Labelling books

Eileen & Jerry Spinelli wrote a wonderful book titled  Today I Will: a Year of Quotes, Notes, and Promises to Myself. I bought it in Chautauqua during a Highlights Foundations Children’s Writers Workshop. I don’t look into it every day, but when I do it never fails to surprise me with a great piece of advice – usually, but not always, from a kids’ book. Today’s passage was even more thought-provoking than usual:

“October 26

To me, the labels that people gave each other – or themselves – were like invisible name tags. Once you started to ‘wear’ one, everyone was free to make assumptions about who you are.

More than a Label: Why What You Wear or Who You’re With Doesn’t Define Who You Are 

by Aisha Muharrar

So why do it? Why costume yourself like a this or a that and thereby invite everyone to assume you’re so much less than you really are?

I am not a label.

I am not a label.

I am not a label.”

Published in 2002, Muharrar’s book looks at the role of labels & cliques for teens, based on a survey that then teen-aged Muharrar performed while a member of “Teen People News.” It’s still relevant – perhaps even more so – today, given what’s happening in publishing and kidlit. #WNDB isn’t just a hashtag. (Thank goodness! 🙂 )

But it’s also relevant in our libraries: classroom, school, public, and even personal.

I’ve always been a little annoyed by the constant narrowing down of divisions in kid lit. PB, MG, YA… easy read or chapter book? … fiction vs. nonfiction … shelving series separately or with other fiction. Don’t get me started on shelving biography separately from Dewey call number 920.

Volunteers always want to pull out books. Make a shelf for princess books. Make a shelf for holiday books – no, not 394, that’s nonfiction, we want holiday picture books. Why are graphic novels shelved with nonfiction?

Sheesh. Sometimes separating books is a good thing. (Hello, Dewey subject headings and call numbers?) But more often, it creates a morass of shelving minutia that’s hard for new volunteers and new students to understand. That’s the surprise and delight of browsing: finding something you didn’t even know you wanted just because it happened to be by an author whose last name started with K when you were about to re-read one of Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid books.

And separating books by reader age? Picture books are for everyone, but too many people regard them as only for very young children. Where does that leave the many “picture storybooks” of the past? There’s a clear line between most easy readers or beginning chapter books and middle grade books or YA, but what about the morass that faces the middle school reader or advanced MG reader? Please don’t tell me that now there’s upper MG. And forget about NA.

What happened to integrating all the fiction – assuming shelf heights and space allow – and letting kids discover books for themselves? Did libraries start following a bookstore model, or was it the other way ’round? Was it an outgrowth from the classroom and the now constant leveling of readers? (Stick to the five-finger rule, my friends! Works for all ages, not just kids.)

We make assumptions about books based on the labels they “wear,” just like we make assumptions about people. “That’s too hard for me.” “I don’t like fantasy.” “I want a princess book.” (You try giving a determined kindergartener a ‘real” fairy tale instead of name-your-Disney-Princess-here. Fun!)

I see it in the queries I read for the slush pile all the time. Yes, it’s important to know your audience. It’s important to know your genre. As a literary assistant, it’s very helpful – unless I read your pages and realize that you really don’t know what YA is.

As a writer, I don’t want labels to limit the audience for my book. As a lapsed librarian, I know some labels are necessary so readers can find the books they want. Maybe the folks who shelve their own books by color instead of by genre or alpha by author are on to something. I’m not that brave with my own bookshelves.

As a person, I agree with today’s passage. I am not a label. It’s the sum of the many labels I have worn and do wear that make me who I am.

Instead of dividing books or people – as labels do – let’s start adding.

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