By Josh Golin
Last year, Caroline sent her seven-year-old son to his Scholastic school book fair with five dollars and a note to his teacher that she wanted him to pick a good reading book. Instead, he came home instead with a Batman drawing book and three thirteen-inch flexible pencils.
Caroline was understandably upset. She didn't blame her son for his choices—it's not surprising a young boy would be drawn to a Batman book or gimmicky pencils. Nor did she feel that she could really expect the teacher to monitor all of the children's purchases. Instead, she started wondering why these products are offered at all by a fair whose ostensible purpose is to promote reading.
Caroline is not alone. An increasing number of parents and educators are concerned about the products sold at fairs organized by Scholastic, Inc., the nation's leading book fair company. They note the presence of non-book items such as posters, key chains, toys, fashion accessories, and electronic media. It's a little hard to figure out how bracelets, videogames, or whoopee cushions (I'm not making that up) promote literacy.
Parents are also upset by the number of books that are linked to television programs, movies, and toys, including titles as the Cartoon Network's Scooby Doo and the Frankenstein Monster, Disney Princess Promises, and Lil' Bratz: Beauty Sleepover Bash! Books that are media tie-ins don't introduce children to new worlds or new ideas. Instead, they simply reintroduce children to the stories and characters that many of them are all too familiar with from screens, toys and cereal boxes. By selling these books, schools promote media programs and whole lines of associated products—even as we know that heavy television viewing is linked to childhood obesity and lower academic performance.1 According to a Scholastic representative, 35-40% of the books sold at a typical book fair are linked to a movie, television show or video game.2
Operating under what Juliet Schor calls a "wholesome halo"—its reputation as a quality educational publisher—allows Scholastic to escape much of the criticism aimed at other major in-school marketers like Channel One.3But Scholastic book fairs are big business. Last year, they generated $404 million in revenue for the company while providing the cover for major companies such as Disney and Nickelodeon to peddle their wares to children in schools.4
In other words, book fairs have become yet another way for corporations to prey on children. That's why an increasing number of parents and educators have turned away from Scholastic and are working with independent booksellers to hold "Commercial-Free Book Fairs." At a Commercial-Free Book Fair, you won't find video games, makeup, SpongeBob or the Disney Princesses. But you will find lots of new and classic children's books whose wonderful stories and characters are satisfying in and of themselves, not a means to sell other products to children.
Providing an alternative for children who are already inundated with marketing for media-linked products is just one of the benefits of a Commercial-Free Book Fair. Commercial-Free Book Fairs also help schools and communities:
- Raise funds in a manner consistent with its educational mission by promoting literacy instead of the latest media programs for children.
- Enrich classroom and library book collections.
- Provide books to students—including the opportunity to purchase books for those who may not have the funds to buy them.
- Support local businesses.
- Start a much-needed discussion about the presence of corporate marketers in schools.
Best of all, a Commercial-Free Book Fair allows parents and educators to change the commercial culture of schools by doing something positive. Scholastic officials claim that media tie-ins and non-book items are necessary to get "reluctant readers" interested in books,5 but reports from schools that have held Commercial-Free Book Fairs belie that myth. Here's what Jeff Melnick, a parent at from Cambridge, Massachusetts, had to say about his school's first Commercial-Free Book Fair:
"What a thrill it was to see 4-year-old kindergartners and 13-year-old middle schoolers hit our school lobby this week and show real excitement that it was time for the book fair. With books provided by the locally-owned Porter Square Books, we demonstrated that, given the chance, K-8 kids will embrace the opportunity to look at—and even buy!—all manner of books, from bilingual versions of Puss in Boots to classics and recent titles from major Young Adult authors like Walter Dean Myers. With virtually no media tie-ins to the books, and no free key chains promoting television characters, our school's Fall Book Fair fulfilled our wish that such school activities can support curriculum and equity while also limiting cross-promotional opportunities for major corporations."
At CCFC, we've created a guide to help you hold your own Commercial-Free Book Fair. The guide includes simple tips to help you change the culture of book fairs in your school, as well as a glossary of independent booksellers who support book fairs. We hope that you'll download it and share it with others in your community. Because isn't it about time to put the book back in book fair as we work towards making our schools commercial-free?
- 2 P.L. Donahue, R.J. Finnegan, A.D. Lutkus, N.L. Allen, and J.R. Campbell. (2001). The Nation's Report Card: Fourth-Grade Reading 2000. Washington DC: U.S. Department of Education. Office of Educational Research and Improvement, National Center for Education Statistics, NCES 2001-499, pg. 14.
- Grace Bu, Scholastic Sales Representative in Los Angeles, phone conversation with CCFC volunteer Rebecca Weiker, August 2, 2006.
- J. Schor (2004). Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and New Consumer Culture. New York, Scriber, p. 97.
- http://library.corporate-ir.net/library/85/851/85107/items/213836/InvestorAnalystMeeting.pdf, p.16. Accessed November 30, 2006.
- B. Meltz (November 20, 2006). Taking consumerism out of school book fairs. The Boston Globe. Available at http://www.commercialfreechildhood.org/pressreleases/commercialfreebookfair.htm