To Identify Good Books, Try The 3 Question Test

Young woman reading book in library

You’re browsing through children’s books at a library or book sale. You come across a book you’ve never seen before. Should you buy it?

There’s no Newbery Award stamped on the cover. It looks like it might interest your child, but is it any good?

Sarah Mackenzie, the author and podcaster, has a great approach to answering this question quickly, which she calls the 3 Question Test.1

“Flip open the book to the first few pages and read, ” Mackenzie advises. “Read a few paragraphs, or a few pages if it’s a picture book. Then skip into the middle of the book and read a few more paragraphs or pages. You just need a few minutes; you’re just looking for a quick taste.”

The Three Question Test

Next, she advises, quickly ask yourself three questions: 

  1. Images: Can you picture the scene in your mind’s eye?
  2. Vocabulary: Do the word choices seem appropriately rich and varied?
  3. Curiosity: Are you interested in finding out what happens next?

If you’re looking at a picture book, do the images themselves capture your imagination? If the book is mostly text, can you see, hear, or even smell the people or places the author is introducing you to?

Stay away from books with dumbed-down or clichéd language. They’re not going to draw your child in or build your child’s vocabulary as effectively as books with rich and varied language.

The final part of the 3 Question Test is perhaps the most important: are you being drawn into the story? Do you want to know what’s going to happen next?

Good books have these impacts on adults as well as children. That’s good news because it means you are well-positioned to be a good judge of books for your child. If you like a book, your child probably will, too. 

All kinds of books are good for your child

One caveat: as your child gets older, their reading preferences may diverge from yours. Just like adults, kids like a wide range of things. Graphic novels and comics for kids are much richer and higher quality than they used to be, and they’re a great way for your child to learn to read and learn to love reading.2

Buy books that you think your child will love, whatever that means. Show curiosity and appreciation for what your child is reading — even if it holds no interest for you personally. It really doesn’t matter what kind of reading your child is doing if they’re into it. 

The bottom line: Trust yourself to make good judgements, and use the 3 Question Test to help you. There is nothing magical about books that are on school reading lists, or that have won a fancy award. Whenever you find a book that excites and delights your child, you’re taking another small step on the long and rewarding journey of raising a child who chooses to read for pleasure.

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To Identify Good Books, Try The 3 Question Test
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  1. Sarah Mackenzie, The Read-Aloud Family, p. 144. Thank you Sarah Mackenzie for the inspiration that led to this article.
  2. Pamela Paul and Maria Russo, How to Raise a Reader, p. 51.
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