This is part of my series on building A Chinese Library.  I know I haven’t really talked about picture books or other types of books yet, but I recently got to reorganize a library and couldn’t resist taking a few pictures.  I was so giddy that I got to organize a library!

When I ordered a bunch of books for Mandarin Mama‘s Chinese library over the summer, I knew I would be itching to help her organize it.  Because, you know, I have to be able to browse and find books, even at other people’s houses.

Thankfully, she asked me to the minute she returned from Taiwan with her boxes of books.  If a home library collection gets big enough, and the goal is to methodically lead the children to learn to read, it’s a good idea to organize the library.

How We Re-Organized Her Books

Here is her bookshelf before we started.  This is the result of a semester of group ordering several boxes of books.  She completed her library collection, for now, over the summer.  Other than missing some books in Level 4, her library collection puts her up to 4th grade, if not 5th.

Right now, there are 1-3 sets for each reading level.  They can be added to when the child needs more books of that level.  Otherwise, I usually only suggest 1-2 sets per level to friends.  You never quite know how fast they’ll go through a level.


Before we started, the top 2 shelves were all English books.  The bottom 4 were her Chinese books, with some lended out.  The left pic is some of the books she brought back from Taiwan.

My recipe for organizing books is as follows:

1.  Buy enough bookshelves to hold your books

Well “D’uh” you say, of course you have to buy enough bookshelves for your books.  Yet, I didn’t have bookshelves for 3-4 years while I accumulated my 6-10 boxes of Chinese books.  “My kids won’t be reading these for another year or two,” I think, so I just need to put the books of their level on the shelves.

Eventually most of my books were in boxes, hidden away.  When I started homeschooling 3 years ago, I pulled them all out again, and discovered all these books we could have read but didn’t because I’d forgotten that I have them.  Many of the books were past Thumper’s level and Astroboy didn’t get to use them.

Most of my friends don’t have enough shelves for their books.  We just can’t keep up with the books we keep accumulating.  But if you’re a forgetful or lazy person like me, where you won’t actually look through your stored books every few months, it’s best to just have them out all at once.

Plus, you never know what book will catch a child’s attention.

Maybe the book that is 2 levels ahead of their reading level is what catches their interest and spurs them to read.  Maybe one day you get into a discussion about hydrogen bombs with the kids, and you want to pull out that upper elementary encyclopedia, except it’s in a box somewhere or out of their reach.

For this reason, I made Mandarin Mama bring out all her Chinese books that is up to 4th grade and we brought it all down to the library.

2.  Put the bookshelves all in one room

This lesson about proper environment also took me a few years to learn.    I used to have books in the living room, in the kids bedroom, and in the classroom.  What ended up happening was, I didn’t know where the books were when I needed them, and the kids didn’t know where the books were when they were looking for them.  Plus, they never put them back.

Then, I got really mad at the mess and put the books in jail locked them up in boxes for a few years.

It is really my fault that the kids are messy with their books, because I hadn’t set up an environment and procedures for them to follow.  Montessori is big on proper environment because she believes it is an indirect teaching tool and also helps promote independent children.  Sadly, leaving books wherever they last read them is now a habit, a habit I’m looking to kick this upcoming school year.

When the books are all in one place, in order, it takes me, the teacher, out of the equation more.  I don’t have to be there to help them find the books they need to read next.  I can prepare in advance, in my own time.  I know where to find a specific book I want to show my friends, and where to put the books back.

3. Kondo your books.

Chinese books are precious!  They travel over a vast ocean to get here.  So every book, including the dinky ones, the ones with horrible illustrations, the bilingual ones that are written terribly, every book that I never use, or the children never read, are treasured and put on the shelf.

Maybe.  One day.  They will magically find it and read it!

There is a reason to cull.  Chinese is studied as a second language.  The amount of exposure is limited.  The library will be an important aid in them learning the language as they get older.  Might as well make every exposure count and not let them read really terribly written books.

Thankfully, we’re starting to run out of bookshelf space.  I finally Kondo’ed my Chinese books this year and gave away those that really don’t give them joy.  Mandarin Mama is much less sentimental than me and gave away all her simplified Chinese books when we Kondo’ed her books as the first step in organizing.

4.  Put all books at eye level of children.

I typically use the bottom 3 shelves of my Ikea Billy bookshelf for the kids and reserve the top ones for me.  For Mandarin Mama, we decided to make the bottom three shelves of two Billy bookcases for the children.  Sometimes you’re limited by the bookshelf itself.   We reserved her 4th from bottom shelf for her large books because those books are heavy and needed better support.  Thankfully they’re upper elementary level anyway.

Even though Montessori says left to right, top to bottom, I don’t always arrange it this way if the child is still too short to reach the top shelf of a bookshelf.  For Mandarin Mama, even though she has young ones, as her board book collection is so small, we didn’t make it truly at toddler level.

5. Sort books into English and Chinese, then Fiction and Non-Fiction.  

Self explanatory.  Except, do you put “Everyone Poops” by Tomi Goro into Non-Fiction or Fiction?  Or Magic Treehouse?

I tend to put them all into fiction if I want the kids to read them for pleasure.  And make non-fiction the ones that will be used as reference during homeschooling research.

5. Order Fiction books by reading level, then by height and series.

The fiction books are sorted into Board Books, Toddler Picture books, Picture books, Bridging Books, Children’s Literature.  The best thing about sorting by level is that you can pull out whole sections of the bookshelf and put it in a book basket for the children for their quiet reading time.

Because the books are now leveled, they’re placed on the bookshelf from left to right, top to bottom, with the easiest level on the top left.  This is a Montessori environment setup, to indirectly help children track their eyes similar to how we read.  It is probably what brings out my urge to organize other people’s books, because I’m so used to the easiest books on the top left corner, or at least the left side of a shelf.

Here’s Mandarin Mama’s shelf #1.  The top shelf are the board and picture books.  Picture books are ordered by height.  I didn’t used to do this till my OCD sister came and organized my bookshelf.  It makes a big difference visually to have the picture books ordered by height!   It’s now easier for Astroboy to put his books back on the shelf.

Bridging books and onward (middle and bottom shelf) are ordered by reading level.  This makes it very easy to know what the next books to suggest for your child to read.  Now, Mandarin Mama would say this is partly why she asked me to organized, because I kind of have a sense of the level in my head.  However, for books I don’t know, I tend to look at total page numbers and how heavy the illustration to text ration is.  Typically books have around 32, 64, 128, 250, pages.

And if you make a mistake, just re-sort them somewhere else!

Some picture books are actually harder to read than bridging books.  A child who’s starting to read can actually spend awhile doing a bit of Early Readers and Picture books.  For example, I Love Martine can be used to practice reading.  But as I explained to Mandarin Mama, most picture books were not designed for a beginning reader.  They often have harder vocabulary and very tiny font.

So, for this reason, we separate the picture books from the Bridging books.  This way, you can offer bridging books to the children when you deem them ready for that level of reading.  While I categorize the books by type and level, I know that as the child begins to read, I can continue to parallel read bridging books and picture books in the first 2-3 years of reading.  It’s the same as English.

6.  Categorize Non-fiction books by subject, then by reading level and series sets.   


The top shelf are biographies and encyclopedias (too advanced for the kids), next are about Level 4, 5 books (Children’s literature).  Second to last shelf shelf are Mandarin Mama’s Mandarin teaching materials, like Sagebooks, Chinese workbooks, etc.  Her bottom shelf is her non-fiction collection, plus some English books.  Because it’s small, it’s ordered by series.

Ideally, if you have enough non-fiction, they’re sorted by subject so that you can pull out all books on a subject you’re studying. But that is mostly relevant when you have enough of a non-fiction collection.

7.  Optional: Find a display shelf

In a Montessori classroom, they typically display books on the shelf, book cover facing forward, to entice the children to read.  Often, in homeschooling homerooms, parents have those display shelves with books.   With a big library, this is one way to feature books relevant to what they’re currently studying.

And there you have it.  Here are some more pics of her beginning bridging books.

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