(How) Can we read? Storing books & reading nooks

(And managing the options)

What we have loved
Others will love
And we will teach them how
(from ‘The Prelude,’ by William Wordsworth)

Welcome to the “(How) Can we read?” portion of this newsletter, which is where I plan to take everything I know about raising readers and building a culture of books and literacy in your home and share it with you, bit by bit. (The truth this morning is that I don’t feel like sending this, but it’s already written and waiting, and if there is one place I find solace it’s in reading and books, so I’m going to release this into the ether regardless of my heavy feelings. I’m here anyway, so let’s do this.)

These extra messages will come on the second Friday of every month. I’ll talk about the nitty-gritty details I get asked about a lot, such as: where do you buy all your books? How do you store them? What is your family’s reading routine? I have a problem; can you help me?

The goal is to give you a glimpse into my home and life with the intent of inspiring you to try something new/change something up in yours, and to offer practical, actionable ideas for you and your family. I’ll use my own experience to share value beyond book recommendations that hopefully supports you, motivates you, and helps you bring more reading magic into your home.

This idea was spawned from those of you who have reached out over the years as well as recently to ask for my thoughts and advice in this area. I have loved responding so much that I’ve decided to formalize it. So if you have a topic, issue, idea, question or anything else you’d like me to talk about here, please hit reply and let me know. This whole newsletter was built, essentially, on requests, so why stop now? 😊

I think every family has particular challenges when it comes to reading, be it time, or lack of knowledge about good books, or creating the habit, or a million other things. Over the six years since I became a mother, I’ve built our reading life very intentionally (because reading is essential, absolutely indispensable, to me; because growing up I had two parents who devoured books and raised this reader well; because I want my children to be thinking people). Our situation is two parents working full-time outside the home (well, one of us working inside the home during the pandemic, but, working full-time with lots of hours apart), with two young children in full-time school and/or daycare. I’ve spent years thinking through what reading can (and does) look like within that framework. I’ve learned a lot and tried many things and I offer my experience to that end.

Your own book culture can look however you want it to, be however you want it to be. There are no rules here. My hope is that you find something useful that will make your family’s reading life more enjoyable.

Okay, let’s jump right into something I get asked a lot:

Where do you keep all your books, and how do your kids access them?

🤔 I thought this was a simple thing to explain until I started going around my house taking photos for you, and it turns out my best answer is: everywhere. In every room. In all possible places. (Maybe at some point I will address why I have so many books to begin with, or maybe not.)

👆🏻 These first three shots are in what we call “the front room,” (right before Christmas, as you can see), which is dominated by a large, messy bookshelf my husband custom built for me the second we moved into our house. The children’s books take up (and have always taken up) all three sections on the bottom-most shelf. We have occasionally stored other things there as well (puzzles and games and other things of that nature) but it is primarily a place for books. I rotate out the titles maybe quarterly — less so now that my kids are older and able to roam around to all the different places we store books, choosing what they’d like.

Best access to books = reading nooks

👆🏻 This reading nook is next the big bookcase. I bought what’s called the “help-yourself bookstand” on Craigslist (it’s from Lakeshore Learning; it’s worth every penny). Front-facing books are important — kids judge books by their covers just like adults do, so it’s important for pre-readers, reluctant readers (Donalyn Miller calls this category of kids “developing readers” and “dormant readers,” which I just love) and enthusiastic readers alike. Providing readers with their own spaces is also important: I am a big builder of reading nooks and we’ve had many. All you really need is a light, a comfy seat, and a stack of books, although I’ve found that the cozier you make it, the better. As soon as my eldest could sit up by herself, I laid down a large bathmat in the corner of her room (they tend to be softer, cheaper, and available in more neutral colors than actual rugs), propped some pillows against the wall, and put a small selection of board books in a basket. She spent hours there (that’s 18 minutes in Baby Time). I rotate this shelf often — this is where, overnight, seasonal and holidays books appear (and if a season lasts a long time, e.g., summer, I try to add new ones every couple weeks).

👆🏻 This is the last book spot in our front room — it looks like this pretty much all the time, as it’s a general catch-all for whatever chapter book we’re reading aloud, whatever early readers my 6yo is using to learn and practice reading, and a spot to stuff the books that are lying all over the room at any given moment of any given day (the stuffing is done several times a week and often in a hurry, otherwise we’d all be walking over books night and day). I generally do not rotate titles here.

👆🏻 This is a spot in our eat-in kitchen, directly adjacent to our dining table (and next to another reading spot I created, this one also for adults). This is headquarters for what we call Morning Time — a concept I stole from the homeschool world when my first child was old enough to sit upright in a high chair and which I will write about in more depth in next month’s issue of (How) Can we read?, which will be about our reading routines. Most of the titles in this area get changed out monthly, as our Morning Time plans run on a monthly schedule.

👆🏻 This is the only spot in my children’s shared bedroom that has books — part of a dresser in their closet — and it is, as you can see, the least functional. This is where my eldest hoards (I use that word intentionally) her favorites. When they were younger it was neater (board books fit better than larger picture books) but I have let it go, as it is now under their control, which is as it should be. For this reason, I never rotate these titles — sometimes I go digging for one I want to cover in this newsletter but then I return it (I enable the hoarding, as this is what readers do).

👆🏻 The rule of our bedroom is that children’s things cannot linger; by the time I get into bed I don’t want to see any evidence that the short folks have been here: the one exception to this is books. This is my bedside table (I am a bookworm and an increasingly messy one; don’t judge); the books on the bottom two shelves are for my kids. We rarely read aloud in this room — at least in the sense of my sitting down and using my voice to communicate the words on the page — but this is a regular spot for reading for my kids. From the time they could sit on my bed without toppling off (headfirst, WHY always headfirst), I have trained them to spend the time I use getting dressed and ready for work sitting with what I call “looking books.” Looking books are not ones that I am going to read — sometimes this means it is every Daniel Tiger, Minnie Mouse, or Disney franchise character book they have checked out of the library, more often it is photography or coffee table books I have provided for them — but rather ones they are going to page through and peruse themselves. This has worked out beautifully over the years: I put my pants all the way on without having to stop for someone else’s needs, they ease into the day at their own pace in a comfortable spot and look at beautiful (sometimes inane) books. (I rotate these books monthly to keep it fresh or else this trick doesn’t work.) Win all around.

👆🏻 Moving downstairs to the lower level of our house, which is finished but nonetheless has this awkward area set apart from the main space where the previous owners had a full bar (because Wisconsin) and hideous vertical shades that we still have not replaced (because laziness + clearly my financial priority is buying books): half of this is a play area and the other, well, this. This is one of two bookshelves (again, custom built by my husband) where I store the majority of our children’s books. While I am showing you right now that we have books all over our dang house, there is also no way I’d be able to keep so many without some sort of large area like this. I have never counted how many titles we own, but I am guessing it’s at least 1,000 (and that’s not including books for adults). Since this really is storage in the traditional sense, I don’t rotate any of the books on the tall shelf.

Here again you see front-facing titles — the shelves on the wall are aluminum rain gutters we purchased from the local hardware store for maybe 20 bucks, cut down to the size we wanted, and drilled into the wall. There are a million DIY rain gutter bookshelf ideas online. I really like them — they hold up extremely well — and would add more if, obviously, my house wasn’t basically overrun with book display/storage already. I rotate the titles on the rain gutters quarterly, but I also add one or two new ones every time I buy books (which is pretty much all the time), so there is always something surprising ready to be discovered.

The motley crew of baskets and wire bins on the floor are the only, I repeat, the only formally organized titles we own (I do have areas of that floor-to-ceiling shelf that hold different categories but they are unmarked and only I know where each one is; there is no way I would be able to keep up otherwise). The bins, from left to right are: the only remaining board books we have; poetry; folk and fairy tales; math titles; art titles.

I cannot count the times I have searched my house in a mild panic looking for a silent child who wouldn’t respond because they were parked right here, absorbed in a book and (probably consciously) ignoring me.

👆🏻 This is the other of the two bookshelves where I store the majority of our children’s books (on the opposite side of the big stonework around our fireplace, which you can see a bit of here). The books on the uppermost shelves are all the titles that remain from my childhood, otherwise this is where I store titles that my kids are still a little too young for yet, except on the bottom shelf and in the small basket, as this is another nook I have created (inspired by this sweet little rocking chair I bought at an antique sale — add a light and boom, we’re in business). Again, since this is real storage, none of these rotate, but I do try to add a few fresh ones to the area they can reach. This is probably the warmest spot in our house as it’s about four feet from the fire, thus a prime spot for fighting over who gets to sit and read here 🤦🏻‍♀️

👆🏻 This is my last and most recent shelf, in the guest room on our lower level — added because, uh, I need more places to keep books. This is where I keep chapter books I buy that we’re either close-but-not-quite-ready to read yet, or years away from reading. None of these rotate, because storage.

👆🏻 On the most practical type of storage, all hail the humble plastic container. I have mentioned my seasonal book bins a few times, and this is an example of one. I have seven of these: one each for winter (pictured; genesis of the special edition on winter I sent out last week), Valentine’s Day, Easter/spring, summer, Halloween, fall/Thanksgiving, and Christmas. I store small decorations in most of the bins, and the bins themselves in my guest room closet (a walk-in that is a no-go zone for my kids, as it is the locus of my magic-making, kind of if Santa’s workshop was the size of a small bathroom and without power tools). When I receive a package that has one of those tiny silica gel desiccant packets inside, I slip one into my bins. Plastic storage boxes are truly excellent at keeping books clean and fresh even when I only take them out once a year, but a little extra moisture control can’t hurt.

👆🏻 The last book tornado place in my house is my office, which used to be a more comfortable spot (I had a couch and twinkle lights and candles) and has become, since staying safer at home, a real office wherein work-for-money occurs. Sigh.

This is where the magic (well, the magic of this newsletter, as it were) happens. This is also Homeschooling Central, where I keep the 2348098 books and resources needed for that experiment/adventure (on another bookcase my husband built — do you see this pattern/I know I have a problem). My daughter also keeps a desk in here. I would like to say that it never looks messier than this but that would be a complete lie, as I am sitting here right this very moment inside a much bigger mess than the one pictured. None of the titles on the shelves rotate; the chaos on the floor changes almost daily (and is often so bad no one but me can walk through, which might be a benefit? Hey, if working and thinking out of a disorderly “Hole” is good enough for Barack Obama, it’s good enough for me).

Today’s takeaways, or some things to consider:

Think about where you keep your books and how your storage serves you (or not)…

  • Do you have a system, and does it work?

  • Do you rotate books? If so, how often? If not, why not?

  • How accessible are your children’s books? Do they browse on their own? Do they sit down and page through what’s on offer?

  • How (and how often) do you provide new/fresh titles?

  • Is there a way you can incorporate book storage into your house/life that would make your routine easier? Is there a change you could make to anything that would simplify things?

Think about the places and spaces in your home that you have created for reading…

  • Do you have any reading nooks? Have they varied with your children’s needs? How cozy are they? Would you want to read there?

  • What do you have around your house that you can use or repurpose to create a reading nook?

  • If not, is there a spot you can create one?

In Books Children Love, Elizabeth Wilson writes:

“To be at home with books, children need book-loving homes.”

It has taken me years to amass our collection of books (I will tell you how I’ve done this in a future issue of (How) Can we read?) and to figure out how to manage it all in a way that doesn’t make me feel overwhelmed or crazy. I have built nooks little by little, mostly with what we already have. My house is never super tidy; sometimes it’s not even all that clean. But it is, at the very least, a book-loving home. Storage matters, but it doesn’t matter more than that. Whatever it all looks like, however you do any of this, what’s important is loving books and sharing that with your kids.

Thanks for reading, especially as I experiment with new things in this newsletter. If you like this addition (or not! or have suggestions or feedback of any kind!), please hit reply and let me know.