Scholastic Accused of Misusing Book Clubs
New York Times
February 10, 2009
Scholastic Inc., the children’s publisher of favorites like the Harry Potter, Goosebumps and Clifford series, may be best known for its books, but a consumer watchdog group accuses the company of using its classroom book clubs to push video games, jewelry kits and toy cars.
The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, an advocacy group based in Boston, said that it had reviewed monthly fliers distributed by Scholastic last year and found that one-third of the items sold in these brochures were either not books or books packaged with other items.
Based on a review of brochures in Scholastic’s Lucky Club for children in second and third grade, and its Arrow Club for fourth through sixth graders, the group said that 14 percent of the items were not books, while an additional 19 percent were books sold with other trinkets like stickers, posters and toys.
Susan Linn, director of the campaign, said she had received complaints from parents who were concerned that their children were being sold toys, games, makeup and other items under the guise of a literary book club that is promoted in classrooms.
“Marketing in schools is a privilege and not a right,” Ms. Linn said in an interview. “Scholastic is abusing that privilege.”
The campaign’s review identified products like the M&M’s Kart Racing Wii video game, the “American Idol” event planner and a Puppy Pals Origami Kit. But the brochures also included products like a set of Spiderwick Chronicles books that came with a poster, or “Mad About Math: Brain Busters Math Games,” a book of math puzzles that comes with a board game.
Last fall the campaign took credit for having persuaded Scholastic to discontinue selling picture books based on the overtly sexy Bratz dolls in any of its school book clubs or fairs this school year. At the time, Scholastic said its decision was influenced as much by dwindling sales as it was by the campaign’s push.
In response to the campaign’s recent complaints, Judy Newman, president of Scholastic Book Clubs, said she stood by every product in the book club fliers. Many of the items identified by the campaign, she said, were books sold with small items like stickers to help engage children who “may not be traditional readers.”
Scholastic estimates that more than 75 percent of all elementary school teachers participate in its book clubs. The company generates about 20 percent of its revenues from book clubs. Schools can earn points toward free books as more children’s families spend.
“We work with teachers to make sure that items are O.K. to put out in their classrooms,” Ms. Newman said. “In a class of 24 kids, some of them will be turned on by a game, and it helps kids engage in the book club process.”
Ms. Newman said that some children might be drawn to a book because it comes with a sticker or a poster, but that that doesn’t mean that they’re not reading. She added that even a product like a make-your-own-jewelry kit would have a reading component in the instructions.
She added that the proportion of video game and other toy sales was overshadowed by book sales.
But Ms. Linn said that selling books with stickers, posters or other trinkets sent the wrong message to children about reading.
“The message that children get when books are marketed with other items is that a book in and of itself isn’t enough,” Ms. Linn said. “And what it does is encourage children to choose books based not on the content but on what they get with it.”
Naomi Kirkman, the new principal at the Bradford School in Montclair, N.J., and the mother of two children, said she was concerned about the nonbook items in the Scholastic book club brochures. She said that the school had recently decided to use a different vendor for its spring book fair because it wanted a company that would sell only books.
Ms. Kirkman said she often argued with her own children about whether to order nonbook items from Scholastic. But she pointed out that children were exposed to all kinds of things that she’d rather that they were not.
“I would prefer that they only have reading material in the catalogs, but it’s just one piece of a child’s life,” Ms. Kirkman said. “My hope is that parents are able to filter out what they think is inappropriate for their children.”