Serendipity by Donalyn Miller

We moved eleven months ago and I’m still unpacking books. With the speed and efficiency of pit stop mechanics, Don and I can assemble an IKEA bookcase in less than an hour, but it takes me days to fill one. As I open each box, I consider every book and its placement in our new house. We culled a lot of books during the move. Books we’d kept for decades became suddenly less dear when we thought about dragging another box of books across town. Damaged books, that library book Don paid for three years ago because it was lost, books our kids didn’t want to keep—we threw away or donated hundreds of books.


polar express


As we unpack, more books leave for less crowded homes. Duplicates. (Why do we own three copies of The Polar Express?) Outdated books. College textbooks. Hardest of all—books I have to confess I will never read. Getting rid of a book you bought and brought home—but never read—is like a sad breakup. There’s regret and guilt involved.


“It’s not you. It’s me,” I say, pitching Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto into the donation box.


The bookshelf depth and height present the only true limitation on where books go, but I feel bound by rules that dictate how our books should be shelved. Few people use Dewey or Library of Congress classification systems for their home libraries, but we all have dichotomous keys we fall back on when sorting our books. Don and I have a system we’ve finessed over a few decades together. Our sorting criteria give us some illusion of control over our books and their inevitable invasion of our new home.


The first division is Mine, Yours, and Ours with each reader in the house responsible for organizing their own books. Next, books are sorted by intended readers’ age—children’s, young adult, and adult. Then, subdivided into genre piles—fiction or nonfiction. Next, books are grouped by formats like graphic novels, poetry and novels in verse, and picture books. Last, all subsets are alphabetized by author.


It’s been a good-enough system for many years. It provides some order in the chaos. It keeps my mother from rolling her eyes when she comes over and has to scoot books onto the floor to uncover a chair.


When looking for a specific book, I can usually find it right away. If I want a new book to read, I head toward the cascading to-be read bookcase in our bedroom. Don and I possess permanent rows of books that we will never part with, but rarely revisit or re-read. Mostly books we gave to each other over the years.


Unpacking our books brought back a feeling I had forgotten—the serendipity of discovering (or rediscovering) books. Every box revealed more treasures, long buried on dusty bookshelves at our old house. The Talk-Funny Girl by Roland Merullo  that Penny recommended last year. I bought it, then packed it. How long has it been since I read Watership Down? Maybe, I will reread it soon. Bored with our decades-in-the-making classification system, I changed it for a capricious one that wanders between reason and whim. Some bookcases are alphabetized by author—no reading age distinctions. Graphic novels and adult fiction are sorted by color. It was an experiment, but it looks cool. Sorting our books differently drove me to reconsider and read many books I hadn’t looked at for years. In some ways, our library was too organized at our old house—sorted so carefully that we rendered chance encounters unlikely. Our system helped us find particular books, but it rarely helped us discover one.


colored shelves


During a class discussion of book selection tips one year, a student in my class made everyone laugh when she said, “I don’t always pick my books. Sometimes, the books pick me.” We have all felt that pull toward a mysterious book that calls to us, but I wonder how often these random meetings between readers and books happen anymore. How often do children have meaningful time to browse bookshelves? How often do children have true choice to select any book they want from an open collection?


No matter our stance on limiting kids’ book selection to books “on their level” and teaching kids strategies for picking books, we must admit we never see adult readers picking books by Lexile number or using the five-finger rule to pick a “just-right” book at Barnes & Noble. School-created reader-defining systems like leveling and assigning point values to books are scaffolds at best, temporary supports. Scaffolds are meant to come down. If a book selection system or strategy is not employed by readers beyond school, we must reduce students’ reliance on it as they grow older or reconsider implementing the system at all. I imagine more than a few of our students stop reading because we never consistently model authentic ways to evaluate and select books without these support systems or provide opportunities for students to select books without the restrictions or guidelines we set for them. If children never learn how to pick a book without a reading level or color-code on the spine, it’s unlikely they will read much outside of school.


Browsing books with abandon develops vital skills readers need to find joy and competence. Selecting books based on our own preferences and desires builds confidence in our own judgment and decision-making, both as readers and as people. Even when our book picks aren’t satisfying, we learn more about ourselves as readers.  Readers who depend on someone else’s criteria for choosing books rarely develop intrinsic reasons to read. We are not simply teaching the readers our children are right now, we are teaching the readers they will become.


Empowered readers remain readers.


My idiosyncratic book sorting system doesn’t have to be transferable or marketable or make sense to anyone but me. How do you organize your books? What ideas do you have for providing children more freedom to browse and develop their own selection criteria?


Donalyn Miller has taught fourth, fifth, and sixth grade English and Social Studies in Northeast Texas. She is the author of two books about encouraging students to read, The Book Whisperer (Jossey-Bass, 2009) and Reading in the Wild (Jossey-Bass, 2013). Donalyn co-hosts the monthly Twitter chat, #titletalk (with Nerdy Book Club co-founder, Colby Sharp) and the Best Practices Roots (#bproots) chat with Teri Lesesne. Donalyn launched the annual Twitter summer and holiday reading initiative, #bookaday. You can find her on Twitter at @donalynbooks or under a pile of books somewhere, happily reading.