Turn Left : on serendipity, shelving and selection of children’s literature

In beginning this post, I want to take you back a step. I want to take you away from books themselves and back to the word.

I want you to think about these sentences. I want you to think about how you know that they’re sentences. I want you to think about what tells you that this is a sentence. Same for this. And this? This too. What is it about them that makes them sentences? Is it the capital letters? The phrasing? The full stops (or periods, if you’re that way inclined)?

Maybe it’s the sequence. Maybe it’s the fact that you’ve read one sentence and you know that another sentence usually follows. Language is sequential, collaborative. It feeds off the moment before it and the moment after it, even if those moments are unsaid and unformed things. There’s always the presence of the other when you think about language. It’s not a singular beast. It is a many-headed pluralistic thousand-tongued thing.

And I want you to keep that in mind as we talk about shelving and serendipity and ideas of choice in children’s literature.

Have a look at these delicious photos, which tell the story of a bookshop in Rio ordered by colour. Then have a look at this, where a library in Ipswich wrapped up books in neutral paper which showed the first line and the genre of the book. And finally, here’s a library which organised its fiction section by genre.

There’s an element of practicality of course with classification systems and order; we expect them. We are trained to find order, to seek patterns and to make the irregular regular. We seek sequence and we seek the symbols that cause that sequence. Think back to the sentences. The capital letters. The full stops. The structure of them. The systems of them.

We need that. We seek that. We make the world systematic; we get up at a particular time, get the same bus, eat at the same table. And in the context of libraries and bookshops where others are experiencing our systems and classifications, we need to make those systems transparent and clear enough so that others are able to grasp them and utilise them. Stock is for reading, books are for selling, issues are needed and readers are wanted, and so an insight into the classification used is needed and wanted and deserved.

But sometimes, I wonder if all of these systems signify something else and I wonder if that something is fear of the unknown.

Children’s and young adult literature is subject to a lot of labels, names and classifications (do you know of cli-fi and sick-lit for example?). Whilst acknowledging and understanding the marketing urges and practical reasons which drive such descriptors, I do wonder if these and the other classification systems perpetuate a linearity of thought. A specificity of readerly choice.

I wonder if sometimes we are so blinkered by these labels that sometimes we miss that serendipitious moment, that  that swift twist of fate that makes us turn left instead of right, guided by the vivid kingfisher-blue flash of a cover that catches our eye in the morning light.

I wonder if there’s the literary equivalent of Turn Left, being made every day, every second.

I wonder if there’s a whole world of what could have been


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