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The CYAC Program at the Library of Congress: Summarizing Fifty Years of Children’s Literature

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This post was written by Tom Bober, the Library of Congress 2015-16 Audio-Visual Teacher in Residence.

Can you summarize the classic story The Cat in the Hat in one sentence? How about Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone or A Wrinkle in Time? This is just one small part of what librarians in the Children’s and Young Adults’ Cataloging Program or CYAC (pronounced kahy-ak) at the Library of Congress have been doing for decades. This week, the CYAC Program celebrates its fifty-year anniversary at the Library.

The catalogers’ summary of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Those fifty years of summaries can be easily found in most children’s books on the verso (back) side of the book’s title page along with other bibliographic data. While often accessed by school and children’s librarians, these summaries can be used by students and teachers as well.

Let’s look at Roald Dahl’s classic, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, first published in 1964. The CYAC summary of the story reads, “Each of five children lucky enough to discover an entry ticket into Mr. Willy Wonka’s mysterious chocolate factory takes advantage of the situation in his own way.” It is a concise capturing of what this book is about, but what elements make it so succinct?

The CYAC summary tells the reader something about the characters, the setting, and the plot. It effectively uses adjectives to enhance the description. Readers may also notice that the summary does not give away the ending. These are a few of several guidelines for writing CYAC summaries. After reading the guidelines, one may notice that the summary does not mention the character Charlie by name.

The CYAC summaries can be used in several ways in students’ writing and response to reading.

  • Identify several CYAC summaries of well-known books through the books themselves or by searching the Gateway to Library of Congress Online Catalog. Some summaries illustrate certain guidelines better than others. Ask students to compare summaries. What common elements can be found? Once students identify several guidelines for writing these summaries, share the CYAC summary guidelines.
  • Revisit picture books and other short stories. These may be easier to summarize. Challenge students, without reading the CYAC summary, to write their own summary of the story following the CYAC summary guidelines. Ask students to read their summaries aloud to see if classmates can identify the title.
  • Allow students to create a similar list of guidelines to write a one-sentence evaluation of a book that could follow the CYAC summary.
  • After a group reading of a story, revisit the guidelines and ask students, individually or in pairs, to write a one-sentence summary. Collaborate as a class to synthesize the writing into one summary or compare it to the CYAC summary in the book.
  • As students become more familiar with the CYAC summaries, evaluate them using the guidelines. Is there a better word choice? Did the summary exclude something that is important or include something that isn’t essential?
  • Some books have different CYAC summaries for different printings. (See The Cat in the Hat (1,2), The Secret Garden (1,2,3,4,5), The Phantom Tollbooth (1,2), and James and the Giant Peach (1,2) for a few examples.) Compare the summaries. Think about which summary was written first. Why might the second summary have been written? What elements of the first summary remain? Which were removed? Why?
  • For fun, share summaries of well known classics or popular books from students’ earlier years without revealing the titles. Students may find it fun to see how many of these books they can identify by their CYAC summary.

What is a favorite CYAC summary that describes a children’s book you treasure?


  1. I love “When a bus driver takes a break from his route, a very unlikely volunteer springs up to take his place.”

    [Describing ‘Don’t let the Pigeon Drive the Bus’ by Mo Willems (2003).]

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