Critiquing a Story

There are many books to read. Not all of them, however, are well written.  If you find yourself bored by a story, ask yourself these questions:

1. Design

        – Is the style and size of the font suitable for the intended audience?

Young adult novels for reluctant readers require a relatively large font with quite a bit of space between the lines of print. Nonfiction books for readers up to 14 years of age need a relatively large font or all the information tends to overwhelm them and they avoid reading what otherwise might interest them. Novels for elementary school or middle school students can have a smaller font with lines somewhat closer together. All picture books work better with a much larger and more casual font unless they are more serious stories intended for older readers.

We Feel Good Out Here

E.g. Andre, Julie-Ann and Mindy Willett. We Feel Good Out Here = Zhik gwaa’an, nakhwatthaiitat gwiinzii. Calgary: Fifth House Publishers, 2008. This informative nonfiction book about indigenous people of the Northwest Territories is accompanied by large colour photographs by Tessa Macintosh. The first person point of view is effective in giving readers a feel for life in this northern environment. The short sentences and friendly tone are wonderful for readers 9 years old and up.  Unfortunately, the size of the font and the close spacing between the lines will limit the appeal. Only the most competent readers are likely to choose this book to read.

    – Do the style and size of font match the style of the story?

Cheerful picture book stories for young readers need a cheerful font in a large size; variations in the size of the font can greatly enhance the mood.

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever

E.g.: Robinson, Barbara. The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. New York: Harper, 2011. Rollicking joyous illustrations by Laura Cornell accompany this picture book version of a well-known story. Their style perfectly matches the rambunctious mood of the text. Unfortunately, unlike the writing on the cover, the font inside the book does not match: it is too stiff and and straight and plain. A larger more relaxed font – with some words printed larger than the others – would have greatly increased the power of this children’s classic.

Star Bright

Eg. McGhee, Alison and Peter Reynolds. Star Bright: A Christmas Story. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2014.  The size and style of the font powerfully enhance this imaginative story of a little angel.

E.g. Le Guin, Ursula K. Cat Dreams. New York: Orchard Books, 2009. The style and layout of the font help show the mood of this adorable picture book.

            – Does the style of illustrations match the style of the story?

Cartoon-style illustrations are suitable for humorous stories but not so well suited to serious stories. Soft washes of colour or black and white line drawings work well with quieter stories. 

E.g. Eyvindson, Peter. Kookum’s Red Shoes. Winnipeg: Pemmican Publications, 2011. This serious story about residential schools is accompanied by large brightly coloured cartoon-style illustrations by Sheldon Dawson. The lines of the text are closely spaced and set in a small font. Many sentences are quite long but the tone is more suited to a young audience. Numerous errors in punctuation and syntax compound the awkwardness of this picture book about Canadian aboriginal history. 

2. Tense

            – Is the tense carefully controlled?

Small mistakes in tense disrupt the flow of a story. A reader is suddenly no longer standing in the same place in relation to the action and has become an outside observer.

            – Does the tense match the mood of the story?

It has become popular to write novels in present tense but that is not always the best choice. First person present tense stories often create a mood of egocentricity, while third person present tense stories create a mood of critical detachment. First person past tense can create a mood of reflection, and third person past tense can be used to create a feeling of reflective empathy.

3. Sentence Structure

            – Is the book is written in the style of a story rather than an essay?

Essays are generally written using proper grammar. Transition words are used to show how ideas are connected. Readers are not required to make inferences.

In contrast, stories can use incomplete sentences. Brief phrases. Isolated words. And transition words can be left out, especially when characters are speaking. Readers need to be able to make inferences rather than having everything pointed out to them in plain language. Those inferences are what make a story come alive.

– Are unnecessary words eliminated?

Some books have too many low-value words that don’t create pictures in a reader’s mind. Unless they are needed to create a specific tone, articles and helping verbs should be used with discretion.

            – Do sentences end with important words?

Reading silently is different than listening to a story read aloud. If you are listening, you need time to think before the action changes or a new idea is presented. So sentences can end with words that are less important or words that can be drawn out by the person reading aloud.  In contrast, if you are reading silently to yourself, your eyes will speed up and tend to easily ignore some words. So if a writer wants you to read right to the end of a sentence, it is helpful to end that sentence with a word that stands out visually. You can always pause at the period and think about what you’ve just read before sending your eyes ahead.

Look at the difference between these two sentences:

1. “It’s started to snow!” Robyn shouted.

2. “It’s started to snow!” shouted Robyn.

The first sentence sounds good when it’s read aloud.

The second sentence looks better when your eyes read it.

Great Joy

E.g. DiCamillo, Kate. Great Joy. Cambridge, Mass.: Candlewick Press, 2007. This well-known author skillfully crafts powerful sentences in her first picture book. The lines of the text are spaced far apart to suit the soft full-page illustrations by Bagram Ibatqulline and the intended audience.

Our Very Own Christmas

E.g. Langen, Annette and Marije Tolman. Our Very Own Christmas. New York: North-South, 2012. Gently evocative illustrations accompany a story unfortunately marred by too many mistakes in sentence structure. Numerous transition words such as  “At that point” and “then”. Numerous weak words such as ‘nice’ and ‘very’. And far too many unnecessary explanations as to who is speaking.  Problems with tense and point of view further weaken this story that would have benefitted from better editing.

Hoban, Russell and Quentin Blake. Rosie’s Magic Horse. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press, 2012.
What a silly story! A little girl dreams of a horse – Stickerino – that helps her find a treasure chest full of gold, which she presents to her parents the next morning.
What a brilliant story! The worries of bill-paying parents, after all, do affect their children. This not-unusual family situation is depicted with insight and sensitivity.
What a beautiful story! The lively illustrations and flowing text seem to be dashed off in a flash. But, of course, only brilliant creators such as Hoban and Blake can make it look and sound so easy.

Highly recommended for almost anyone who likes to laugh and loves language.

For analytical readers: note how sentences do not end with ‘said’ but rather with a character’s name: e.g. not “Rosie said.” but rather “…said Rosie.”Stories flow better visually when the final word of a sentence has that kind of significance.

4. Descriptive Passages

            – Does the length of a descriptive passage match the style of the story?

If a story is plot-driven and full of action, descriptive passages should be brief. If a story focuses on the environment or is more introspective, longer passages may help to create the mood intended by the author.

            – Are descriptive passages subtly embedded into the plot?

Sometimes the setting is the centre of a story and all the action revolves around it. But often, a character is the centre of a story and then the setting is used to reveal more about that character. In those cases, the descriptive passages are best quietly included in the action itself or in the thoughts of the character. Descriptive passages should not be inserted like stage directions before the character steps back into the play.

There is an exception, of course. Sometimes an author wants to create distance between the reader and the character, a tone of detachment. The reader is mentally preceding the character in the action and watching from afar. Then, descriptive passages can be used to enhance the mood. But that story should then be written from the third person point of view.

5. Language

            – Are there any allusions for readers to discover?

Readers like making connections to other stories. Subtle clues are fun to discover and quietly increase the power of a book.  That is also why avid readers enjoy reading so much. They have more background knowledge and so are able to see more of the hidden parts of a story.

– Do the sounds of the words match the tone of the story?

Use of alliteration, consonance, and assonance affects the mood of a reader. Good writers use them to increase the power of their stories.

            – Do the figures of speech match the mood of the story?

A rhyming pattern in a picture book generally creates humour or at least a light-hearted tone. So it does not belong in a story that is trying to create a serious tone.

            – Are the figures of speech original?

                   Clichés trivialize a story, unless they are being used to create humour.

If characters speak in clichés, readers will infer that they are light-hearted, dismissive of other people, or not very intelligent. If none of those are true, there should be no clichés.

5. Rhythm

            – If you read the story aloud, is there a rhythm to the sentences?

Even if a story is read silently, the brain enjoys a rhythm. It helps the writing flow more smoothly, like a song.

            – Does the rhythm match the tone of the story?

A peaceful story needs a more drawn out rhythm.

An angry story needs a more abrupt choppy rhythm.

Just like in songs, the rhythm should match the message.

6. Viewpoint of the Reader

            – Where is the reader in relation to the action?

 Sometimes it feels like a reader is watching the story from afar. Sometimes it feels like the reader is standing right beside the main character.

            – Does that viewpoint match the mood of the story?

A distant viewpoint makes a reader feel somewhat detached and less affected by the action. It also encourages a reader to be more critical of the main character. A viewpoint “from the character’s shoulder” creates an intimacy and therefore more empathy.

            – Does a reader consistently see the story from the chosen viewpoint?

Stories told from the first person point of view keep the reader in the action. Watch carefully, though. Poorer writing will suddenly include a sentence that is not told from the perspective of the main character. The reader will suddenly be told something that the main character could not possibly know. The abrupt change causes a reader to feel more distant from the main character and can make the story seem less real.

7. Voices of the Characters

– Do they speak in realistic voices?

Do they use pronouns the way real people do, rather than awkwardly using nouns in order to give readers extra information?

Do they use vocabulary that matches their age and education level? 

If not, is the author deliberately conveying a message about their attitude, intelligence, or cultural background?

8. Qualities of the Characters

            – Does the main character see life differently by the end of the story?

Short stories are snapshots in time and so do not necessarily show any change in characters. In contrast, novels are more powerful when they show growth in main characters.

(Picture books might focus on a concept rather than a main character.  If a picture book does focus on a character, it can tell the story like a short story or like a novel in which the main character’s viewpoint changes.)

            – Does the main character become emotionally healthier?

Some novels for adults are tragedies which show moral decline in a main character. Novels for children and young adults are rarely so pessimistic. Instead, they are inclined to show a main character becoming stronger and wiser in the face of adversity.

The next time you find yourself bored by a book, ask yourself, “Is this just not the right book for me at this time or is it not well written?”  In either case, put the book down and go find yourself something more interesting.   

[This page may be copied for use with students if the following credit is provided: ©2016 Sophie Rosen.]

Click HERE to find a brief critique of a novel.

Some great books to analyze: 

Ehlert, Lois. Nuts to You! New York: Voyager Books, 2004, c1993. [City life; Squirrels]

Jeffers, Oliver. A Child of Books. Somerville, Mass.: Candlewick Press, 2016. [Books and reading; Imagination

Murray, Alison. Hare and Tortoise. Somerville, Mass.: Candlewick Press, 2016, c2015. [Aesop’s fables; Hares; Running; Tortoises] 

Opie, Iona, ed. My Very First Mother Goose. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Candlewick Press, 2016, c1996. Illustrated by Rosemary Wells. [Nursery Rhymes]

Rappaport, Doreen. Helen’s Big World: The Life of Helen Keller. New York: Disney/Hyperion Books, 2012. [Deafblind people; Determination; Keller, Helen – Biography; Sullivan, Annie] 

Freedman, Deborah. This House, Once. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2017.
Before your house was a house, what was it? Trees. Rocks. Mud. Sand. This elegantly illustrated picture book will intrigue readers and listeners 5 years old and up.
(If you like to analyze books, notice how the colour and style of the font complement the colour and size of the illustrations, creating a reflective tone that matches the mood of the story.)

Then there are books less wonderful:

Agosín , Marjorie. I Lived on Butterfly Hill. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2014.
This semi-autobiographical novel portrays an 11-year-old girl and her family living under a military dictatorship in Chile. Unfortunately, right from the first paragraph, the language is awkward and confusing. Half a dozen changes could be made on the first page alone. Usually, Atheneum’s novels are well-written. Sadly, this one is an exception.

Christopher, Neil. The Dreaded Ogress of the Tundra. Iqaluit; Toronto: Inhabit Media, 2015.
This Inuit legend is a valuable addition to collections of indigenous stories. Unfortunately, the language of the story lacks the lyrical quality that would help it flow smoothly. Needless words weaken sentences which are sometimes too long. So the story sounds a bit stilted. How unfortunate. [Folklore; Inuit; Legends] 

Christopher, Neil. Stories of the Amautalik: Fantastic Beings from Inuit Myths and Legends. Iqaluit, Nunavut : Inhabit Media, 2009. 
Similar problems plague this book. Additionally, the frequent use of articles – specifically ‘the’ – instead of pronouns or names – creates needless distance between readers and the stories. [Folklore; Inuit; Legends]

Hopkinson, Deborah. A Letter to My Teacher. New York: Schwartz & Wade Books, 2017.
A young adult writes a letter to her second-grade teacher, recounting her memories and expressing her appreciation for all she learned during that inspiring year. The story is fun: flowing smoothly with conversation to enliven the narration. The pictures are lively: full of expression and a sense of spontaneity. Unfortunately, the style of font and the layout of the text do not match the mood of the story. Despite that distraction, this picture book is still recommended for readers 8 years old and up. [Letters; Schools; Teachers]

O’Brien, Annemarie. Lara’s Gift. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013.
“In 1914 Russia, Lara is being groomed by her father to be the next kennel steward for the Count’s borzoi dogs unless her mother bears a son, but her visions, although suppressed by her father, seem to suggest she has special bond with the dog.” – CIP. [Borzoi; Dogs; Fathers and daughters; Historical fiction; Russia; Sex role]

“On the eve my beloved Ryczar was born, under a bright full moon, the north wind whistled and howled” (1).
The north wind whistled and howled under a bright full moon on the night Ryczar was born.
Why? The birth of Ryczar is the most important part of this sentence. Not the character’s love for him. Not the weather. End a sentence with a significant word.

“‘Hunting for mushrooms,’ I answered, trying to make it sound more significant than it actually was” (21).
“Hunting for mushrooms,” I answered, trying to make it sound significant.
Why? End a sentence with a word that anchors the sentence.

Every page of this book has too many unnecessary words. Too many awkward sentences poorly punctuated.
Nevertheless, readers who want a dog story with a female protagonist might appreciate this novel. It is quickly paced and provides a glimpse of life in Russia during the early 1900s.

Sammurtok, Nadia. The Caterpillar Woman. Iqaluit, Nunavut: Inhabit Media Inc., 2016. 
Another Inuit legend that could be a valuable addition to indigenous collections. Unfortunately, the story would have benefitted from better editing. 


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