Before selecting a book for children review its text and illustrations. Children's literature is replete with examples of "hidden" messages, unarticulated ideas that are communicated in words and drawings. For example, some books reinforce stereotypes about who can be brave and strong, who needs to be "saved," who creates problems, who "saves the day," and who makes important decisions. Children need to see in books many kinds of people who are problem-solvers to counter some powerful, prevailing stereotypes and systemic, societal inequity.
First and foremost books have to be good literature, compelling stories that keep the attention of young readers and listeners. If a story isn't good, even books with positive messages and brightly colored drawings stand a good chance of being rejected by discerning young readers.
Books are often not perfect, that is to say there may be some wonderful things about a particular book, and also some aspects of the book that are not so wonderful. ADL's rule regarding such books is: use your judgment and if the good parts outweigh the bad, select it and use the occasion of reading that book aloud as an opportunity to talk to children about the parts of the book that you don't like.
Teach children to be critical readers by asking open-ended questions, such as: why do you think that character did what she did? Look at the book's illustrations and ask children to describe how they think the characters feel in certain situations. Ask how they think they might feel in a similar situation or if they have ever felt that way themselves.
Checklist For Assessing Children's Literature
The following are some things to consider when selecting books for children. Some of these questions can be used to evaluate a single book; however, the questions are most effective when used to review a complete collection of books.
While every children's book cannot possibly meet every standard of excellence, in many instances, the value of a particular book will outweigh those aspects that might be questionable or problematic. Parents, teachers and other caregivers should examine children's books for such things as historical accuracy, realistic depictions of a variety of lives, believable characters, authentic language and age appropriateness. Books should represent a variety of settings, problem-solving approaches and themes, and should provide opportunities for children to consider multiple perspectives and values. At their best, multicultural children's books can and should speak to all children.
Is the story line interesting to children?
Are the stories age appropriate to ensure that children can understand what is presented?
Are there various conflicts for children to explore?
Are the conflicts resolved in ways that children will find interesting and challenging?
How are obstacles overcome?
How does change occur? Is a magic wand the only way positive change occurs? Can girls take responsibility for their own destinies?
Will the stories encourage discussions?
Are children exposed to multiple perspectives and values?
How is "beauty" defined? Whose standard of beauty is being promoted? Are all or most of the "pretty" girls blond? Are all or most of the "pretty" girls white?
How is "happiness" defined? Do girls need to find their man to achieve happiness?
How is "success" defined? Is the definition of success the same for all people in the book?
Do the characters represent people from a variety of cultural groups?
Do "good" characters reflect a variety of backgrounds?
How is being "good" defined or described in the book? Is being good the same for boys and girls or are there different standards and expectations?
Are females as well as males depicted in leadership roles?
Does the story offer children a variety of things to think about, to question, and to consider?
What messages does the book convey about "race," gender, class, sexual orientation, religion and other human differences?
What values are being communicated in the book? Whose values are they?
Are values being explored rather than preached?
Does the story include lessons to be learned?
Do the stories reflect a variety of settings?
Are urban, suburban, and rural settings represented realistically?
Are cultural settings represented realistically?
Are diverse populations represented?
Are characters realistically and genuinely represented?
Do the pictures show diversity within cultural groups?
Do the illustrations avoid reinforcing societal stereotypes?
From whose perspective is the story told?
What are the author's qualifications to tell the story? Do the characters' voices sound authentic?
Do the stories promote understanding of our diverse society and world?
For a checklist on assessing children’s literature with a special emphasis on early childhood titles, click here: