by Lisa Ripperton
June 14, 2019
It is not enough that books are available, they must be accessible too!
One boy's experience
Aidan Chambers, a noted British lecturer on children's literature, shares his own experience in one classroom setting:
When I was nine my school classroom contained about fifty storybooks. They were kept in a locked cupboard which was opened for a few minutes every Friday afternoon, when we were told to choose a book to take home for the weekend. On Monday morning we returned the books and the cupboard was locked again until the next Friday. All weeks the books were available, but they weren't accessible till the teacher opened the cupboard and allowed us to take one. (The Reading Environment, p. 4.)
Conditions placed on use of books
In other settings Chambers found children discouraged from taking books out of the library because their hands were dirty or their school work was not completed. Books should be accessible, and accessible to all!
My own experience
I experienced a similar issue of accessibility when I was a child. Every summer I spent a week with my Granny, and her brother, Uncle Ralph. They lived in spacious quarters, occupying the second and third floors of a large old Victorian home in downtown Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Their home was filled with books! Built-in bookshelves along the long living room wall, broken only by a cozy window-seat, housed Uncle Ralph's generous collection of plays. On the right as you entered Granny's bedroom stood a bookcase full of hardback editions of the latest fiction for adults.
Glass doors on bookcases
In between was the library with open bookshelves along one wall containing reference material and a long handsome bookcase on the wall opposite. This bookcase appeared to contain a number of series of various sorts. I say "appeared" because not only did the bookcase sport glass doors in front, the view of all but the tip-tops of the books on the highest shelf were obscured by a massive couch that could not be budged.
More glass-fronted bookcases lined the long hall on the third floor. I could at least read the titles on the covers of these. A set of the complete works of Mark Twain was there, along with a nice collection of Ernest Thompson Seton books, to match the framed illustration of Seton's Lobo the Wolf on the opposite wall that frightened me each time I scurried down the hall to the bathroom. But, we were given explicit instructions NOT to open the glass doors or remove books.
One more room to try . . .
My last hope was the attic where I soon discovered that there was a bookcase full of children's books that belonged to my father's brother, Uncle Ralphie, who becoming deaf at 18 months as a result of measles became an avid lifelong reader.
Yet these too were inaccessible! A big sheet of red oilcloth was thumbtacked to all sides of the bookcase, and again we were given explicit instructions to leave them alone. I could peek in enough to see that there was a copy of Lois Lenski's Strawberry Girl on the shelf as well as a good number of titles in L. Frank Baum's Wizard of Oz series. What other treasures there may have been I have no way of knowing!
How frustrated I was in that household that the only books I had unrestricted access to were plays and works of fiction meant for adults!
Restrictions in your home?
And so, I plead with you to minimize the number of restrictions you place on the books you have in your home that are in plain sight of your children. It may be less frustrating for children to have the books they are not allowed to touch stored in a location inaccessible to them.
It is fine to box your books!
If you have limited space in your home for display of books, by all means rotate your collection, keeping boxes of books in closets, under stairs, under beds and so on, as necessary. Holiday books and seasonal books you may want to rotate as well. I am not suggesting that you make all your books visible all the time, just that the ones that are visible are accessible!
And think carefully about whatever restrictions you do put in place. One type of restriction that does make sense to me is to allow children only to choose books that they can see directly in front of them and can reach without putting their hands above their heads. That way you can put books for the littles on a shelf near the floor, and arrange books for older children on shelves a greater distance from the floor.
I remember reading about Oliver de Mille's process of stocking a bookcase of Must-Reads for his children. He put each level of books on a successively higher shelf, so that he created a sense of anticipation in his children about when they would get to read each of the titles. An aspirational bookcase for sure!
Share your experience
Do you have any ways of restricting books without causing frustration that we haven't thought of? Do you have an aspirational bookcase in your home?