The Sense and Sensibility of Sorting Young Adult Titles

Kenny Brechner - March 12, 2015

For many of us, voracious 9-12 readers figure prominently among both our best and our favorite customers.  As with many things in life, catering to this group is not without its complications. HAfter all, children reading way above grade level are likely to be drawn toward books whose complexity may appeal to them even if these books contain graphic content that their parents, and even you as a bookseller, may not feel that they are ready for.
The importance and the currency of approaching this topic was visible in two places recently. One was in Elizabeth’s excellent post last week regarding booksellers as gatekeepers. The other was in a robust discussion on the New England Children’s Book Advisory Council’s listserv, in which various aspects of imposing classification and display of books for these strong young readers were bandied about.
Many booksellers have either applied or are considering applying a discrete section for these readers. At the same time potential problems with doing so were brought forward. These were expressed succinctly by Arna Lewis of Buttonwood Books. “I have been very close to sorting out the books this way but my issue is that I do not want to be the one deciding who a certain book is appropriate for and who it isn’t – and on what grounds? Sex? Violence? Topic matter? And how would I know unless I read every book? How do you all deal with these issues? Are you comfortable making these decisions? For example, would The Fault in Our Stars be in 14 and up even though all the 11 year olds and up are reading it? What about The Hunger Games that 9 year olds have been reading? Who decides?”
Good questions. As I see it, the ambiguity of classification is important to note, but should not dissuade us from sorting books for these readers. Just because something is hard to objectively quantify doesn’t mean it isn’t a real and important phenomenon. Take adolescence, for example. It is a real state? Yes. Can you firmly define where it begins and ends? No. That’s how it is with these lower Young Adult/10-14 books. The distinction is a real one, but it has fuzzy borders.
Such sorting of books can never be perfect. Take Arna’s example of The Hunger Games, which most of us consider to be around an 11 and up read. The third book in the same series, Mockingjay, is more of a 15 and up book. The Harry Potter books increase in content and complexity as the series advances too. No one, however,  is going to split series books between sections, of course. What to do? To answer Arna’s question, I decide, not perfectly, but still very usefully I think, because the benefits of sorting books for these readers are very large.
ya1What we have done at DDG is perhaps a little unusual. We have a distinct category in our inventory system for these rich in concept, lower in content, books called YA1. They have their own display unit but they are not labeled as such. The YA1 display is one of our two sections marked as Young Adult. The other Young Adult section is around the corner and contains 14 and up titles. I never felt comfortable labeling the YA1 section as Middle School or 10-14, being concerned about stigmatizing older readers drawn to the lower YA books.
We decided to see how this unlabeled sorting worked in practice before applying a label of some kind. It has worked very well. Most browsers seem to grasp and gravitate to their areas of interest intuitively. The fact of the segregation allows us to help direct or redirect parents and young readers accordingly as well. It also works well for library customers. We followed up by expanding the principle to displaying fantasy series books as well.
Our system is not perfect, obviously, but it has been a major improvement over our previously unsorted display environment. I personally prefer its deficiencies over what I felt were the drawbacks of labeling. If your systems are working really well for you, we would all be beholden to you for posting in the comments below!

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