The Classroom Bookshelf
Inside The Classroom Bookshelf

Building Classroom Libraries: Classroom Bookshelf Tips for the Start to the School Year

Paolo Freire and Donald Macedo wrote that “Literacy is the language of possibility.” At The Classroom Bookshelf, it’s no surprise that we love children’s and young adult literature. We also love the start of the school year as a time full of possibility for what literacy instruction will look and feel like in your classroom. Part of setting the tone that your classroom is a community of readers is to consider the design and contents of your classroom library. In conversations with colleagues and friends, we hear about how they are setting up their classroom bookshelves and reflecting on the kind of community they want to construct through books with their students. Now is the time to assess how your students will have access to books, what their routines will be for selecting books, and whether or not your classroom bookshelf provides opportunities for students to both see themselves, their interests and identities in books, as well as learn about the life experiences of others. 
The following are some Classroom Bookshelf tips on making your classroom library accessible, enjoyable, inviting, affirming, and eye-opening for students.
1. To level or not to level? While it can be helpful, especially for early readers, to have access to books that support growing levels of decoding, fluency, and stamina, it is equally important to have a range of books that are non-leveled and to set up a classroom routine that supports reading by interest regardless of level.  In addition, as you level books, be mindful of the unintended consequences of early readers’ awareness of levels. Students as early as Kindergarten can become acutely aware of what a letter or number sticker means for his or her reading identity and can breed unnecessary self-doubt turning young readers off of reading. Consider other systems such as colored dots for early readers that provide a less hierarchical leveling structure and consider your own philosophies about whether leveled libraries have a place in classrooms at all. At The Classroom Bookshelf, we each have our own personal philosophies about leveled libraries. Some of us believe that classroom libraries should include a balanced approach with leveled and non-leveled books, while some of us believe that classroom libraries should not be leveled at all. It is important to have conversations with teachers in your building about what you believe and why. Finally, take note of what’s working (and what’s not) about your classroom library as the school year unfolds. When you see unintended consequences, consider alternatives.
2. Balance genres. Some of us are avid fiction readers. Some are avid nonfiction readers. Some of us read both with abandon. If you are adding books to your classroom bookshelves, those choices may reflect your personal reading interests. But what about the preferences of your students? Ensure a balance of genres by showcasing a range of fiction (realistic, historical, fantasy, science fiction) as well as nonfiction children’s and young adult literature. Not to mention poetry! We love the nonfiction authors at the i.N.K. (Interesting Nonfiction for Kids) collaborative. While visiting their website note their incredible Nonfiction Minute which is a free and easy way to incorporate short, well-crafted, nonfiction pieces into your instruction. Look for ways to display and organize books by genre as well as a range of formats including graphic novels. Search our Classroom Bookshelf labels to look for particular genres and formats that feel like they need refreshing in your collection.
3. Value picture books. Picture books are complex in language and meaning. While students may be excited to reach their first chapter books and dig into series books, support students to engage with the complex storylines of picture books at every age such as many of the Caldecott winners and honor books we blog about. As readers interact with picture books, their imaginations fill in missing themes and engage in critical thinking that can be more difficult to authentically experience with early chapter books. Picture books also provide many readers comfort as they revisit stories from earlier in their childhoods or from their homes. Nonfiction picture books, in particular, support students to learn new content about the world around us. Picture books also provide a pathway to visual literacy skills that students need in and out of school as they engage with the world. Support students to notice artists’ techniques and their use of line, color, space, and layout. What do the illustrations reveal that is not stated in words? Some of our favorite books are wordless picture books that foster critical thinking and storytelling possibilities for students of all ages, levels, and languages. For older students, value the artistry and storylines of graphic novels that are rich in imagination and often provide a springboard for students to take to text in new ways. Search our Classroom Bookshelf labels for picture books, picture book autobiographies and biographies, as well as graphic novels for some of our favorites.
4. Represent diverse society through books. While the world of children’s literature is overwhelmingly White and middle class, the 2014 American Library Association award-recipients represent a sea change including Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover and Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming. Lee and Low Books has created a list of ten reasons to read diversely including “walking in someone else’s shoes builds empathy” and “Diverse readers redefine who and what we can be.” We couldn’t agree more. If your students are not represented in the book covers and illustrations of the books that line your shelves, your first bookshelf action should be to right that imbalance. If we know from proficient reader research that readers make connections, it helps explain why some of our students struggle to make connections if their story and lived experiences are not represented in the literature available to them. Even if your students come from a dominant social group, diverse literature helps counter prejudices and supports prosocial development. Lee and Low Books has an excellent advanced search tool to find books that represent different cultural identities. You can also search our site by topic in the search bar to see what we have blogged about. Teaching Tolerance has a new site dedicated to Appendix D: A Tool for Selecting Diverse Texts. We also recommend Boyd, Causey, & Galda’s recent article in The Reading Teacher on Culturally Diverse Literature and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk titled “The Danger of a Single Story”. Finally, edutopia has recently recirculated its post on preparing for cultural diversity in your classroom with a series of important resources and links. 
5. Spotlight books tied to student interest. The beginning of the school year is a time where we build community and get to know our students’ interests. What are their hobbies after school? What are they curious about? What are their dreams and aspirations? Work in partnership with your school and local librarian to spotlight books that directly connect to your students’ interests as soon as you learn about them. Are there characters who have the same passions? Are there nonfiction books that can speak to your students’ interests outside of school? The search tool at The Classroom Bookshelf will also support you to search by topic, word, or phrase and if we have blogged about something tied to that topic as detailed in our reviews or teaching invitations, it will be curated for you with links to our blog entries.
6. Create interactive possibilities.  Support your students to share what they love, what builds their curiosity, and what they want to talk back to in texts. Consider an interactive bulletin board where students can comment on post-its or “thinking squares” their short responses to the books they’ve read. Consider simple ways for students to share their opinions or informal reviews of books through a calendar sign up sheet supporting 1-2 students a day to share their views. Have letter writing paper readily available along with your students’ favorite authors addresses or have email accessible for students to compose messages to authors. Ask your students for theirinnovative ways to make their reactions to books seen and heard.
7. Share your own favorites. Our students love to know what we’re reading and the books we’ve fallen in love with even if they are books written for adults. Create a display that rotates some favorites of yours throughout the year by considering a balance of genres and formats and authentic representations of diversity.

Next week we pick up again with our book reviews and teaching invitations from the books we have been reading this summer and early fall. We look forward to another school year of reading and sharing with you the possibilities we find within the pages of children’s and young adult literature.
Katie Cunningham About Katie Cunningham

Katie is an Associate Professor of Literacy and English Education at Manhattanville College. Her work focuses on children’s literature, joyful literacy methods, and literacy leadership. Katie is the author of Story: Still the Heart of Literacy Learning and co-author of Literacy Leadership in Changing Schools. Her book Start with Joy: Designing Literacy Learning for Student Happiness will be released September 2019. She is passionate about the power of stories to transform lives.


  1. Just fantastic. This is full of wisdom and I will be sharing it widely. I find that people are always thinking about and questioning aspects of their classroom libraries and this post is a great place to check in and do some reflecting.

  2. These suggestions are also great for the school librarian to follow. I'd add one more tip–become friendly with the school librarian. The librarian can provide a variety of books on a rotating basis for curriculum connections. Also, remember the public library possibilities to expand the collection for a project. Many libraries allow for holds, and some even collect the books for easy pick-up. By communicating with the librarians, whether school or public, the teacher also helps develop the library collection because the librarians know what the literature demands might be.It's a two-way street, beneficial to teacher and librarian.

  3. Fantastic article! Another idea is to use a site like, a social network and book discovery tool for K-8th graders, to let kids share book reviews.

  4. Thank you so much for sharing such a wonderful article. With school starting tomorrow, I spent the last few days organizing my classroom library. As a Reading Specialist, I do have to use
    an improvised level system (dot stickers), but also have bins with books by genre. Your article gave me a lot to think about! Thanks, again!