Shelving by Subject — Yay or Nay?

Alison Morris - September 12, 2007

"Liz" made an intriguing suggestion/wish in the comments of my "Middle Grade Is a Muddy Name" post that generated enough thoughts from me to potentially overwhelm the comments field, so I figured I thought I’d include them here, as another post.

Here’s what Liz had to say: I never understand why a lot of book stores just don’t display books by subject matter, Fantasy, mystery, animal stories, horse stories, etc. Children between 8 – ? should be able to look at a wide variety of books without having them labled at grade level in my opinion. Why limit them to something they may enjoy be it under or over there "grade level?" Some children can read way above their grade level, but would like to read at their age level, while others struggle to read. Putting ages on books has always bothered me. There are even great picture books that adults enjoy! Do we tell them they cannot buy them for themselves they must give them to a child? Stop with the age and grade level, if they can read the book, let them take it home (I mean buy it =:o). I refuse to follow the rules! Liz

I completely see Liz’s point and agree that age specifications can seem unnecessarily limiting. I especially agree that we’re never too old for picture books! However I can say without hesitation that I think most of the customers at our bookstore would be lost or at least frustrated if they weren’t given some guidelines as to where to find books for kids at particular ages, stages, or reading levels.

While most parents are rather in tune with what books their kids are reading and have enjoyed, other family members (or less involved parents) often aren’t that familiar with what little Susie or Billy have been reading or are capable of reading, so it helps to steer them in some direction. This is especially important for gift-buying folks with limited kid experience, who wouldn’t begin to know what types of books kids are capable of reading at one stage or another, or what’s deemed "appropriate" for a 6-year-old versus a 13-year-old (I see this a lot, actually). They want to offend neither parent nor child, and are therefore grateful for some ages and stages steering devices.

From a time standpoint too I think it’s important to make it easy to find books at different "levels." Teachers with limited browsing time (which is most of them) would not like having to pull book after book off the shelf before finally finding one that was approximately the right reading level for the group they’re working with. Likewise, kids would grow frustrated if their interest was piqued by title after title, only to learn that each one of those titles was either too advanced for them, reading level-wise, or too "baby-ish."

From a logistics standpoint, I think subdividing our fiction section by subject could create a lot of shelving headaches. For one thing, shelving by subject would force books into only one category at a time, unfairly limiting their readership, or force booksellers to shelve many, many books in multiple locations, which (trust me) generates a lot of confusion.

A lot of stores do what Liz is suggesting on a small scale — for example having a fantasy or mystery section within their overall assortment of middle grade books. In our store, though, we reserve the sub-sections mostly just for non-fiction children’s books. We have a classics section, but apart from that the fiction (not counting picture books) is all grouped together according to reading and content level.

I worry that shelving fiction by subject sometimes reinforces kids’ (often) naive stereotypes about what books they do and don’t like reading. In other words, I think that the subject-related shelving model could in fact be just as "limiting" as shelving by age might at first seem to be. I can think of countless occasions, for example, when kids who claim to dislike fantasy have unknowingly purchased and loved a book that was technically fantasy — they just didn’t recognize it as such, because it didn’t fit their notion of what "fantasy" means. Were we shelving all of our middle grade fantasy books together in one section, I think a lot of kids would never deign to browse that section, which would be a loss. And if we had our sports novels shelved in a separate "sports novels" section I can’t tell you how many boys would browse there and nowhere else!

I know, I know… That’s what Liz is saying, right? That it’s fun for a book-loving browser to be able to find all the books (ALL the books) on the same subject, jumbled together in a delightful cacophony of ages and stages and sizes and reading levels! It does sound like it might make for a very cool browsing experience. But I think it would be easier to do this in a store where each and every person is only shopping for themselves, and not for other people. And maybe also a store where no booksellers ever have to do any shelving!

In the end I think there’s no easy way to organize a store that brings all potentially good fiction books to the eyes of every customer who might love them, but most of the time shelving them by ages has worked quite well for the three stores I’ve worked in. I also find that most customers don’t allow age categories or recommendations to act as restrictions.

As for how not to send the message that there’s an age "cap" on a book’s readership, though, I love Lisa Yee‘s suggestion from the "Middle Grade…" post comments:

I would love to do away with ending ages. For example, instead of "Age 8 – 12" it would be "Age 8 and Up."

An excellent idea, I think! But only if that book really IS supposed to be for an 8-year-old in the first place. I often see publishers label books as 8-12 that I think are a better fit for ages 10-14. Then again, I have a much harder time deciding where to shelve books when they straddle that line. Is that book really more for age 10 or for age 14, in terms of its content? Do I put it in "Intermediate Fiction" where it’ll be seen primarily by kids in the 10-12 range or do I move it to "Young Adult" so that the 14-year-olds don’t think it’s beneath them, but where the 10-year-olds might not find it? Ay yi yi. In the case of those books, Liz, I think I’d be wishing for your subject-based shelving system!

Any other booksellers or librarians out there want to weigh in on their shelving preferences? Anyone else have a dream arrangement? Thanks to Liz and Lisa Yee for comments that have given me plenty more to think about (and type about, apparently!).

4 thoughts on “Shelving by Subject — Yay or Nay?


    Labeling books by age range is a tricky business, which I discovered first hand when I put an age range on my children’s and young adult fantasy adventure (The Call to Shakabaz). Many older teens who have difficulty reading will not want to read a book with a younger age range on it and this makes it a hard sell for teachers who want to encourage them to read something they actually would enjoy that is within their grasp. And as pointed out by others, reading ability varies widely. On the other hand, it’s not children who buy books but their parents and grandparents who buy them for them and since many are not teachers and are not able to figure out what reading developmental level a book is at, it’s very helpful to have some guidance. It would clearly be impossible to cleanly divide books by subject since the wonderful thing about most great books is that they are bigger than that. The dream arrangement is conversation between children and booksellers, children and librarians, children and parents/grandparents/guardians. Finding the book, no matter where we decide to put it, is not so difficult. Matching it to a child’s interests and ability is the real issue. Amy (visit me at

  2. Jasmine

    I am in favor of shelving by age category. I think it’s easiest for the customer. I used to work for a book festival and we shelved by publisher – which was great for setting up the shop, but during the festival it was a nightmare to find books again, especially because most people working there were interested in books, but did not necessarily know which publisher they were published by. For the customer, it was just confusing. We had a lot of grandparents with their grandchildren visiting the festival and they were exacty the ‘gift buying customer’ you were talking about. Unsure, and rather not buying a book at all, then one that could be unsuitable. The way round the problem I think is to shelf by age and reading level, for the time-pressed and gift-buying customer, and have special recommends sections for ‘fantasy’ or ‘gritty realism’, for fans, which can be for all ages. I also think that ‘if you like…you’ll love…’ signs works really well. I don’t think there is a perfect solution to this issue, except maybe to have a bookseller by your side at all times…

  3. Mitali Perkins

    Most kids (even home-schooled ones, in my experience) think in terms of school rather than age: pre, elementary, middle, high. Those transitions and delinations are a huge part of their lives. I’ve never heard a twelve-year-old say, “I’m a tween,” or even a teenager say, “I’m a teen.” They’d say, “I’m in high school,” or “I’m in sixth grade.” I realize that dividing a bookstore by school levels can seem too academic, but as an indie you could use local school logos/mascots as decor, or signs featuring local radio stations, which work across gender. “Radio Disney? Browse here.” “In a Jam’n 94.5 mood? Check these shelves.” “Kiss 108-ish? Try these books.” Or why not mix in logos from Nickelodeon, Disney, TV Land, MTV, VH1, etc.? Kid browsers would know exactly what you mean. I’ve always thought bookstores and libraries could capitalize more on pop culture icons to demonstrate hospitality to kids and show off their connection to the wider world of young readers.

  4. Kathy

    I am a K-5 school librarian and I sometimes think of re-arranging my collection into genres, but then what would I do with those books that fit into more than one category? What would Captain Underpants be? Potty Humor? I have thought of doing this to aid the stduents who are looking for a particular genre for an assigned book reports (genre book reports are big in grade 4 & 5). We do seperate the fiction books by age, I have an “everybody” section, which is mainly grades K-2 and a “Fiction” section which is mainly grades 3-5. My Non-fiction is in one section and spans the age groups (although reading level on most of my non-ficiton is grades 3 and up.) A high school i my area has split up their collection into genres and they are having great success with it. kathy


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