There is very little mystery involved in what a book report is: a report on a book. That said, being a consumer of student-written essays, this concept is, apparently, mystifying. Clarity is obviously called for. This writeup specifically targets teenagers struggling to write a good book report, and, as such, parents of said teenagers should be able to find some kernels, as should teachers of teenagers, and parents of younger kids hoping to give their children a leg-up in the coming world of high school reportage.
Nothing is more chaotic than an essay without a head. Book reports have taken on the role of giving students practice in writing essays to conformity, rather than in the rambling prose that so often accompanies youthful exuberance. That being the case, acknowledgment of the time-honored introduction-body-conclusion structure is a great place to start with young writers.
There's not overmuch that can go into the introductory paragraph(s) without chewing away all the meat that should be left for the body of the work. That notwithstanding, the introduction is an integral part of any essay. This is the point where the writer can pull the reader into the analysis, where he weaves interest. Here the essayist spells out the book title (please, oh please, do not forget to underline it1), references the author, number of pages, publication information, and a brief introduction to the work itself. I find these 2-3 sentences are best crafted around the genre. For example, if the student is writing about The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, its genre (epic fantasy) can be the foothold used to leap into the body of the essay. As the archetype of epic fantasy, Tolkien's work defined a genre in itself. However, don't get too caught up in it all--the introduction is also where it is important to explain the scope of the rest of the paper. You can't write about every aspect of the novel, or your report would be longer than the source itself.
Remember, with the introduction, the rule of thumb is quality over quantity, as too many words looks forced--particularly if the teacher has given a minimum length requirement on the paper.
In the body of the essay, it becomes important to lay out the plot, point of view, and characters (if fiction) or an overview of the main topic, argument, thesis, and conclusion (if non-fiction).
Remember, when laying out the plot of the book, it's considered bad form (and horribly dull reading) to lay out each and every one of the events, chapter-by-chapter. That's not what the teacher wants. The purpose of a plot explanation is not so much to prove the student read each and every word of the text, but to encourage he exercise the muscle of being concise, of being able to take a large amount of data and compress it down into a chewy morsel.
With non-fiction books, it occasionally behooves the essayist to pick apart the various angles put forth by the author, and discuss the points most interesting, as most non-fiction books become very long book reports if each point is described. Also remember that in non-fiction, theses and conclusions do exist, and they must also exist in a analysis's summary.
Here is where the clever reporter gets to separate from the totally dispassionate voice that is, hitherto, the status quo for book reports. After figuring out what the author's purpose is, for example, now is the time to decide whether or not he was successful. In keeping with the example, Tolkien did not write The Lord of the Rings simply to get a story out of his head, though some authors do (and this is not always a bad thing). Even a cursory glance at the work shows his own interpretation of the atrocities of war, of the dangers of super-industrialization replacing the natural order of things, and the age-old adage of power corrupting even the best of men.
In addition to analyzing the purpose of a book, discussing the overall style of writing employed by the author makes for a well-rounded analysis. This point can also tie back into the author's purpose. For example, Tolkien used an exceedingly formal style for his epic work, which made it more difficult than the average book to read, but also lent a pseudo-authority to the piece. He hoped the work could appear to be a history book of a period of time that, somehow, we had forgotten. To this end, the language and style of writing he used gave the reader the chance to get absorbed in something bigger than a story penned by an exceedingly creative man. In this analysis, specific references and quotations can go a long way to proving the point of the essay (do remember the scope set out in the introduction, however--don't get too lost in a study of words).
With non-fiction, the analysis expands to include an analysis of the writer himself. If I wrote a book on corporate finances, after laughing throughout the bulk of my work, in the analysis, even someone who never read through the first chapter would acknowledge my absolute lack of authority in the field. The report should also include whether or not the student agrees with the author.
In either case, the analysis portion of the paper should be the essayist's reaction to the work in question.
The essay is nearly complete. In the conclusion, all the strings must be pulled together and tied up. This is the last point of the paper, and will, likely, be the part most easily remembered by the reader/teacher. Re-emphasize the main point derived from the scope of the paper, or give a firm reaction, or leave the reader one final point that is meant to stay with him. In any case, make sure the conclusion is, indeed, a conclusion. It is all too easy to simply end a paper, leaving the reader with the idea that a page is missing--a totally unforgivable sin.
1. There appears to be some disparity between those of us who learned to write book reports from 4th grade English teachers, those dainty old women who carry around rulers and tell us to underline book titles, and those who read scholarly texts on the subject. Excalibre, a dainty old woman himself, I'm told, has said underlining is used as a replacement for italics where italics cannot be used, such as with typewriters and other archaic devices that make me shudder with anxiety. He says book titles should be italicized. And I'm pretty sure he's correct on this. But Ms. Edwards would beat me rotten with that ruler of hers if I didn't say underline those book titles. And I still fear the woman. So, really, italicize your book titles. Unless you are Ms. Edwards, in which case I say underline. Please don't hit me.