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From the Sept/Oct, 2012 issue of Touchstone


Sorted by Subject by Kathie Johnson


Sorted by Subject

A reader wrote in to Touchstone asking how one goes about organizing a children's library. I will respond in a way I hope will be of interest to anyone who likes children's books. First, I remind you that I am not a "real" librarian. I have never been to library school. Nonetheless, I have learned a great deal about how people look for books and how to make it easy for them to find what they want.

I decided early on not to use the Dewey decimal system. Working in our church library, I realized that 90 percent of the books were classified in the 200s. In that library, we eventually went to a color-coded system, with categories that people seem to understand, such as: living the Christian life, marriage and family life, science and religion, devotional guides, Bible commentaries, and so on.

For my children's library, I started with some large, general categories. Inside each large category are smaller sets of topics. So, for instance, a large category is "animals." Within that, there are many smaller groups, including dogs (along with foxes and wolves), cats (tame and wild), dinosaurs (and other extinct animals), insects, furry animals (rabbits, raccoons, etc.) and many, many more.

Mixing Fact & Fiction

What makes my library different from most public libraries is that, within such a group, I don't distinguish between factual and fiction books. So, in the dog section, you may find Debra Barracca's tale of a dog-with-a-personality in Maxi the Taxi Dog next to Joanna Cole's excellent description of dogs and their behavior in A Dog's Body. You may find Kim Lewis's beautiful illustrations in Floss, which tells a fictional story of English farm life with a border collie, next to Natalie Standiford's The Bravest Dog Ever, which tells the true story of a dog that saved children in Alaska.

This mode of organizing means that when children (or their parents) look through the shelves of books on dogs, they may find books of interest that were not what they thought they were looking for. These discoveries often surprise and delight them. Children who develop a strong interest in one subject will often read every available book on that subject, thus gaining a broad view of the topic. Their minds are expanded with information, and their imaginations are broadened by stories.

Mixing Reading Levels

Another large category I use is called "people and places." This section includes books on history, biography, and world cultures. In the biography section, books for many reading levels are grouped together, and the groups are arranged alphabetically according to the name of the person the books are about. This allows older children to find the information they need, while perhaps also enjoying and learning from the pictures in the books for younger children. There are also some biographical novels mixed in.

So, for example, all these books on Joan of Arc are grouped together: novels for older children, including Dove and Sword by Nancy Garden and Young Joan by Barbara Dana, along with longer biographies such as Joan of Arc by Jay Williams and the editors of Horizon magazine (notable for its rich illustrations that are both photographs and art) and Johanna Johnston's Joan of Arc, which has a bit less print. I also have Mark Twain's fine Joan of Arc, which is often dismissed by Twain scholars for its devoutness. Moving down to books for younger children, there are Margaret Hodges's Joan of Arc—the Lily Maid (beautifully illustrated, and written by a woman who often retells great stories); a book by Angela Bull for the series of Dorling Kindersley Readers, which has a good glossary; and a biography of Joan by Diane Stanley, who specializes in biographies of women.

In the world history section, I again mix fact and fiction. If a homeschooling family is studying the Middle Ages, for instance, they may find the simple, charmingly illustrated Fire in the Town by Neil Morris next to Fourteenth-Century Towns by John Clare, which contains a great deal of information and also includes an index and a timeline. Bruce Robertson's delightful Marguerite Makes a Book, in which the daughter of a famed manuscript illuminator has to pitch in to get a book completed on time for a customer, may be found next to Bibles and Bestiaries—A Guide to Illuminated Manuscripts by Elizabeth Wilson, which is full of information about how illuminated manuscripts were made and their history, and includes abundant illustrations of actual pages from manuscripts. I believe children are enriched by reading both the fictional treatments and the factual books on a subject.

A Few More Pointers

Some of you may be asking: how is this information pertinent to those of us who are not organizing libraries? I would suggest that you use some of the guidelines suggested here when helping your child find books from any library. Find the fiction and non-fiction sections for the topics your child is interested in (or is researching), and be sure your child knows how to go from one to the other.

Also, don't limit your child to one reading level. If you have young readers, introduce them to books for a range of ages on topics they like. They may find that the more detailed illustrations in books for older children are just what they are looking for. They may also be motivated to improve their reading skills. If you have an older child, don't discount simpler books if they are well illustrated. The illustrations in books for younger children may help older children better understand what they are reading in books at their own level.

If you have a children's library and want more complete details on the way I organize mine, please contact me directly at Kathie4johnson@gmail.com. I also always welcome your suggestions for topics for this column. •

Kathie Johnson has always had a love for children's books. She collected many as a teacher and began sharing them with other teachers. In 1986, she opened a children's library in her home, and it has continued to expand over the years. Many home-schooled and schooled children borrow books from it, and she takes great pleasure in finding the "right" book for a child. She attends First Presbyterian Church in Berkeley.

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“Sorted by Subject” first appeared in the Sept/Oct 2012 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue. Support the work of Touchstone by subscribing today!

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