A book report is a common assignment in high schools and elementary schools. It’s the first step to a full-fledged book review or essay. The format varies, but teachers typically expect students to summarize the plot and express some opinion about the merits of the book.
If you know you have to write a book report, you might as well take some notes while you’re reading. Try to mark passages you like (or hate), jot down some details about the setting and the characters, and look for quotable lines. However, since these are just your first impressions, you don’t have to be all that rigorous. In addition, it’s a sign of a good book if you can fully immerse yourself in it, so don’t feel too bad if you forget to take notes.
Once you’ve finished reading, try analyze the book by using the following categories. For this example we’ve used E. B. White’s Stuart Little.
Title: Stuart Little
Author: E. B. White
Date of publication: 1945
Setting (time and place): The time period is the 1930s or 1940s. Since no exact date is given, the story is somewhat timeless. The story takes place in various locations. These include Stuart’s home, New York (including Central Park), and a little town called Ames’ Crossing. The story gradually moves from the city into the country side.
Plot: When Mrs. Little gives birth to Stuart Little, he looks remarkably like a mouse. Due to his size, Stuart has to work hard to overcome adversity. As he grows up he goes on various adventures. He befriends a bird named Margalo, and when she disappears he leaves his home to try find her. His friend Dr. Carey gives him a tiny car, and so he drives off in search of Margalo. On the trip he spends some time as a substitute teacher, and stops briefly in a little town called Ames’ Crossing. There he falls in love with a tiny girl called Harriet Ames. However, the relationship is a disaster, and Stuart decides to move on. In the end, Stuart has not found Margalo, but he has discovered that the journey itself can be a beautiful thing.
Main Characters: Stuart Little, Stuart’s family (mother, father, George), Snowbell (the cat), Margalo (the bird), Dr. Carey (the dentist), Harriet Ames (Stuart’s love interest).
Illustrations: by Garth Williams. Black and white cross-hatched sketches.
Lessons: The story has many lessons:
- Despite being small you can strive for great things.
- Don’t be afraid to go on an adventure.
- Growing up often means saying goodbye to your family home.
- Friendship and love are hard to find, but you shouldn’t give up.
- The world is a beautiful place, and even the smallest things are important.
- If you fail, try again.
Ideas: Stuart Little deals with topics such as friendship, heroism, government, and nature.
Audience: Ages 6+
Comparison to Other Books: This book is not as happy as Charlotte’s Web, another book by E. B. White. It reminds me of books like The Littles, where we see the world from the perspective of very small people.
Feelings and Impressions: I wish the book hadn’t ended so abruptly. I wanted Stuart to find Margalo. My favourite scene is the schoolhouse chapter, because I love the strange discussion about what’s important.
Don’t confuse a book report with a proper essay. Reports are much more personal. You get to talk about your feelings—whether you enjoyed the book or not. Literature essays are more analytical, and should explain the meaning of the text.
How you structure your book report depends a lot on what your teacher is looking for. If your teacher gives you a handout (like the template below), then you can just fill in the different sections. If you’re asked to write a general paragraph then you have more freedom. We recommend that as a minimum you talk about the following aspects:
- Your impressions
Advice for Teachers
Some students may be turned off by literature if all they get to do is write book reports. It’s not always easy to write about one’s feelings, and students may also feel pressure to heap praise on a book they did not actually enjoy. That’s why it’s important that teachers don’t assign too many book reports and allow students to talk about their dislikes in equal measure.
Finally, some teachers assign book reports just to check if students have read a book. In such cases a few lines of plot summary should be sufficient. A full book report is a challenging assignment, and requires proper guidance and attention.
To get started, try our Book Report Template. This is just one suggestion, however, and more experienced writers can structure their report as they see fit.
There are two types of book reviews. One is formal, academic, and perhaps somewhat stuffy. The other is creative, stylish, and popular. Here we’ll teach you how to write the second type. Even if you never get to write for the New York Times, you might still learn how to leave a stellar review on Amazon or Goodreads.
Reviews are not essays. You have plenty of freedom in how you structure your ideas. Sure, you’ll want to summarize and assess the book, but you don’t need a rigid thesis developed over the course of successive, closely connected paragraphs. Nor do you have to provide page numbers and citations when quoting from the book under review.
A review is more about sharing an experience. What is it like to read this book? Why would anyone bother? Think of yourself as persuading a close friend to adopt your point of view. Just be honest and direct. You can start by sharing your final thoughts or you can save them for the end. You can introduce side issues (level of realism, an interesting minor character, a powerful scene) before returning to your main point. A review is much more choppy and digressive than a regular essay.
However, a review should still have a certain “feel” to it. Strong reviewers create a consistent tone and style and provide an overall impression that ties together the somewhat eclectic observations made over the course of the review. In short, the structure of a review may be more organic, but the final result still feels coherent.
Good reviewers care about readers. Even if you personally know the author, you have a duty to say what’s on your mind. Of course tact is good, but you should never gloss over what you really think. Figure out quickly what your final verdict is (good, bad, or mixed) and then explain how you came to that conclusion.
If you’re reviewing a novel, you should give some idea of the plot. However, you should do more than provide a bland summary of events. Try make an argument about why the narrative is interesting or compelling. For instance, if you were to review James Joyce’s Ulysses, you might reflect on whether the plot is as epic as the title implies:
Though modeled on Homer’s epic The Odyssey, Joyce’s Ulysses describes just one day in the life of Leopold Bloom. Nor are the events particularly impressive. Whether Bloom goes to the toilet, attends a funeral, or returns to Molly (his faithless Penelope), we feel that the classic hero no longer has a place in modern fiction.
So make a point about the plot. If it’s a murder mystery you might discuss who the suspects are, and whether it’s easy to follow the clues. If it’s a science fiction story you might frame your plot summary by comparing the story’s universe to today, or by assessing just how dystopian the events really are.
Whatever you do, though, think twice about sharing too many spoilers. Particularly if you’re recommending the book, you want to leave the reader with something to look forward to.
What can you talk about in a book review? Anything really, but here are some question you might answer:
- What is the genre of the book?
- Does the author convey a message, a worldview, an agenda?
- Do you find the author’s point of view beautiful, racist, scary, persuasive, etc.?
- How does the book relate to our culture, or to the past? Does it teach anything?
- What is the intended audience?
- How much of the book is fiction?
- How does the book compare to other works of literature?
As you answer these questions, avoid being overly moralistic. Try not to simplify the book to some simple lesson (e.g., pride goes before the fall).
Always write your review so that it’s eminently quotable. Make sure you include a phrase or passage that captures your impression of the book in language that is dramatic and evocative. This is especially important if your assessment is generally favourable, for it’s possible the publisher may want to use an excerpt to promote the book.
Here are some examples of quotable quotes:
Stuart Little is much more than a children’s book: it is a profound reflection on the human quest for beauty and meaning, and Stuart’s comical attempts at heroism in the face of constant failure are both tragic and touching.
Blue at the Mizzen is our last voyage with Aubrey and Maturin, and it is a fitting farewell to arguably the greatest historical series ever written.
After I finished the The Sense of an Ending, I sincerely wished I had never begun.
Be aware, though, that people may quote your review out of context. Take, for example, the following blurb found on the back cover of the Canadian publication of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas:
“Mitchell is, clearly, a genius. He writes as though at the helm of some perpetual dream machine, can evidently do anything, and his ambition is written in magma across this novel’s every page.”
Now compare the actual paragraph from Tom Bissell’s review in the New York Times:
“It is a devious writer indeed who writes in such a way that the critic who finds himself unresponsive to the writer’s vision feels like a philistine. So let it be said that Mitchell is, clearly, a genius. He writes as though at the helm of some perpetual dream machine, can evidently do anything, and his ambition is written in magma across this novel’s every page. But ”Cloud Atlas” is the sort of book that makes ambition seem slightly suspect.”
Sometimes publishers have no scruples about quoting very selectively!
When reviewers become personal, it’s usually to make a point. Consider the opening to David Sexton’s scathing review of The Luminaries:
You know what it’s like when you find a book you really can’t put down? One that seems so urgent to stay with you carry on reading when you should be sleeping or working or remembering your Tube stop? A book that seems more compelling than life itself? Such a great feeling!
Well, Eleanor Catton’s Man Booker-winning 832-pager, The Luminaries, is the opposite — in my experience, anyway.
I first tackled it in the summer, taking it on holiday. I was looking forward to getting into a really long book without pressure on my time. But I read about 150 pages and gave up in exasperation at its conceit and verbosity and got someone else to review it.
Sexton goes on to say that he gave the book a second try, only to find his first impressions confirmed. This self-conscious focus on the process of reading has its place in a review, but only if it relates to some larger argument. Otherwise we really don’t need to know how many pages you can read in a day.
Writing a book review is above all a creative act, so focus as much attention on style as on substance. In fact, if your writing style is witty and charming, people are more likely to accept your opinions.
Don’t think about what a review should “sound like.” Pick appropriate adjectives and avoid the following kinds of expressions:
None of these words are forbidden, but often a less hyperbolic variant will do (e.g. clever, ingenious, masterful).
Good reviews use colourful metaphors and similes. Here’s a great example from a review of John Le Carré’s novel A Legacy of Spies:
Le Carré hauls out his greatest creation, the Yoda-like spymaster George Smiley, a cameo appearance, as if he were taking a ’60s-era Lamborghini long kept in the garage –Smiley’s last appearance was 27 years ago, in ‘The Secret Pilgrim’–for a jaunty Sunday spin.”
Even though the reviewer mixes Star Wars with James Bond, the language is colourful and appropriate. By contrast, you want to avoid clichés such as the following:
edge of your seat
roller coaster of emotions
Try use metaphors and analogies that are fresh and clever without being bizarre or confusing.
In a book review you can use a conversational tone. A good test is to read your review out loud and see if it sounds natural. Another strategy is to vary your sentence length. Good reviewers create drama by inserting a number of short, snappy sentences. So don’t be overly personal, but do write with personality.
- Avoid long quotations
- Connect your paragraphs through subtle, clever transitions.
- Avoid cumbersome phrases like “I will argue” or “In conclusion”
- Use a creative title that relates closely to the point you make in your review
While sometimes a scathing review is called for, don’t waste people’s time nitpicking over tiny details. Alexander Pope once described a good reviewer as someone who reads with generosity and understanding: “A perfect judge will read each work of wit / With the same spirit that its author writ.” That’s a tall task, but it’s one worth striving for.
Ready to get started? Download our Review Template.
Bissell, Tom. “History is a Nightmare.” Review of Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell. New York Times, 29 Aug. 2004. https://www.nytimes.com/2004/08/29/books/history-is-a-nightmare.html.
Garner, Dwight. “George Smiley and Other Old Friends Return in John Le Carré’s ‘A Legacy of Spies.'” New York Times, 28 Aug. 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/28/books/review-john-le-carre-legacy-of-spies.html.
An annotated bibliography is simply a list of citations with notes about the contents of each source (book, article, etc.). Your annotated bibliography can consist of one item, or it can be a carefully curated collection of sources on a particular topic or text.
Scholars often create such bibliographies so that other researchers can quickly determine if a particular work of criticism is relevant to their own interests. When students are given the same task, it’s meant to teach the ability to read and summarize effectively.
Types of Annotated Bibliographies
There are generally two schools of thought on what the ideal annotated bibliography should look like. One camp argues that the bibliographer should be completely dispassionate and neutral. Each summary should capture the author’s argument without providing any evaluation of its merit. The other camp suggests that the job of the bibliographer is to separate the wheat from the chaff and help readers understand whether the source is worth their time.
Neither side is necessarily right. Go with whatever the assignment requires, or, if you’re creating an annotated bibliography for your own purposes, do whatever you like. In the latter case you can even add all sorts of notes about how you might use a particular source in your own writing.
Organizing Your Bibliography
Each item in an annotated bibliography starts with a proper citation, using whatever citation style is appropriate for your discipline (MLA, APA, etc.). This is followed by a description of the contents of the source:
Cassal, Steve. “Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.” Explicator, vol. 64, no. 3, 2006, pp. 138-40.
Cassal argues …
You can repeat this pattern for each source in your bibliography. The typical length of an annotation is one paragraph (ranging from one sentence to about half a page), though you can spend a bit more time on longer works such as books.
How you organize the entries is up to you. You can simply place them in alphabetical order, you can split them up into primary and secondary sources, or you can organize them by type (e.g., methodology, biography, editorial history, textual analysis, etc.). If you want more options, just go talk to a librarian for a while.
To clarify the purpose of your annotated bibliography, you can add some general commentary, as well as brief descriptions of the individual sections.
Good annotated bibliographies do more than just list the contents of a text. They explain what the author is actually arguing. Here is an example:
Cassal, Steve. “Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.” Explicator, vol. 64, no. 3, 2006, pp. 138-40.
Cassal argues that by comparing the slander of Hero and Dogberry in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, we can understand the connections between language, power, and justice. In the play, Claudio describes Hero as a “stale” (a whore), and Conrade calls Dogberry an “ass.” Cassal points out that their cases are not exactly identical. Not only is the slanderous description of Dogberry true, but he lets everyone know about it. Despite these differences, both Hero and Dogberry are excluded from the world of power and language: “Like Hero, Dogberry lacks the verbal facility to defend himself” (140). Dogberry is thus “feminized” (140), and both characters lack recourse to justice. In fact, the play creates a tension between the sophisticated, yet superficial banter of those in power, and the non-linguistic and intuitive sense of truth as felt by marginalized characters such as Dogberry and Hero. By placing the Church scene (Hero’s slander) between the scenes about Dogberry’s defamation, the play both points out the fate of the marginalized and diffuses the darker implications of Hero’s slander by providing a comic counterpoint.
Note that the bibliographer does not simply state that Cassal talks about slander or language, but describes in detail how Cassal develops his argument. To force yourself to capture the author’s thesis, try use verbs such as “argues” or “claims.”
This particular summary provides no comment on the quality of the article. Some annotated bibliographies (as described above) do allow the bibliographer to critique the merits of the author’s argument.
While writing annotations may seem boring, there is an upside. As you write more summaries, you will become a better reader. You’ll look for a clear statement of the thesis, you’ll underline representative quotations, and you’ll ignore digressions and irrelevant details. In short, you’ll be a more effective scholar.
Here are some more tips to craft a great annotated bibliography:
- Most of the time you can use just the last name of the author in your summary (e.g., Jones argues).
- For long and complex bibliographies you may want to create a system of abbreviations to streamline individual entries. For instance, you can abbreviate literary texts (e.g., The Wind in the Willows becomes WW), organizations (e.g., World Health Organization becomes WHO), or places (e.g., Hong Kong becomes HK).
- Vary your verbs. Instead of always writing Smith argues, try verbs such as suggests, believes, demonstrates, writes, notes, points out, claims, concludes, emphasizes, reveals, asserts, etc.
- Try include one or more brief quotations to capture something of the author’s own words.
- Do not rely on the abstract attached to an article. Always summarize in your own words.
Many annotated bibliographies are easily accessible online. For instance, if you’re studying medieval literature you might consult the Online Chaucer Bibliography or the Online Gower Bibliography. The great thing about these online databases is that they are fully searchable. At the same time, this adds another dimension to the task of writing an annotation. It now becomes crucial to include key words in the summary, or else code each entry in such a way that it can easily be found under specific subject headings. Writing a good annotation thus becomes an important critical skill that is highly valued, both in the world of academia and beyond.