Notebook: The Book Fair Returns! (Part One)

by Ann Kjellberg, editor

Scholastic Book Fair virtual fair portal

When I set out to celebrate our however-provisional return to in-person classrooms this fall with a post on school book fairs, I had no idea the level of feeling inspired by this fleeting experience among those with a live memory of elementary school. “I’ve spent my whole adult life chasing the high of a scholastic book fair,” declares one tweet; “marry someone who makes you feel the way you felt during scholastic book fair week,” reads another; “not to sound dramatic but the scholastic book fair in elementary school is the most pure and genuinely happy place I’ve ever experienced in my life,” comes a Tumblr post, all quoted in a string of appreciations by wistful correspondents over the last few years for The Atlantic, Vox, Book Riot, Vice’s Refinery29. Refinery29 sites the “ecstatic energy” of book fair week; Book Riot sighs that “for one day or so of the year, it wasn’t just that one kid who was excited about books, but everyone.” The smell alone seems to have Proustian levels of evocative power for a certain generation or two.

For those who have neither been in elementary school in the last few decades nor been a parent in one, the elementary-school book fair converts some ordinary school space like the gym or the library into a transitory emporium where kids are invited to pick out a book or a pile of them or a tangentially book-related tchotchke on the sometimes thin pretext of (usually) a PTA or library fundraiser. In the early days book fairs were provided by a number of outfits, including individual specialized book-fair purveyors, but as the years went by, as with everything else, the competition melted away before a dominant corporate behemoth: in this case the mighty children’s and educational publisher Scholastic (now embroiled, incidentally, in a succession drama), one last claimant having fallen just this year on account of the pandemic, its CEO noting ruefully, “Our publisher partners loved that there was another player in the space.” Scholastic reports that they currently deliver 120,000 book fairs annually, arriving ready to spring from standardized sealed capsules, reaching 35 million students and raising over $200 million for schools and school libraries.

The pandemic of course upended the book fair business, costing Scholastic 73 percent of book-fair earnings for the quarter ending in February 2021, which contributed to a 26 percent overall loss for the company. Scholastic had the resources to adapt: with outdoor and drive-through and virtual configurations keeping book fairs going in some guise and probably introducing some enduring innovations. Said Scholastic Book Fair president Sasha Quinton, “We hear from so many [educators] that Book Fair Day is one of the best days of the year for many kids—and they recognize how much they need a sense of joy and normalcy now. They also understand how critical it is to get books into their students’ hands to help address the learning losses children face due to extended school closures.”

The key feature of the book fair that both makes it a lot of fun and, apparently, a significant contributor to literacy is getting to choose your own book. Scholastic sites data to the effect that “89 percent of kids say that their favorite books are the ones they pick out themselves,” and Refinery29 quoted a study saying that kids who picked the books they brought home for the summer lost reading ability less than those who had books assigned to them. Susan B. Neuman and Naomi Moland’s influential study of book deserts (which we’ve considered before) identified the long-term benefits of kids having books to choose from in their environment and owning books of their own. A principal in Gaithersburg, Maryland, described for The Atlantic her realization that their school’s book fair was putting a child’s first book in his hands: “‘We would never have known that he didn’t have a book at home’ if he hadn’t come to the fair.” Lee Burnley, who ran her own book fair company, New York City Children’s Book Fairs, for seven or so years after working at the legendary children’s bookstore Books of Wonder in the oughts, sites Daniel Pennec’s influential essay, The Rights of the Reader, as shaping her thinking about the importance of being able to control your own path in nurturing an enthusiasm for reading.

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Scholastic’s dominance in the field has benefits and downsides. It allows them a heavy hand in negotiating discounts with publishers and they can publish their own book-fair-dedicated books at scale to provide books to schools at significantly below-market cost. Their long-cultivated talent for appealing to the lightly overseen child customer with “giant of stacks of cheap books, colors galore, and tchotchkes like scented pencils, dancing bullet-shaped magnets, and plushes of Clifford the Big Red Dog … really cool knickknacks we’d never be allowed to purchase under rational adult supervision,” as Book Riot had it, has earned the annoyance of many a parent, including yours truly, but it also skillfully coaxes books into some otherwise reluctant hands. Journalist Eric Ravenscraft told Refinery29 he credits a Scholastic acquisition from K. A. Applegate’s Remnants series, which “not many elementary school teachers would assign,” as “one of the reasons why he’s a big reader today,” particularly of science fiction. The former executive director of the National Book Foundation, Lisa Lucas recently named publisher of the fabled Pantheon imprint, told LitHub of remembering the Scholastic Book Fair as “a big, big, big deal” in her life. “I remember Bunnicula being extremely important to me.” Former Scholastic book fair president Alan Boyko characterized classic Scholastic fare like Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants series as “breakthrough books” that “create an insatiable appetite for reading.” Several parents I spoke with for this post said they had kids who would have been resistant to reading were it not for this sort of kid eye-candy. Indeed the whole genre of the “chapter book,” short books with lots of illustrations that ease kids from picture books (mostly read to them and bought for them by adults) into regular books, was developed to appeal directly to kids and to cultivate their taste for reading. And Scholastic’s market dominance among this audience also allows it to influence the culture in positive ways: the Marvel series Moon Girl and the Devil Dinosaur, featuring a Black girl superhero, broke through the white-guy lock on Marvel bestsellers with the help of Scholastic book fairs. In 2017 Vox reported that 80 percent of the Scholastic book fair catalogue had been published that year.

How a book fair balances sugar and nutrients is one existential question raised by the form. Another is how it balances its role as a fundraiser (and profit-making enterprise) with its role as a bringer of literature. Everyone I spoke to agreed there were more efficient ways for a PTA to raise money; the main purpose of a school book fair is to support reading. But schools receive both cash and credits that can go to buying books for the school library or the classroom, usually 20 percent of the sale in cash or 25 percent in credits (Scholastic has a complex scale of benefits). Schools with fewer resources are more dependent on the fundraising feature, hence pressed toward the tchotchkes and ephemera that lift the bottom line. ‘‘In order to make money, they have to have a load of low-end stuff, so they only put in enough good books to satisfy teachers and librarians,’’ one critic told the New York Times years ago, complaining of Scholastic’s growing dominance. “The rest is a lot of book fair stuff that they publish themselves.” As former bookseller Danika Ellis wrote in Book Riot, “Many parents have protested against this marketing of toys and other non-book items during the Scholastic Book Fair. It’s hard to imagine any other company that could get this same placement in schools, with catalogues passed out in class and perused during instructional time, not to mention a store placed inside of the building.” 

Scholastic is a finely honed commercial machine: pushing their own product, including bookfair-destined books that fall apart after a reading or two but only cost a couple of dollars, as well as licensing deals with Disney and Star Wars and Legos. “Ten years ago Walt Disney was the extent of book licensing, but almost everything out there now seems to be licensed,” an independent book fair consultant told the Times as far back as 1984. One parent told me that schools that bring in more money receive preferential treatment from Scholastic (choice of dates, access to inventory), further putting downward pressure on the quality of offerings available in schools where there is less family disposable income. And any school fundraising activity that makes money off of kids threatens to stigmatize those with less to spend. “Scholastic Book Fairs are actually the first childhood memories I have of realising we were poor,” wrote Elizabeth May in a tweet quoted by Danika Ellis. Schools mitigate this by arranging to give poorer kids tokens for free books; I think all the kids should go in there with some sort of “book-fair bucks” that they have in common, distributed discreetly in advance to cloak the giveaways.

(Stay tuned for Part Two: There is an alternative! The independent bookstore, of course!)

Ann Kjellberg is the founding editor of Book Post. She worked as a book review editor at the New York Review of Books from 1988 to 2017, founded the literary magazine Little Star, and is the literary executor of the poet Joseph Brodsky.

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