Organizing the Books in Your Home, Part 3: Understanding Children’s Books

In the third part of this series aimed at non-librarians, we take inspiration from some of the ways children’s librarians think about, classify, and display material for the youngest readers.

When it comes to organizing your home library, there is much inspiration to be found in the ways public librarians define, classify, and shelve materials—from using the Dewey Decimal system for nonfiction titles to genrefying favorite fiction. And although these classification systems can be used for any age group, when thinking about how to organize books for kids at home—especially for the very young—practicality, ease of use (and cleanup), and a focus on fundamental early literacy practices trump any fancy organization system. However, understanding the major categories that most children’s librarians rely on to organize public library collections may prove useful for engaging future readers and book lovers.


These ultra-sturdy books are made with curious babies and toddlers in mind. Constructed from thick, coated cardboard and featuring rounded corners, these are what some children’s librarians call “the chewables.” While librarians generally frownboard books upon most patrons gnawing on library materials, board books are meant to be a child’s first exposure to books, and, as any parent, caregiver, and babysitter knows, babies and toddlers learn about their world via direct sensory engagement—which can mean some wear and tear.

Parents and caregivers worried about little ones destroying precious books need not fret when it comes to board books: they are nearly indestructible. And while it may seem surprising, even the act of chewing the corner of one of these tough titles is a positive preliteracy step. The building blocks of future literacy begin the moment a child is born—through the words, songs, games, and books they encounter. The baby nibbling on a board book or trying to wear it as a hat today will eventually grow into a toddler who learns how to turn its thick pages. And as a preschooler, even before she can decipher the words on the page, she will understand that those lines and squiggles on each page represent words that tell the story. Thus those early experiences with books—even in the form of mistaking them for a snack—are crucial first steps on the path to a lifelong love of books and reading.

The best board books are not only meant to withstand rough treatment, but are also targeted to the unique developmental milestones of infants, babies, and toddlers. For the very youngest, board books with simple silhouettes in black-and-white or high contrast are best for newly developing eyes, such as Tana Hoban’s Black & White, White on Black, and Black on White. As infants mature, one of the first things they are able to recognize are human faces. Board books featuring close-up photographs of faces—especially faces of other babies—can prove fascinating for little ones, and even elicit giggles. Examples include Margaret Miller’s Baby Faces and Roberta Grobel Intrater’s Smile! As babies mature into toddlers and begin developing language, simple concept board books featuring colors, shapes, animals, and everyday objects can help reinforce vocabulary.

Given that board books are more like toys at this stage of development, the best way to organize them is not to! Tossing them into a large plastic bin, accessible at the child’s eye level, works best. Feel free to clean the thick, coated pages with sanitizing wipes as needed.


Something of a misnomer, picture books are heavily illustrated stories, most often with words and pictures. Classic examples include Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon, and Matt de la Peña's Last Stop on Market Street. Though often thought of as storybooks for young children between the ages of three and eight, picture books are an expansive format that encompasses a wide range of topics, themes, and visual styles. They can—and should—be read and enjoyed by children of all ages.

Some picture books, like the above examples, are designed to be read aloud and picture book coversshared together. Many of these works often serve as ideal bedtime stories. Some tickle the funny bone, like Mo Willems’s Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! Others are meant to teach a concept, like Laura Vaccarro Seeger’s Lemons Are Not Red. Still others are meant to help young children understand and process tough topics or life events, such as Julia Alvarez’s Where Do They Go?

Parents and caregivers may find that young children gravitate to one or two favorite titles that they request to hear again and again (and again). Though it can get a bit tiresome for adults to read the same story five times in a row, it is a natural and common phenomenon. Not only do favorite stories offer comfort and feelings of safety, but repetition helps reinforce early literacy skills such as print awareness (noticing print and words on a page), letter knowledge (knowing letters are different from one another and represent different sounds), and narrative skills (being able to describe things and tell stories). A child familiar with a particular story can be engaged to help tell it through memory and picture clues—even before they can read themselves. Grown-ups organizing home collections may want to consider putting beloved favorites on a special shelf near your favorite read-together spot.

book binsWhen it comes to organizing large collections of picture books, there are two main ways most public libraries shelve them: alphabetically by the last name of the author and/or by theme/subject. But for most parents and caregivers, shelving picture books by any strict system in the home will not be worth the trouble. Instead, consider storing often-read titles on low shelves or bins that are easily accessible to both child and grown-up. Precious gift books lovingly inscribed by family and friends, heirlooms, or other books you’d like to keep pristine can be displayed face out on high mounted shelves out of reach of little hands.


When children are ready to enter school and begin the formal process of learning to read, they will often encounter beginning readers (also known as easy readers). These books are meant to act as stepping stones, designed to help support emerging readers decode unfamiliar words, recognize sight words, and comprehend a simple plot line. Like picture books, beginning readers are heavily illustrated. But whereas picture book artwork tends to work playfully with the text on the page, extending the story in new and creative ways, the illustrations in beginning readers are most often a direct reflection of the words on the page—the art offers context clues to help emerging readers understand the text. Beginning readers are also often a young child’s first introduction to more sophisticated text features, such as a table of contents and chapter headings. Beginning readers can be extremely simple, featuring only one or two very short sentences per page, or more complex, with short paragraphs and dialog. The goal is to have new readers move from the easiest titles to more complex beginning readers over time, eventually able to take on more text-heavy chapter books.beginning reader covers

Adults of a certain age may recall the old “Dick and Jane” readers, one of the first of its type. Thankfully, beginning readers have come a long way since then, offering much more compelling stories and characters. Beginning reader books include the “Bob Books” series, David Milgrim’s Go, Otto, Go!; David A. Adler and Sam Ricks’s Don’t Throw It to Mo!; Mo Willems’s “Elephant and Piggie” series; and Candice Ransom and Erika Meza’s Garden Day!

Parents and caregivers should note that many beginning reader titles feature levels designed to help adults determine the complexity of a given title. Unfortunately, there is no standard leveling system for beginning readers; each publisher devises its own matrix. Some use a numbering system to indicate complexity. Others use color coding or special symbols. Ideally, a home collection will include beginning readers across a range of difficulty levels, giving emerging readers variety and choice. Even as children's reading skills improve, adults may find that young readers go back to reread old favorites. This is healthy and good for literacy development—even when readers’ skills have moved beyond a particular book or series, repetition builds confidence and comprehension.


Finally, there are chapter books, targeted at newly independent readers. They typically chapter book coversfeature more text and fewer illustrations than beginning readers. They often contain more complex vocabulary and feature longer, more complex sentence structure. While the stories are longer and more involved than the plot lines of beginning readers, chapter books are still designed to help newly independent readers develop confidence and strengthen their skills. This typically means lots of repetition across long-running series.

As young readers get comfortable reading, they come to know familiar characters, settings, and story structures that repeat in each title in a series. Popular series include Kate DiCamillo’s “Mercy Watson,” Mary Pope Osborne’s “The Magic Tree House,” Debbi Michiko Florence’s “Jasmine Toguchi,” Saadia Faruqi’s “Yasmin,” and Sharon M. Draper’s “Clubhouse Mysteries.”


When determining how to shelve beginning readers or chapter books, grown-ups should consider involving their kids in the decision-making. Ask your emerging reader how the books should be organized and how they can help keep them neat on the shelves or in bins. The best way to engage kids in organization and cleanup efforts is to make them part of the process from the beginning. If they are invested in setting up their own home library, they are more likely to see the value in taking care of their books.

It’s wise to encourage emerging readers to read aloud, read together, and read independently—all of these practices will help build their skills and set the stage for a lifelong love of books and reading. Even as children move beyond their early favorites, it’s important that they are supported in their reading choices—even if those selections are a little easier or a little harder than what they are capable of reading alone at the moment. Adults may be surprised to learn that some picture books contain vocabulary that is far more sophisticated than that found in beginning readers and chapter books. Or that graphic novels and comic books strengthen visual literacy and light up parts of the brain that traditional books do not. Studies show that one of the earliest predictors of later academic success is growing up in a book-rich environment. The more access young children have to books and the more their grown-ups engage with them through talking, reading, singing, playing, and writing, the better positioned they will be when they enter school.

For this reason, a complex organization system for young children’s books is much less important than simply making sure they have ready access to books in their home.

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Lisa Allcott

Thanks Keira. A lovely introduction to different types of books for our pre- and new readers and such warm encouragement to parents. I still have the chewed board books and dismantled pop ups that my son explored as a baby/toddler. I read to him almost every night until he was 11, including many re-reading of favourite titles, sometimes four times in a row - The Gruffalo and The little yellow digger come to mind. At 15 he has been reading Winston Churchill's memoirs for fun. So hang in there parents - all the reading aloud works.

Posted : Apr 15, 2020 08:51



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