The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up My Kids’ Bookshelves

by Laura Lambert

Photo credit: Donald Iain Smith, Moment/Getty Images

I’m writing to you from the other side — the side (mostly) filled with things that only spark joy (plus some things that sometimes spark a little joy, or that sparked joy once and may again, so they get a stay of execution). It ain’t perfect, but it’s still a wondrous place! My eight-year-old’s cubbies have stayed organized for more than six weeks and my four-year-old can now easily pick his own night-night book!

How did I get here? A long and winding road.

First, I read Marie Kondo’s ubiquitous The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up back when it was first released. I gushed. I blithely told everyone that it was officially time to declutter and tidy. But then I just … didn’t. Every time I glanced at Kondo’s book on my nightstand, I felt shot through with guilt. And as cycles of guilt go, it lasted for a while.

But then we had a few days to ourselves over the past Christmas. And I did it. I tidied up.


Begin at the Beginning

So, Kondo has a lot of rules. One of them, reiterated in her most recent book, Spark Joy — the smaller, more illustrated, more digestible tome — is that tidying up books should come second, after clothes. Perhaps I knew this intuitively, because I filled several boxes of old, small clothes and dropped them off at Goodwill back in the fall. Easy-peasy.

But the books, they took some time.

I cracked Kondo’s book again and turned to page 86, the section on “Storing Books,” to get in the right mindset.

A Formidable Foe

While I was more than ready to part with all the books, I was in the minority. I tried to enlist my daughter on at least seven occasions and was met with an unbreachable wall of resistance each time. I wondered if Kondo had ever dealt with such an obstinate child.

No, I couldn’t just hand the picture books down to her brother.

No, I couldn’t donate the picture books to her old preschool.

No, she looooooves that one.

No, I definitely couldn’t give to her current school that series of books she’d read long ago — she might want to read them again.

Kondo doesn’t offer any insight into our particular struggle, but she does understand. She writes, “Books are one of the things that people find hardest to let go.”

I read Zoe a quote directly from the book: “You cannot judge whether or not a book really grabs you when it’s still on the shelf.” Still, she wouldn’t budge.

And then I did what most parents do — I did it behind her back.

Alone at Last

Per Kondo, you’ve got to lay the books all out at once; you cannot pick and choose. If you’re feeling particularly motivated, you can sort them into piles. While Kondo suggests you group them as general books (those you read for pleasure), practical books (references, cookbooks, etc.), visual books (photograph collections, etc.), and magazines, things shake out a little differently with kids’ books.

I went by age.

Just touch the book, she instructs. “Make sure you don’t start reading it. Reading clouds your judgment.”

I will say that I was admirably immune to the lure of these children’s books. It wasn’t like my own shelves of books, where I might murkily recall the plot or characters in something I devoured 15 years ago. Who turned me on to those Amanda Filipacchi books? Oh, right, there’s my Paul Auster phase. When on earth did I read Independence Day?!

No, with my kids’ books, I knew every torn page and smudged cover all too well. Children’s books have their way of working into your psyche so that when you’re reading, say, Knuffle Bunny Free for the millionth time, you’re also reanalyzing what it is about the book that makes you cry every single time.

In the end, I purged relentlessly, alone, undistracted — the way it should be.

Tidying up Laura Lambert's family bookshelves Marie Kondo style.

Zoe came back and was so utterly thrilled by how organized everything was in her Ikea cubbies that the sinister absence of many of her beloved books went (mostly) unnoticed. She still occasionally thumbs through the ones we passed down to her brother, but her new library reflects a big girl’s tastes — and that means the world to her.

I asked my daughter what worked for her when it came to getting rid of books — an eight-year-old’s version of #konmari, if you will. She said:

  • Make your mom do it.
  • If you have a sibling, maybe pass down books — you know, the educational ones, not the ones you like.
  • If you have dirty stuff, or maybe you did something to it that makes it hard to read or doesn’t look pretty, I would not donate it.
  • If maybe you have a book that’s very special to you, but you don’t read it anymore because it’s a younger book … Don’t let your mom get rid of that.

I’m not sure Marie Kondo would be proud, but it’s a start.

For me, I would say:

  • Send everyone out for the day.
  • Make the end-product irresistible — an organized, aspirational library.
  • Give beloved books to beloved friends, siblings and schools — and donate the rest. (Don’t know where to send them? Check out this list of five great places to donate old books.)
  • Cross your fingers, and hope for the best!

And my books? Well, I ain’t quite ready for that.

Yes, there’s the fight against clutter and the pursuit of joy, but there’s also a fight against forgetting and the pursuit of meaningful connections. I think my old S. E. Hinton books are boxed up somewhere deep in my garage (or perhaps my mom’s). And tidiness or not, when it’s time, I’m going to put them center stage on my daughter’s shelves — just as soon as I can find them.