the time or patience to do any of this? Take the easy way out. Whip out your phone and generate a book list for your child. Only one in three curated books make it to the list; the books have been selected by taking the above factors into consideration but additionally, I have personally read the book from cover to cover to assess if the book meets the expectations whetted by the positive reviews and awards. Better still, plan and buy a stock of the right books for your child in advance for use when needed.

May you have a safe and peaceful flight where your child is engrossed in a book. 

PS.: to keep peace and buy time on a long flight, I often buy two books - the book my child wants and the one I want him to read. I would rather he bury his nose in a book than be hooked onto the TV on the whole flight.