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Book Reports that Work

By David Marks
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #47, 2002.

Tired of lame book reports? Here's how to create a book report that works.
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David Marks

Assigning book reports is a very common practice used by English teachers in public schools for two reasons. It makes an easy writing assignment and it is a way for very busy teachers to learn if their students may have read the books.

Neither of these reasons justifies the exercise as it is usually given.

It's common for the directions for book reports to read: "Give the title, the author, the date of publishing, and the number of pages, then in one page tell the story of the book. Finish with why you did or did not like the book." This gives students opportunities to write reports based on Cliff Notes, friends' readings, book cover synopsis or even quick scanning of books. [See Sue Richman's article in this issue on plagiarism for why this is wrong. - Editor]

What this kind of "book report" doesn't do is involve students in an academic exercise more challenging than recall (the lowest of intellectual activities). It also fails to

  • give the students an appreciation of books as literature
  • require students to examine books any deeper than at their surface levels, or
  • present writing experiences that are designed to teach identified skills.

All the "cover blurb" style book report does is give teachers time to grade papers, write letters, and/or read novels.

To make a book report assignment a meaningful experience for a homeschooled child it must have two major objectives:

  • It must give the student an opportunity to examine a book in a specific way so as to broaden the child's understanding of novels
  • It must give the child a chance to practice specific and identified writing skills

This makes assigning a book report a fairly complicated process, but it will give a student much more than a busywork experience.

In planning a book report assignment, a parent should design the experience around one of the following twelve ingredients of novels:

  1. Setting, which consists of time and place
  2. Point of view, which should get the student busy in identifying the author's choice of person, involvement, tense, knowledge, attitude and perspective.
  3. Character motivations
  4. Character worldviews (humanist, Christian, stoic, libertine, Buddhist, agnostic, hedonist . . .)
  5. Character personalities (outgoing, shy, energetic, passive)
  6. Character weaknesses and strengths (stingy, thoughtful, etc.) and what how this affects their lives
  7. Physical characteristics of the characters and how these affect their behavior
  8. Intelligence and/or schooling of the characters and how this affects them in their relationships
  9. Character speech patterns - any unusual dialects, slangy or formal?
  10. Character relationships and how they affect their actions
  11. Conflict, the problem of the story (the situation the characters face); usually this takes the form of person against person, person against nature, person against society, or person against self
  12. Resolution, the resolving of the main conflicts and those in any sub-plots, establishing what happens to the characters after the conflicts are resolved, and an explanation of how the "problem" is understood and resolved

If you don't have a background in examining literature, the previous list should make it clear how important such an examination by a young writer is.

If you were to assign a book report to be written about the main character, it should be explained that characters are the people in the story. In children's books, the characters are sometimes animals, aliens, or anything else that can take on a personality. In order for a reader to understand a story, the characters must be understood. For most children, the fun of reading depends on this understanding. If the reader can't relate to a character or to the situation that character is in, or if the reader doesn't care about these things, that reader will not enjoy the narrative. But when the reader becomes involved in the lives and situations of the characters, then this experience can be very satisfying.

When an author writes, he could theoretically attempt to describe the entire world. Of course, this would not make sense and would take forever, so an author has to select that which is important to the story and choose not to describe what's not important. This is also true of characters. By taking note of what the author has chosen to describe, a reader can concentrate on what the author feels is significant. If a character is presented in detail, then the author must want the reader to concentrate on that particular one. The things described may also be clues to something that will happen later in the story.

Everything an author writes about characters is designed to create in the reader a reaction to those characters. This is carefully orchestrated by an author so that readers can empathize with the predicaments and joys the characters experience. Writers use three methods in this character identification process:

  1. Creating a character who is similar to the intended readership (audience) so that the readers will recognize that they are like the character
  2. Creating a character who the intended readership would like to be like;
  3. Creating a character who the readers know so much about that they understand why the character acts and reacts as he or she does.

To demonstrate the complexity of this problem of assigning book reports so as to teach some aspect of the understanding of literature and give your child an experience that is not busywork, look at just this one subject that your child might write about character. Your child could gain an understanding of characters by examining:

  1. The roles they play in the story. There are two types of roles for main characters of a story: the protagonist and the antagonist. These terms represent the forces in conflict. The conflict of a story results from the struggle between these opposing forces.

    Protagonist. This character or force is the main character that wants something. The Latin prefix pro means to advance; agonistes is the word for actor or contestant. Young readers might identify him as the "good guy."

    Antagonist. The character or force opposing the protagonist; the "bad guy." This is remembered because the word starts with ant, a variation of anti, the prefix meaning against. The antagonist is usually the bad guy or the bad force, like a "big bad wolf," or harsh weather, or greed.

  2. Their personality characteristics. An understanding of a character will occur when your child examines the character's personality using the following guidelines:

    Actions. Fictional characters, if they are carefully made, are subject to the same weaknesses that real people have, and when they speak, they are just as likely to exaggerate or lie. Therefore, when your children want to know about characters, they have to be careful that they don't believe everything they say. They have to examine what they do, just as in real life we have to do more than just listen to people as they talk about themselves; we have to watch what they do to tell what they are really like.

    Motives. In well-written fiction there are motives for all of the actions of the characters. Just as in real life, fictional characters do not just do things, there are reasons. How your children get along in their lives is in some measure dependent on how well they understand the motives of the people with whom they interact. Actions are fairly easy to understand, but sometimes the motives behind them are hard to spot. There are two types of motives:

    • Internal. These are feelings the character has, such as fear, hope, faith, greed or any anxiety or feeling.

    • External. These are on forces outside the character, such as trees, laws or other characters.

    How their relationships affect the characters' actions. All characters in fiction develop relationships, just as people in life do. The choices characters make are often dictated by how they feel about other characters. It's important for your child to understand these relationships that have been created so the characters' actions will make sense and your child will not be surprised by what choices are made. Some relationships are obvious to new readers, but most relationships are subtle and readers need to think about them. New readers have to be taught how to think about characters' actions and to relate them to relationships. This is a complicated process and will take some practice.

    What their speech tells us about them. The way people (characters) talk reveals a great deal about them. A careful listener or reader can judge fairly accurately what part of the country a character comes from, the amount of education that character has, how much interest the character has in other people and, in many cases, what motivates that character's actions. Young readers will have to have help for some time before they'll be able to "read" a character's speech, for this is a fairly complicated process. Noticing what characters say about themselves and what other characters say about them is another indicator of what characters are like.

    How their personalities determine how they function. This controls their success with the problems of the story. The success of the protagonist in a story is, in a major way, dependent on the kind of person he or she is.

    How their weaknesses and strengths affect their behavior. When we deal with people we have to be aware of the ways they're strong and the ways they're weak. We then can make allowances for their weaknesses, and we can count on their strengths. The same conditions exist in fiction. It's important for your child to attempt to understand the weaknesses and strengths of fictional characters.

    How physical characteristics affect characters' behavior. If an author gives a character unusual characteristics, your child should pay particular attention to that character and watch that character's actions. If an author makes all of his or her characters average in appearance or doesn't give physical descriptions of them at all, then they're not what the author wants the reader to concentrate on, and the physical traits of the characters don't matter to the story. Such characters' actions are often influenced by this trait or are the result of them being conscious of their appearance.

    How intelligence and/or schooling affect and help characters solve problems. The better prepared people are to solve problems, the more likely they are to be able to do so. This is also true in fiction. Authors decide on the intelligence and schooling of their characters before they introduce them to their readers. If an author doesn't know how smart one of the characters should be, there would be no way that author could control the abilities of that character. Sometimes that character would act brilliantly and at other times stupidly. Obviously this wouldn't be good.

Once a child has decided on the aspect of examination for the book report, it is important to show that child how to structure the paper. Present the exercise to your child, not as a challenge to retell the story, but as an opportunity for your young writer to explain something about a selected book. To continue the example of looking at the aspects of character, the directions for the formatting of a paper to do this should follow an outline similar to the directions given below.

With each writing assignment it's important to make clear exactly what the objectives of the exercise are. In this case, they might be stated the following way:

    "In this exercise you'll learn that: (1) Some novels can be understood by an examination of their characters (2) Characters can be analyzed in the same way they are created (3) Characters can be dynamic they change during the course of a novel.

    "In this book report you'll examine and describe the development of the main character.

    "In your first section, you'll introduce to your reader the book, author, publisher and publication date.

    "In your second section you'll let your reader know that the central idea in your book is the author's development of the main character. You'll describe the character's makeup and show how the changes are evident because of what happens to the character.

    "Things you should look at that demonstrate changes are:

    1. Relationships with other characters;

    2. Reactions to events;

    3. Attitudes toward the things that happen to people and animals;

    4. The way the character interacts with others;

    5. The character's adoption of new values, and;

    6. How the character's views of himself or herself change.

    "There should be sections taken from the book, in the form of quotations and examples, to support everything you say about the character's development.

    "The conclusion of your book report should again mention the book's title and should suggest that your examination of the development of the character is an important way but only one of many ways this book can be examined and enjoyed."

Of course, the complexity of this exercise will have to be modified depending on the age and experience of your child. But regardless of his age, this method will produce a book report that increases your child's wisdom.

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