Books as Toys

Are toys books? Toy stores and bookstore don’t agree. By Janice Vis

I stood at a distance for a few minutes, my brow raising slightly as my gaze followed two children, presumably siblings, who had spent the last five minutes repeatedly taking turns on an miniature slide. The firetruck red plastic was hard to miss, easily capturing the attention of the children, but it certainly wasn’t something I expected to be set up here, in the kids’ section of Chapters.

Toys in Bookstores: Books are like Toys!

After visiting the Chapters branches on Whyte Avenue, in Bonnie Doon mall, and in West Edmonton Mall, Andrea Barr, a member of our research team, remarked on the plethora of toys offered alongside the print items. “Children are introduced to books through an entertaining lens,” she suggested. After spending time in the kids’ section of Chapters myself, I couldn’t help but agree: fun, not education, is the focus in these stores.

While the adult area comfortably settles into a contemporary, homey design, the kids’ section looks as much like a toy store as a bookstore. At the West Edmonton Mall location, I was surprised at the degree of separation between the “adult” and the “children’s” sections: a wall creates two distinctive spaces; a change in flooring suggests a new area; the displays shed the neutral colouring for a rainbow-inspired complexion.


The stock and organization of the materials contributes to this “toy store” atmosphere. Books are interspersed with plushies, dolls, art supplies, and models, as if kids are meant to categorize the print materials as another type of play item. Large or complex toys--such as slides, model trains, or lego sets--can foster excitement in the younger customers, and Chapters’ strategic placement of these items amid the books subtly suggests that book-reading and lego-building are equally enthralling forms of entertainment. The Chapters/Indigo webstore also reflects this trend: under the “Kids and Toys” tab, the first category is “Kids’ Books.”

Often, the books themselves are made to be interactive, almost toy-like items, as they are sold with paints, stickers, pop-ups, cut-outs, and even the occasional small plastic figurine to go with the book.

Likewise, materials for babies and tots frequently take the form of soft books or cardboard books, using, respectively, fabric or cardboard pages. These materials are more sensual for the developing child, and allow kids to bite, feel, and shake the books as physical, interactive objects. These volumes are not merely containers for words, but are tangible objects for exploration and experimentation--rather like toys.

Examining the shelves in more detail, Chapters’ children's books appear to be priced comparably to the cheaper play items. Reading material varies from $5 to $20--the books using unconventional materials or including extras fall at the higher end of this spectrum. Stand-alone action figures, small lego sets, and simple teddies also fall into this price range. By contrast, larger or more complex toys such as detailed dollhouses or remote-controlled miniature vehicles can cost upwards of a hundred dollars. Luckily for parents, Pat the Bunny and The Paper Bag Princess are much lighter on the wallet.


While Chapters is Edmonton’s most visible bookstore, other traditional book sellers are making similar shelving decisions. While the association between books and toys is perhaps not as strong as in Chapters-Indigo locations, I noticed similar trends as I wandered the basement of Audreys’ Books: stuffed animals, modeling sets, and raceway rugs were not differentiated from kids’ books, linking children’s literature with children’s playtime.

Books in Toystores: Books are not Toys!

While bookstores look to be associating books with toys, toy stores aren’t embracing this display method.

I searched for books at the Toys R Us on 170th street, and found them separate from the main stock of toys in a nook offering educational materials, like do-it-yourself science experiments and LeapFrog devices. A wall divided the collection from the shelves of Barbies and Tonka Trucks. There was one exception I noticed; colouring books could be found near art supplies.


In Toys R Us Canada’s online store, books are not even tagged as “educational toys,” but are kept under a separate label: “books and learning.” The webstore only has 88 titles listed under “books,” and some of these items aren’t even print materials--for example, specialty pencil crayons made for colouring books are also included under this heading.

A Mastermind Toys is located a block away from the Toys R Us, and I noticed similar patterns of display. While the division between toys and books was less pronounced, storybooks were stocked beside academic workbooks, and not dispersed throughout the store. Again, Edmonton’s online shoppers will find “books” and “toys” under different categories, and many of the subcategories of print materials relate to education: “biography and history books,” “science books,” “leveled readers,” and “workbooks and flash cards.”

I don’t think these toy stores are attempting to dissuade kids from reading; both stores used colourful displays with playful fonts to direct shoppers to their print sections. However, their shelving decisions reflect a common presupposition--that reading is an academic activity, while toys are designed for entertainment.


So, are books toys? Edmonton’s sellers are divided. Children’s literature has the potential for both entertainment and education, and stores decide for themselves which marketing angle to adopt.

While only one of many factors shaping literacy habits, these seemingly minor decisions about store design and material categorization matter: they tell children what literature is and how it is meant to be used, ideas which can affect a person’s perspective on reading far beyond the formative years.

Last Updated: Aug 29, 2017