Book Fairs Create Young Readers or Young Shoppers?

Recently I chaired the Scholastic Book Fair at my daughters’ elementary school.  It was labor intensive, but my kids are always so happy and proud when I do things at their school.  My 4th grader said, “Mommy, I hope you run book fair EVERY year!”  This was my fifth and hopefully final time, so I just smiled at her and gently said, “We’ll see” while silently screaming, “HELL NO!”  My 6th grader has the mistaken notion that because I run the fair, I somehow own all the merchandise, and she can just save things for me to buy for her each time she visits (several times a day throughout the course of the week).  “Put this in my stack behind the counter, Mom.  We’ll buy it later.”  We will?  And with who’s money, Missy???  Certainly not mine! 

I have something of a love/hate relationship with book fair and with Scholastic.   Obviously, reading is important to me, and any chance I have to promote it in kids, I’ll take.  But sadly book fair isn’t really about getting kids to read.  It’s about getting kids to BUY.  

Year after year I’m disgusted by some of the things that are sent out from Scholastic.  Expensive toys and activities that have nothing to do with reading (i.e. a plastic Venus flytrap for $19.99) have no place at book fair, in my opinion.  I just leave many of the items packed up rather than putting them out on the shelves.   I was happy to see that they finally got rid of the Bratz (or, as we call them, Slutz) items.  According to this article, Scholastic has pulled them for good, and I applaud them for that. 

I don’t understand the mass quantities of computer software and games that get sent out either- getting my kids (and myself) OFF the computer is the only way to get any of us to read.  When a kid brings a computer game up to the register, I always ask, “Do you think your mom would want you to buy that at book fair?  Do you think maybe she’d rather have you buy a book?  Are you sure that game is compatible with your computer at home? Because if it’s not, you can’t return it.”  They usually put it back.  

It makes me crazy when a kid comes in with $20 given to him by his parents, who presumably wanted him to buy a book or two- and the kid blows it at the cashier table on scented highlighters, a doggy pencil sharpener, erasers shaped like $100 bills, giant hand-shaped pointers, and a Camp Rock poster.  Or the adorable 6 year old who comes in and buys a pink sparkly blank journal with a skull and crossbones on it for $12. and a $4. purple pen with feathers on top.  Does the tiny girl even write her name yet, let alone write in a journal?  And why are kindergartners attracted to the whole skull and crossbones thing?  

Or the kid who comes to book fair with a blank check and brags, “My mom said I can buy whatever I want” as he fills in the check for $78. for a coffee table sized (and priced) football book, a toy ATM machine and several posters.  Or the kids who buy a book and have 58 cents in change and say, “What can I buy for 58 cents?”  I say, “You don’t have to spend every dime you brought” as they laugh and I point them to the bookmarks and erasers.  

I’m disgusted by the parents and grandparents who let their kids lead them around by the nose, demanding this and this and THIS.  One grandparent was there every day after school buying more stuff for the same bratty child, whipping out her checkbook and rolling her eyes as said child piled more stuff onto the teetering stack.  I heard her say, “This is the last time we’re coming in”, three days in a row.  Or the mom who told her 2nd grader, “You can pick out 4 books”, as the kid had a fit because she wanted 7 books.  Mom whined, “Why do you always do this to me?” as she pulled out her credit card for all 7 books.  Who’s in charge here, people?  

After a week I’m sickened by the rampant consumerism. Where is the love of reading, I ask you??


34 Responses

  1. My son loved the book fair at school. I guess the school he went to left the junk packed up. They had books, book marks and a few small things like erasers.

  2. I’m on the PTO board at my kids’ school and we got fed up with Scholastic and have been using Mrs. Nelson’s. They set-up and everything.

    They have one shelf with toys but mostly educational toys. The have a WIDE variety of books for all ages including adults. We have used them for the past 4 years and we love them.

  3. When I was an elementary librarian, I used to invite the kids to write on the chalkboard after a book fair the names of all the books they had seen and wanted to add to the school library. In that school, while some kids could spend $20 at the fair, many had little or nothing to spend. With my ongoing promise to select from the book fair the titles the kids wanted to read, everyone had a reason to look at the books. Behavior of the non-purchasers forced to attend the book fair improved. The library received a lot of series books beloved by children. And yes, those books were read.

  4. Kathy, my kids love the book fair too. That’s the only reason I do it.

    Ti, I have never heard of Mrs. Nelsons. I will definitely check that out.

    Holly, what a fabulous idea! I’m going to share that with our school librarian. Our fair is done in the multi-purpose room, not the library, and the librarian at our school is brand new so is just starting to find her way. Part of my disgust with the book fair is the haves vs. the have nots. The kids with no money make wish lists but they are sad that they can’t get anything. Many kids with money just buy crap and not books. We always have a family night and I make sure that every kid that comes to that wins a book (we play Book Bingo).

  5. Luckily, I can personally go to the book fair with my daughter Leah. She knows ahead of time that I won’t buy anything other than books, so I avoid all the junky stuff right away. Even then, it’s easy to drop $50 while there!

  6. I don’t remember all the random junk stuff from the book fairs of my childhood, mostly I remember the other kids and me being excited about the new books we’d get. One year I got lucky enough to bring home seven and I just piled them on my bed and looked at my little TBR pile before I went about reading them. It’s sad that kids don’t feel this way today, and also sad that parents don’t have control over their children. A “no” meant “no” when I wanted too much.

  7. Lisa, I’ve noticed the increasing appearance of non-book-related items too. Totally not the point of a book fair.

  8. Lisa, I agree with you. It should be about books and bookmarks, not all the other stuff. You should see if you can avoid using Scholastic since they are encouraging careless shopping rather than engaged reading.

  9. Maybe the publishers/distributors hope that the periphery items might boost the sales of books. But I agree with you that a book fair in school should focus on books and reading, especially we’re living in a time that the media has completely won the battle with our kids’ spare time.

  10. Lisa, I agree wholeheartedly! The commercialism is ridiculous at these things. My kids only wanted books with gimmicks attached, like juggling balls or stuffed animals. Normally, books are the one thing I’ll buy for the boys without squawking. I made an exception at the school book fairs, because it all seemed like impulse buying, whereas when we go alone to Borders, I know they really want to read the books.

  11. I just helped out at my daughter’s first book fair this year. I noticed that the kids did try to spend EVERY dime, especially the older kids. No one wanted to take home change. The lady in charge here wouldn’t let the kids buy anything else if they didn’t have a book to buy. I do have to say, they always listened to her. And, she didn’t seem to put out too many “extras.”

    I did come across one fifth grader who wanted me to tell her if the next book in the series she bought would be at the next book fair because she would have to have it after she finished this one. It was really cute!

  12. I couldn’t handle it. You’re a better woman than I!

  13. Great post! I ponder this issue frequently because we have in-store bookfairs that function as fundraisers for local schools, so the more they buy, the better, but we try to use it as a celebration of reading, also. Kids do poetry readings and give booktalks or act out their favorite scenes, and I love that. It’s very interesting to look at new kids’ and YA series and to realize that it’s all about getting kids hooked on something. The new 39 Clues series is very cool, but Scholastic is definitely onto a great marketing scheme by tying in online components, additional game card packages, and a new book every 2-3 months. I’m with you–bookfairs should be about BOOKS, and parents should exert a little control and get their priorities in line.

  14. Our PTO got so fed up with the poor selection from Scholastic that we have started hosting a Book Fair at Barnes and Noble instead. They made $800 at the one last year because we gave BN $4,000 in sales. We are not a rich school, so that is pretty good. We’re doing it again next month, can’t wait!

    As for the kids spending every penny, I have seen that at every shopping event for the last ten years. We have book fairs, school store, and Holiday Shop for Christmas. If they get change, they go look for something else. If I see it, I send them outside, saying, “Time’s up!” 😉

    I see parents caving to their children everywhere I go. It is sickening. Because then these kids come to my classroom and whine, throw tantrums, or flat out ignore me when I say, “NO.” My aunt and uncle never said no to my now-17-year-old cousin, so that she thought it was okay to charge $400 on her emergency credit card. Shopping. For junk. She’ll never pay it back, either, and they won’t (be able to) make her. She’s going to be swimming in credit card debt when she goes off to college, as all these kids are, and then they’ll really be scr*w*d when the debt collectors come after them!

  15. According to my Scholastic rep, the junk at the cashier’s table accounts for almost 40% of sales!!

  16. The fair we had last year had just one table of those items. I’m happy to say that the books outnumbered the junk. I was with my girl so I gave her a limit and helped her make better choices. Our school also had a ‘parent night’ for parents who work during the day to take their kids. Plus, my girl’s teacher helped the kids make appropriate choices. She had them list the books they wanted and their prices to take home for their parents’ approval. I don’t know how they deal with older kids though.

    So far it’s been an enjoyable experience for us but I’m not on the other side of the table! I did work in retail and kids buy an incredible amount of junk.

  17. I completely stopped going to the book fair two years ago. Now I give my son $5.00 and tell him good luck. All our book fair has is just toys and mini books based on television shows or movies. It was just a fight with my youngest son when I explained, “That no he could not buy any of the useless crap that they were selling and that it was a book fair so we are buying a book.” I am all for helping your school but I would rather hand over $20 and get nothing than have more cheap toys or computer games.

    I am going to sending our principal the link to Mr. Nelsons, Thanks Ti! Anyone have recommendations on books for a 9 yr old boy?

  18. Way to go Mom!!! I am a media specialist (librarian) at an elementary school. I so agree with you. When we have the Scholastic Fair it is all about $$$. I do not even benefit from the sales. The money is spent wherever the need is in the building. Yet, the fair is held in the media center, my classes are disrupted, my center is in chaos and I want to take anxiety pills. LOL. I agree that Scholastic is trying to sell. There idea, so they say is to sell big at the fall sale, so that they can offer the half price sale in the spring.
    I will not let my students even look at the “stuff” that is sent to beef up sales, ie erasers, pens, pencils, Venus Fly traps and such, until they have listed books for their parents to choose from. I tell them they are making a WISH LIST and that wishes don’t always come true. I truly sympathize with your situation as a chairperson. The students do think you are able to give them all the books they want. Personally, I think the chairperson should be given a stipend for books. I also think the fair should be just books. I remember the book fairs I attended as a kid (long long ago). The “stuff” wasn’t there. Scholastic should remove these toys and trinkets and do the right thing for kids.

  19. I blogged about our book fair experience recently, which involved the kids going to the fair in the middle of the day, writing out a wish list, and bringing it home (I’m guessing many of you have similar experiences. 🙂 Boo’s books totaled $32 and Betty’s was $18. Plus, some of their choices were ones that were below their reading level – but chosen due to the tie-in with favorite shows, etc. It’s maddening.

  20. I bought a bookmark at a book fair when I was in 1st grade and got royally chewed out by my mom. totally turned me off of looking at anything other than books at bookfairs again. And when I became a teacher, I noticed all the junk, too, but fortunately, my 8th graders weren’t so eager to buy junk and mostly stuck with the books (and sometimes nudged the librarian with a “hey, it’d be great if the library had this,” comment, if they were real readers and not scared of her). Plus, I always scouted the bookfair first and came to class raving about how excited I was to see this book and that book, and often had a pile that I said, “But I get to read them first,” and the impatient bookworms would check out those books, go home and get money, and come back the next day ready to buy them. Yes, with about 25 of my 90+ students, that’s how it worked. And the rest waited, mostly patiently.

    Too bad Mrs. Nelson’s Book Fairs are only available in California; my teacher & library friends in Ohio would have been very excited to hear about an alternative to Scholastic.

  21. I work in a bookstore and I see these spoiled children every day. It’s all I can do to NOT shake the parents and say, “You’re in charge!!! You’re the parent! Act like one!”


  22. I used to spend my clothing allowance on books when I was a kid. I figured I could live with the holes in my socks. Nothing much has changed.

  23. I loved those sales when I was a kid, but the only real non-book stuff I remember were the posters. I became disillusioned with the sales when I was teaching, though. Particularly because my kids were all low-income. The ones that DID get money to buy things were lured in by the crap (basically none of their parents came to shop with them) so they’d leave with useless junk instead of with books. Our librarian ran the thing and she didn’t much care what the kids bought, she just wanted to sales.

  24. I loved your post. This is exactly the reason why Scholastic hates me. I’m a librarian at a middle school and I refuse to put out their junk. Books/posters/school supplies! That is all I will sell to the kids. I’ve been doing this for 9 years and every year the CPS just gets worse! I’ve been tossing around the idea of booking a fair with Barnes/Noble. I will probably end up doing this!! Love to know that I am not alone!!

  25. A 13-year-old of my acquaintance threw a tantrum at Borders because she wanted the hardcover edition of a book – the paperback wasn’t good enough for her! (It was available at the library, in any case). Her dad told her fine, she wasn’t getting anything, and if she kept it up she was waiting in the truck. It’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry – at least it was a book she was begging for…

  26. i was just asked to work the Scholastic table at our Christmas Bazaar…now i’m nervous.
    maybe at our little ole school it won’t be so bad? yikes.

  27. I worked the cash register last year at the Scholastic book sale and yep, we were to try to suck every dollar we could from parents. I suppose this benefits the school though I’m not sure how much. It’s (the bookfair) such a contrast to the monthly mailers with low prices that encourage reading.

  28. WOW–lots of you smart moms out there! Loved this whole discussion. My kids are out of the school set, but that’s crazy having all that garbage to sell. i can understand a kid with little money being able to buy at least an eraser, but at least that’s usable in school! When i was young, many many moons ago, we had no fair, just a pamphlet of actual books. i like the idea of not even unpacking the junk. 😉

  29. Also, i wonder if a small local bookshop could run a bookfair? It would be great to see a small business person involved and receiving the benefit, rather than a corporation type bookstore, wouldn’t it?

  30. Yikes! I don’t have kids in school yet, I guess I’ve got a lot to look forward to (or not) .

  31. Having been the book fair chair at my school for 8 years now, this was a very interesting post to me! I agree with all you said! This last time there was TONS of stuff I didn’t put out, first, we didn’t have the room, and second, there was no way I wanted to promote it. It does make me crazy that they kids are so interested in the “fun stuff” table. However, I do think it’s good that they have stuff they can buy with their small change. I just wish they’d have some cheap books included in the inventory that kids can buy with just a dollar or something. (We used to get bargain books, but I haven’t seen that for a few years.) Anyway, I’m still on board with the book fair until my daughter is done with elementary. That gives me three more years at it! 🙂 But every year it gets crazier and crazier, so hopefully I’ll last that long!

  32. I co-chaired the Scholastic Fair at our elementary school for many years, and really enjoyed it.

    We kept the non-book “stuff” boxed until the “family event” which was held at night and parents were there (so we knew the child had parent’s permission to buy a stuffed animal, computer game, etc.). yes, I hated all those extra things, and we wrote on the flyers that “non-book items” would not be available for sale during the school day … parents seemed to appreciate it.

    Bratz … Slutz …. I love it! I haven’t seen that before.

    Also, we had a small “slush fund” for the kids who came to the fair with no money from home. We would tell them we found a quarter on the floor and let them pick a bookmark. It was a K-3 school, so it worked, and no one had sad feelings about coming to the Book Fair without money.

    The town we live in now doesn’t do the Scholastic fairs. The local indie book store gives a portion of proceeds from the day of the fair back to the school. It’s heavily promoted at the school and within town (ours is next month, just in time for holiday gift buying). The store wraps purchases for free, and the PTO organizes faculty and parent reading throughout the day.

  33. If you are looking for an alternative to Scholastic fairs, check out the indie book stores in your area. You can find a list of them here:

    Good luck!

    • Usborne Books and More does a great book fair. No trinkets, just books. No licensed characters, just great books for the enjoyment of reading. The Usborne reps do all the set up and clean up and can run the book fair for you as well.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: