What Makes a Book Good?

by | Reading Aloud | 6 comments

We do not want only to develop a love for reading in our children. We want to develop a love for reading good literature. We won’t develop an appetite for good food by feasting on junk food – and we carry that analogy over to literature. So how do we know what books are good and suitable for our children?

Lists of recommended books help us to narrow our search for good books to read. However, what others consider good books are not necessarily good by our standards. We must learn to evaluate literature ourselves. This means we must actually read some good literature. It’s like playing an instrument – practicing many pieces of good music will help us to develop a taste for what is good. In the same way, we develop a taste for good literature by reading a few of the classics such as Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens, Back of the North Wind by George MacDonald, or Hitty, Her First Hundred Years by Rachel Field.

Once we’ve developed some sense for what is good, then we need to explore the stacks at the local library. Years ago, when we first began our own book explorations, there were many good books in the libraries. The stacks have since been depleted by library book sales. In some libraries, good books have become endangered species. Today, the old book store may be a more fruitful hunting ground for good books.

At first, it was hit or miss for us. We went to the library’s children’s section and looked for old and oft-used hardback books – the ones with beat up spines. The condition of a book is no sure guide to the quality of its contents, but it’s a beginning place. There were two main things we considered when picking out books for our children: (1) literary quality and (2) suitability.

Here are a few questions to ask ourselves regarding literary quality:
a. Does the vocabulary and sentence structure show good literary style?
b. Is the plot (conflict and resolution) believably and skillfully presented?
c. Is there good character development?
d. Is it true to the historical period?
e. If it’s supposed to be humorous, is it really… or is it just stupid?
f. Does it stimulate thought, or is it fluffy, superficial, or tiresome to read?

Here are a few things which we should be looking for regarding suitability:
a. Is my child capable of appreciating this book?
b. Are there moral issues in the story which are too mature for my child to be confronted with?
c. Is the moral tone loose, worldly, or frivolous?
d. Does this book incorporate a bad philosophy which could worm its way into my child’s thinking?
e. Does it feed an appetite which my child should not develop?

Our children need to be informed, but not in a way which gives them an appetite for the world and its ways. We should select books which are consistent with our Biblical worldview. The Bible itself has examples of everything – the good, the bad, and the ugly – and just as we present parts of the Bible to our children at appropriate ages, so we must do with other books. Sometimes a good book (such as The Time Machine by H.G. Wells) which incorporates a bad element (socialism) can serve as an example of how philosophy can be hidden in attractive dressing. Read and enjoy The Time Machine, but at an age when your child is able to analyze the philosophy in the reading.

We find that the author of one good book usually writes other good books, but it’s not safe to assume this for every author. Wilke Collins’ The Moonstone is an exceptional piece of literature, but beware of his other works. Don’t be afraid to drop a book once you see that it’s not worth your time. The Captain Hornblower series starts out with great promise, but poorly resolved moral issues later on make the series unacceptable to us. On the other hand, some books (such as The Wreck of the Grosvenor by W. Clark Russell) start out slowly in the first couple of chapters, and if we don’t give them a decent chance, we may miss a very good book.

What follows are a few examples to show you our idea of good or not so good books. Some of the books which we list as having poor literary quality might be appropriate for early reading material, but we suggest that the child move on to other literature as soon as possible.

Good Literary Quality and Suitable for Children

Biography and Autobiography

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
The Narrative of the Captivity of Mrs. Johnson — Hastings
Up From Slavery — Booker T. Washington
Mary Bunyan — Sallie Rochester Ford
Madame Curie — Eve Curie
The Story of My Life — Helen Keller

Fiction — Historical

The Last Days of Pompeii — Edward Bulwer-Lytton
Ben-Hur — Lew Wallace
Twice Queen of France — Mildred Allen Butler
The Door in the Wall — Marquerite De Angeli
The Story of Rolf — Allen French
The Trumpeter of Krakow — Eric Kelly
Men of Iron — Howard Pyle
I, Juan de Pareja — Elizabeth Borten de Trevino
I Want My Sunday Stranger — Patricia Beatty
Gay-Neck — Dhan Gopal Mukerji
The Matchlock Gun — Walter Edmonds
Justin Morgan Had a Horse — Marquerite Henry
Smoky the Cowhorse — Will James
Strawberry Girl — Lois Lenski
From Dark to Dawn — Elizabeth Charles

Fiction — Humor

Penrod — Booth Tarkington
The Story of a Bad Boy — Thomas Bailey Aldrich
Through the Looking Glass — Lewis Carroll
Five Little Peppers — Margaret Sidney
Carry On, Jeeves — P.G. Wodehouse
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court — Mark Twain

Short Stories

Short Stories — O’Henry
Short Stories — Mark Twain
Aesop’s Fables
Sherlock Holmes mysteries — Arthur Conan Doyle

Fiction — Adventure and Drama

Robinson Crusoe — Daniel Defoe
The Mutineers — Charles Hawes
Swallows and Amazons — Arthur Ransome
The Wreck of the Grosvenor — W. Clark Russell
Swiss Family Robinson — Johann Wyss
The Adventures of Richard Hannay — John Buchan
Our Mutual Friend — Charles Dickens
Understood Betsy — Dorothy Canfield Fisher

Ancient and Medieval Literature

Letter of Pepi II
The History of the Church — Eusebius
Antiquities of the Jews — Josephus
History of Alexander — Quintus Curtius
works of Tertullian
On Architecture — Vitruvius
Cyropaedia — Xenophon

Science Fiction, Fable, Fairy Tale, Fantasy, and Allegory

Holy War — John Bunyan
Alice in Wonderland — Lewis Carroll
The Borrowers — Mary Norton
Winnie-the-Pooh — A.A. Milne
Back of the North Wind — George MacDonald
Tales of the Alhambra — Washington Irving
The Wind in the Willows — Kenneth Grahame
The Twenty-one Balloons — William Pene DuBois
The Time Machine — H.G. Wells
The Lost World — Arthur Conan Doyle
Journey to the Center of the Earth — Jules Verne
Hitty, Her First Hundred Years — Rachel Field


39 Steps — John Buchan
The Moonstone — Wilke Collins
Pudd’nhead Wilson — Mark Twain
Mysterious Island — Jules Verne
Beau Geste — Christopher Wren
Sign of Four — Arthur Conan Doyle
The Circular Staircase — Mary Reinhart

Children’s Picture Books

The Tale of Peter Rabbit — Beatrix Potter
Madeline — Ludwig Bemelmans
Ox-Cart Man — Donald Hall
Make Way for Ducklings — Robert McCloskey
A is for Annabelle — Tasha Tudor

Poor Literary Quality and/or Not Suitable for Children

Biography and Autobiography

The Sower Series
Childhood of Famous Americans (the more recent volumes)

Fiction — Historical

Janette Oake novels

Fiction — Humor

Hank the Cowdog series — John R. Erickson
Captain Underpants Series – Dav Pilkey

Fiction — Adventure and Drama

Maximum Boy series — Dan Greenburg
Choose Your Own Adventure — Richard Brightfield
The Baby-Sitters Club Series — Ann M. Martin
The New Adventures of Mary Kate and Ashley — Judy Katschke

Ancient and Medieval Literature

The works of Ovid, Terence, Sappho, Plautus, and others. See Ancient History from Primary Sources: A Literary Timeline by Harvey and Laurie Bluedorn for more ancient literature recommendations.

Science Fiction, Fable, Fairy Tale, Fantasy, and Allegory

Akiko Series — Mark Crilley
Pendragon Cycle — Stephen Lawhead
The Animorphs — K.A. Applegate
Tom Swift series — Victor Appleton
Harry Potter series
The Arthur series — Stephen Krensky
Bone Chillers — Betsy Haynes
Magic Tree House series — Mary Pope Osborne
Left Behind series — Tim Lahaye


Trixie Beldon series — Julie Campbell
Nancy Drew series — Carolyn Keene
Hardy Boys series — Franklin Dixon

Children’s Picture Books

Berenstein Bears series
Disney books


  1. Lea

    Sower series? I assume it is not that it is inappropriate for children? Is there a problem with the literary quality? (We are looking for good biographies to read together.)

    The Sower series is not inappropriate for children, but we would suggest that the literary quality is not the best. Laurie

  2. Jennifer G

    I’ve been trying to get a hold of a Tom Swift book to check out quality…perhaps you can save me the effort. Is it inapropriate or just poor quality?

    Also, I highly recommend Hand that Rocks the Cradle by Nathanial Bluedorn. It’s excellent and we haven’t found a single book yet that isn’t absolutely wonderful!

    Tom Swift is similar to Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys — suitable perhaps for a child just learning to read or to get a child interested in reading, but the literary quality is not the best. Laurie

  3. j.engh

    When you list these books for children, at what age are you beginning? I read the Mercer Mayer books and a shortened revised version of the Disney books to my 3 yr old daughter. What books, aside from what you listed, do you recommend for toddlers?


    Do a search of the archives of the Trivium E-Letter and you will find lists of books for age 4 and under. Laurie

  4. N. Hols

    This is perhaps one of the most absurd articles i’ve ever read. Lets take a look at it shall we?

    In paragraph two you state “We must learn to evaluate literature ourselves.” I agree wholeheartedly with that statement, however how you proceed is where things start to muddle. Next you say “This means we must actually read some good literature. It’s like playing an instrument – practicing many pieces of good music will help us to develop a taste for what is good.” What??? First you tell us we need to establish what is good on our own, then go on to say we need to mold our tastes to what others have told us is good? The implication that in order to know what is good, we have to have read “good books.” So we have to be told first what is good to understand in the future what we should and should not allow our children to read? I dont know about you, but i have always thought about the term “good” as relative. This would mean that was it “good” for some is not “good” for others. Sounds as though conforming to social norms is what you are preaching here.

    Then, after listing the questions that we should “ask ourselves when reading” (even though we only know the answer once already told what is good) you go on to say “Our children need to be informed, but not in a way which gives them an appetite for the world and its ways.” This again sounds as though you are inforcing an opinion on your readers. I personally believe that my child should become acllimated to some of the more touchy issues in society early, as to prevent the sheltered, more pretentious behaviors that are commonly exhibited in the sheltered children.

    I understand that when reading an article, you dont have to agree with everything mentioned, but perhaps you should not state things as fact that are, indeed, your opinion. There is no psychological backing to your argument, nor is there any to mine as that matter, however i do not state things such as “is better for our children.”
    People should have the right to choose what their children should read, and your outright bashing of books on your unsuitable list is atrocious. Perhaps you should rething the wording throughout much of your article.

  5. C. Over

    I think you’re crazy. I love to read and have read more books on your bad list than your good list. Have you actually read all the books you are criticising?
    I found this website becase I am giving a speech for speech class praising the Harry Potter books as good children’s books, and i was looking for a list of criteria for good books. I notice that the Harry Potter books fit criteria a,b,c,eand f for literary quality; it doesn’t fit d because it is not a historical book. And for the suitability questions I would give it a-yes, b-no, c-no, d-no, and e-no, which seem to me to be the appropriate answers.
    Not only classical books are good. Some of the sorter series are wonderful for children because they can learn to read them themselves. It is also not bad for children to read things about controversial issues. Maybe you should suggest talking to your children about they read instead of restricting their reading list.

  6. Roth

    Not to insult your article, but some kids learn to READ off of books in your “bad list.” Hell, Harry Potter is a literary stepping-stone for some children.


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