Shelf Life

There are plenty of things that I don’t like about my office.

I don’t like the fact that my swivel chair collapses on itself at unexpected moments, sending me juddering to the ground. I don’t like how my pens all disappear (though I know it is from me absent-mindedly leaving them all over the place).

But the thing I do like – as well as the company, the coffee machine and my assortment of bulldog clips of course – is my book shelf. Just behind the door, I have piled in a selection of some of my favourite children’s books.

There are some classics, like a first edition of Dear Mili, with illustrations by Maurice Sendak. There is my signed copy of Beegu. There are the Mr Gum books and last year’s shortlisted books for the Lollies Book Awards. There are picture books and a few comic books and collections of poetry. My old faithful copy of ‘Melvin the Unluckiest Monkey’ sits up there, with its withered binding resting boastfully against its fresher-looking cousins. There are bilingual books in the main languages spoken in our school, and a couple of Bengali picture dictionaries. There are newer fiction texts like ‘The Boy In The Tower’ by Polly Ho-Yen, ‘The Girl of Ink and Stars’ by the amazing Kiran Millwood-Hargrave, and ‘Harry Miller’s Run’ by David Almond and Salvatore Rubbino. Also, I have some great non-fiction books, like the breathtakingly interesting Dorling Kindersley ‘Big Questions‘ book.

These are very much ‘my books’ and whilst almost all have been bought from charity shops from my own fair pocket, they represent a valuable little collection. My school is certainly not lacking for books, and in fact our office contains other collections of the school’s books – Dahl etc – and of the other AHTs’ own selections, but there is something a bit different about having your own curated collection.

I want them to be read, and I don’t mind who reads them. It is an optional extra for anyone who is interested, and I have a reliable troop of about 9 or 10 shelf-pilgrims at the minute.

What is nice is the impromptu ‘bibliotherapy’ element to the experience of the shelf. With my reading club on a Monday, we tend to end our sessions by traipsing downstairs to borrow from my shelves.

My knowledge of children’s books is not encyclopaedic but my knowledge of my children’s books is. Different kids approach the shelf in different ways.

I’m not naming names, of course, but one girl in my group is besotted with Mr Gum books and the irreverent humour of them; I am a huge fan of them myself and it has been a few years since I’ve taught a kid who has relished the wild humour of Alan Taylor, the biscuit businessman with electric muscles in this same way. She has now read all of them (I bought the whole set from a charity shop for 25p each!), and is currently migrating through Andy Stanton’s other books, Danny McGee Drinks The Sea and Matthew Buzzington. I’m thinking we might dip into some Spike Milligan next, or onto Who Let The Gods Out? By Maz Evans.

Most of my bookcrew of regular borrowers are in the Y5 and Y6 classes I teach, but there are a few outliers. One of the vegans of Y4 who joined me for Falafel Thursdays during Veganuary pops in seeking support in choosing based on mood. “I’m in the mood for an adventure story, not a funny story.” He has to stand on a chair to see the top row.

Some books are continually overlooked and others barely spend a second on the shelf, as they are passed from one pair of mitts to the other. ‘Fortunately the Milk’ and ‘The Imaginary’ have been drifting around Year 6 since July.

I would love to be in a position where I could answer “Yes, I’ve got a book for that!” in response to any query. I have books which are great to support the children who can’t, don’t or won’t conform to the norms, and these books can help to recognise that it’s not just OK to be different, but it’s laudable. I classify Hiawyn Oram’s ‘The Wrong Overcoat’ in this little cluster. There are books to help to understand death, like ‘Life Times: A Beautiful Way To Explain Death to Children’ by Bryan Mellonie and Robert Imogen, and ‘A Monster Calls’ by Patrick Ness.

It is not a perfect collection but I am enjoying so many benefits of having it. There is a real extent to which the knowledge that the books belong to the teacher carries a weight of significance for the kids. They like to borrow them almost as a form of interaction – part of the loan period is the shouts up the staircase of ’49 pages to go in My Name Is Mina, Sir!’ and having “THE TRUTH IS A LEMON MERINGUE!!!” hollered across the playground.

Curating your own small book collection for kids to use, and making it out of books you really do know and enjoy across a range of genres and types, is a great project and an expression of self.

I know loads of people do this, and I know I’m echoing a lot of teachers’ experience of doing similar things. Kat Young‘s wardrobe of wonder at Elmhurst Primary has a legendary status among her Year 6 kids, and I can only imagine what Simon Smith‘s office looks like.

I’m nosy to the extreme and would love to hear about your experiences.

Connect on Twitter and let’s talk about our shelf lives.


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