Discovering children’s books in the library as a parent or teacher (when you don’t know what you’re looking for)

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A couple of years ago I wrote a blog post called Discovering middle grade and YA books in the library when you don’t know what you’re looking for and it was really popular. That post was specifically aimed at writers who were trying to immerse themselves in children’s and YA fiction and get to know the market better and now I’ve written a new version aimed at parents and teachers who want to explore the children’s book space.

If you’re a parent helping your child to find books they’ll love in the library or you’re a teacher who wants to expand your knowledge of children’s books, first: I salute you! You’re doing such a WONDERFUL thing! Second: here’s some advice.

This post focuses on how to get a feel for the children’s or YA books that are popular today and how to find books when you’re not looking for something in particular. If you know your child loves spooky stories about abandoned buildings or funny graphic novels about cats, you’ve got it pretty easy because you can look those up and find them straight away! But what if your child isn’t a big reader yet or you’re a teacher who isn’t super familiar with the current market and just wants to dive in and see what’s out there?

Even if you’re a regular library user, finding children’s books can be a challenge because they’re typically not organised by genre like adults books but rather arranged by age group, so you need to get to grips with these age groups before you can find what you’re looking for.

How are children’s and teen books categorised?

I want to start this by saying that I’m based in the UK and the libraries where you are may use a totally different system, so if what I’m saying here doesn’t ring true for you, search for tips in your local area or ask your librarian for help.

Most libraries will have a children’s section of some sort. My local libraries vary in size and popularity so their children’s offerings range from a small area at the side of the library with space for about 20 children to a dedicated room closed off from the rest of the library. Usually this space will contain everything from picture books and board books for babies and toddlers all the way up to middle grade (books aimed at 8-12 year olds), while books for teens are typically kept in the adult section under ‘young adult’ or ‘teen’. My local library labels theirs ‘youth space’.

Within the children’s section you’ll find more categories. Picture books and board books are pretty self explanatory but as the age goes up the labels can be a bit trickier to untangle!

My local libraries all title these sections differently despite being part of the same borough (argh!) and the librarians don’t always shelve books where I’d expect, so if I’m looking for something specific I’ll often hunt everywhere just in case!

Typically, library books in the children’s section are divided out into:

  • early readers – approx. 5-7 (books for children who are just learning to read, like the sort they’d use in phonics lessons and bring home from school)
  • chapter books – approx. 6-9 (aimed at emerging independent readers who are starting to explore longer stories broken out into chapters)
  • middle grade – approx. 8-12 (aimed at children approx 8-12)

Libraries probably wont use these labels, though, and even the age ranges they advertise will differ. Morden library near me labels their chapter book section ‘6-10′ – fine – and the middle grade section ’11-14’, which I’d argue is unhelpful as it incorporates YA readers (even though YA isn’t shelved here) and misses out a huge chunk of middle grade readers, meaning they’ll think they’re only welcome in the 6-10 section which might not feel mature enough for a lot of older children.

So as you can see, you’ll have to do a bit of detective work to find the sorts of books you want. If you’re not sure if a title is for children or teenagers, here are 5 simple ways to tell the difference between middle grade and YA without opening the book!

And if you’re trying to tell the difference between a chapter book and a middle grade book, here are some clues (although these aren’t rules so go with your gut!):

  • Chapter books will usually be shorter than middle grade
  • Middle grade novels look pretty much the same as adult novels except a little shorter
  • The language and plots in middle grade will usually be more complex and mature than in chapter books
  • The main character is *usually* around the same age as the top end of the readership so if they’re 8 or 9 it’s probably a chapter book and if they’re 12 it’s almost definitely middle grade

And what about comics and graphic novels, I hear you cry? Graphic novels can crop up in any age group and might be shelved along with the chapter books and middle grade prose novels or they might be in a section all of their own. A lot of libraries will have a dedicated shelf (yes, ‘shelf’ singular) for what they call graphic novels ranging from early readers up to middle grade but, in my experience, they’re usually not the most inspiring or modern offerings. My local library’s children’s graphic novel shelf is almost always filled with Asterisk comics and Shakespeare adaptations. I’ve never spotted contemporary titles like New Kid, Drama or Hoops, for example, so I think these must be shelved with the prose novels. Certainly graphic novels like Dog Man and Captain Underpants aren’t kept in the comics section, so I am left wondering what the graphic novel shelf’s remit actually is! I suspect it’s anything so thin it would otherwise get lost on the bookshelf were it not given its own domain. 

Look at the book displays

Most libraries will have books on display, either thematically or based on new releases. There will often be a ‘new books’ table with recent titles or titles that are getting lots of buzz so it’s a great place to start if you’re trying to get a feel for the current market. This is also a great way to get your hands on brand new picture books that haven’t been destroyed by little hands yet! 

Ask a librarian

Most librarians are absolutely wonderful people and they really want to help children finds books they’ll love so don’t be afraid to talk to them! Shout out to the amazing Catherine at Morden Library here who I adore and who could talk about children’s books all day (and whatever the opposite of a shout out is to the woman at West Barnes library who always makes me feel like a terrible person whenever I ask if Caeden can use the toilet). If you’re wondering what’s popular at the moment or need someone to point you in the direction of a particular age range, they’ll be happy to help.  

Check the reserved shelf

Take a peek at the reservation trolley where they keep books people have put on hold. These are titles that children are so desperate to read they’ve gone online and reserved them (paying 60p per book in my borough!), either because they needed to be shipped in from another library or because they were already on loan and had a queue. My son was once 16th in line for a Dog Man book! The books you spot on the reserved shelf are likely to be pretty popular and well known, so look them up and get in the queue early!

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Siobhan O'Brien Holmes

Siobhan O'Brien Holmes is a developmental editor working with middle grade and YA authors. She specialises in speculative and genre fiction, particularly horror, fantasy, mystery, sci-fi and anything with a dash of magic or macabre. She is a member of the SfEP, EFA, ACES, British Fantasy Society, Horror Writers Association and SCBWI. She has an MA in Novel Writing and an MA in Children's Literature.

All stories by: Siobhan O'Brien Holmes