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Book Displays to Attract Reluctant Readers

by Ellen Norton

*This article originally appeared in the March 2015 issue of Kids & Books.*

How do we reach potential readers who, by their nature, are reluctant? Try book displays.

Some of my most successful displays have been about things I never thought would attract readers. The children I see picking up these books are often ones who I don’t know well, who haven't approached the reference desk to ask for suggestions, and who typically aren’t excited about the prospect of picking out something to read.  Using stealthy display tactics allows us to (sneakily) help these children find their new favorite book.

"Wow! I didn't know this library had books about the Eagles! They're my favorite team!"

Ditch the same old, same old

Many kids pick books that appeal to them regardless of the weather outside or time of year. Our job is to come up with exciting approaches that will lead them to books.

Sports. This fall I created a football display that featured large uprights built out of wrapping paper tubes. I watched, delighted, as young boys came in, their eyes lighting up at the sight of those uprights, clearly visible as they came in to the department. The books flew off the shelf; not only titles about our local team, but also books about a variety of NFL teams and fictional football stories. One boy exclaimed, “Wow, I didn’t know this library had books about the Eagles! They’re my favorite team!”

 “Strange but True.” Ripley’s Believe it or Not! books are very popular at my library. Their covers are enticing to browsers, making attractive displays, and their content is appealing to readers who might be less likely to choose a novel or even a linear nonfiction title. I covered the display in multicolored question marks to pique kids' interest then filled the display with titles from the 000 section, from trivia titles to almanacs. Again, the titles flew out the door -- success!

Be Creative

Interactive Displays. Kids -- particularly reluctant readers -- may need a little more pizzazz to sell them on books. Remember, the target audience is unlikely to even read the sign describing the books unless it is engaging and exciting. Big, eye-catching displays with 3D objects or interactive elements get the most response.

At my library, we not only have a big glass display case near the entrance of our children’s department, we also have free rein to fill it up with whatever types of displays we want. However, our case does not have shelves, making it hard to display books. To combat this problem, my coworker and I created a “peek” display in which we covered the glass with paper. Kids peek into cardboard tubes to see an object suspended with fishing line inside the case.

One of our most popular peek displays was our “The Sky’s the Limit” display of items that might be seen in the sky. We inserted an interesting fact about the item under each peek tube, and coupled these with a display of materials about the items in the case. We had to refill this display several times a day!  Kids who never approached the desk took these materials. They were thrilled to be able to read more about something that they recently engaged with, all without having to ask "scary librarians" for more information. Parents also loved the true facts and the interactive element. 

With book displays, the sky is the limit!

Fun with Math. Kids enjoy our ongoing “Math Question of the Day.” Each day we print out a question from the Bedtime Math website.  We format the question so that it is eye-catching and easy to read and place it in a sign holder on or near our reference desk. Children are prompted to solve the math question, and they receive a small prize for answering it, either correctly or incorrectly. I include questions with a variety of difficulty levels, so children of all ages can try their hand.

Now, kids eagerly turn in their answers and receive their prize, and when they are stumped we share the answers, with an explanation as needed. Since the questions are usually about strange topics or current events, kids' interests makes it easy to spark up a conversation then suggest a great book on the topic. And, once kids became comfortable approaching the desk to solve the math question, they also became more comfortable approaching the desk with all types of requests. Another benefit: an uptick in our circulation of math-related titles;  in particular, our “Bedtime Math” books have become regularly requested titles, and the “Math Question of the Day” has also led us to recommend other fun math-related books. Next we plan to create an entire display of fun math books.


Don’t Count Out Nonfiction

Many children enjoy reading nonfiction; most kids are very curious about the world around them, how things work, and why things have happened. Many of the most reluctant readers at my library wouldn’t dream of picking up a fiction book, but once they've honed in on a topic of interest, they can’t get enough. There are picture book nonfiction titles throughout the entire Dewey range. Many of them get lost among the more informational titles, so this display allowed us to pull out gems and get them into children's hands.

Some subjects that worked for us:

  • “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Fiction.” To showcase nonfiction picture books, we positioned the display on the top of our picture book shelves, and to my pleasant surprise, kids begged their parents to take some of the titles home. This versatile display allowed us to display a myriad of topics on the same display shelf.
  • Cooking. Are cookbooks busy collecting dust in your 640s? Put up a display of cookbooks, complete with a chef’s hat, whisk, and wooden spoon.
  • Magic. I noticed that magic books were not circulating, even though I also knew that a magician recently visited our local elementary school and the kids had been enthralled. I created a display of our magic books complete with a magician’s hat and wand, and the books began to circulate.
  • Real lives. Are your biographies only touched when a historical figure report assignment rolls around? Find some of the most interesting people represented by your biography collection, pull these books out, and create a display that highlights their achievements.
  • Math. Build on specific questions, as mentioned above.

Look through your collection for interesting areas that don't circulate, and go for it.

Judge Your Books by Their Covers

One of the most difficult parts about any display is the actual books themselves. Most readers judge books by their cover appeal, and reluctant readers are no exception. When I choose books for a display, I only use titles that have nice-looking covers; kids who are already hesitant to pick something up definitely don't want a book with a worn, dirty, or outdated cover. Once I have chosen my titles, I tag all the books as “Display” in our catalog, put display tape on the spines, and remind our pages to return them to their relevant display. This helps to keep the display filled, but I also often have to put titles on hold using my card to keep displays stocked and looking nice. I am also lucky to have a great staff who choose attractive new titles that fit the display and notice if displays are running low.

While tackling exciting displays can be a challenge, it should also be fun. Use it as a chance to show off your favorite collections, your interests, and the best books you have. If you’re stuck for inspiration, Pinterest is an excellent place to go. Look at what other libraries are doing, and spin off of that. Most importantly, don’t get discouraged; there are always new and exciting topics to try. It's your opportunity to inspire a child who's never felt a connection with books to find his new favorite read.

NoveList users: looking for more display ideas for picture books? Try our I Feel….lists, each highlighting a different emotion. Download a bookmark with I Feel...Fancy books. 

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Ellen Norton is a children's librarian at the Naperville Public Library. She enjoys going on adventures, both in life and in books.