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Books and stuff

It’s that time of year again. Book fair time.

“Miss Hewes! Look at the figurines I bought! Aren’t the polar bear and the penguin so cute?”

I’ll be honest – yes, little rubberized figurines in the likenesses of polar bears are cute. I understand the appeal of such items to young children. However, I am less sure that these proclamations should follow a trip to our school’s book fair.

Without fail, however, my students bound into my room following their trip to the library (home base of our commercial book fair) eager to show off their novelty erasers, pencils, figurines, and posters.

“Those are nice,” I always reply. “But what books did you see that excited you? What book did you choose to take home with you?”

Then, my students usually get quiet. “Well, I couldn’t get this eraser shaped like a cell phone and a book. I ran out of money.”

And there’s the rub. At the school where I teach, the bi-annual book fair is a big deal. My students get all jazzed up when they see the rolling metal carts and book boxes start to accumulate in our hallway prior to one of the sales. Their parents, many of whom feel a financial crunch, work hard to ensure that their children have a small amount of money to spend at the book fair. And yet, despite this excitement and noble intentions, too many students are leaving my school’s book fair with nothing but cell phone erasers and penguin figurines.

Despite the potential arguments that could be raised about school-sanctioned consumerism and the stress that this event may cause for already cash-strapped families, I am generally in favor of the book fair. I teach in a very rural area and the book fair is one of the only affordable alternatives to purchasing books at Walmart or the grocery store — and the titles available there are likely not the ones receiving rave reviews from The Horn Book.

This is not to say, however, that the offerings at the book fair are necessarily any better than those at Walmart. Publishers like Scholastic do publish extraordinarily rich, engaging, and substantial titles. But often, at our school’s book fair, even if kids look beyond the staggering assortment of novelties, their eyes land on a book about the latest pre-teen celebrity icon or the latest series that has more to do with the economics of churning out multiple volumes than about substance or quality.

I don’t think it has to be this way. Yes, commercial book fairs do raise money for schools, and yes, molded plastic does sell. But I think kids would still nag their parents to buy them things even if the book fair didn’t have the novelty items spilling over near the register. As educators, parents, and community members, we should demand more — particularly in communities where the budget for and access to books can restrict the quality of reading materials that kids have to explore.

I optimistically imagine a day when the engrossing and constructive books aren’t lurking in the shadows of a book fair and when the opportunities these events could provide are more fully leveraged to benefit children and their positive reading development.


Nicole Hewes About Nicole Hewes

Nicole Hewes is currently serving as an impact manager at a public elementary school with City Year New Hampshire. She previously taught second grade in rural Maine for two years and received an M.Ed in language and literacy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.



  1. Eric Carpenter says:

    There is a pretty simple solution to cellphone shaped erasers, boy band posters, and other novelties. Simply don’t sell them. At my previous school I took over the scholastic bookfair responsibilities after years of seeing my students return from the bookfair with toys not books. I simply left all the non-book items in their boxes and stashed them in a closet until the fair was over. A funny thing happened… We sold more books and made more money than any previous bookfair.

  2. Lynn Van Auken says:

    Same! I’ve been the librarian and thus book fair chairperson at our school for nine years now, and spend hours and hours and hours setting up our book fair in an effort to cull all the crap (pardon my French) from the shelves and boxes. In an effort to cut back on the amount of stuff I had to weed through to make our book fair an honest-to-goodnes book fair, I agreed to a “Books Only” fair this past fall.

    I still received 13 boxes of toys and removed over two dozen books from the shelves that had toys attached to them. This is so frustrating when I imagine what might have been in those boxes instead..

    My sales person works with me to “order” only the things, i.e. books, I want in my fair, but inevitably what arrives at our door barely resembles that order.

    As in Eric’s previous school, our book fairs are more successful without all the distracting non-book items and everyone – students, teachers, parents and grandparents – are more willing to support our book fairs when not confronted with toys and commercially based books.

    Scholastic publishes a lot of books I’d love to sell, but when I receive so many books that never see the light of day during our book fair I get so frustrated. How can Scholastic champion themselves as partners in literacy and then send all kinds of trinkets and toys to school book fairs?

    I am told we receive items based on our previous sales records, but how can that be possible when I don’t sell the toys & toy-books?

    “As educators, parents, and community members, we should demand more” YES YES YES
    If more schools were to Refuse the Refuse maybe we could make a difference.

  3. We are very fortunate in our community that we have both independent book stores and a book fair alternative to Scholastic that focus on the books. We have only a handful of items such as reading lights and pens, but 98% of the items are quality books from a variety of publishers. The kids love it and the book fair brings in quite a bit of money for the library with the sale of … books! Getting rid of Scholastic years ago was the best decision we made and most of the schools in our city and the ones in surrounding cities have left them as well, but they don’t seem to care. Without other alternatives I understand your frustration!

  4. Rebecca Moore says:

    We also are fortunate to have an independent bookstore available to run our bookfair. They choose the books (I tried myself one year, and as results were pretty much the same as when they chose, I let them do the work!) and bring them to school, and we sell nothing but books. We get store credit for a percentage of the sales. I realize that many schools really need the money from the bookfair, so Scholastic is a more lucrative option, but I am glad we are able to go with an independent so we have high-quality books available and are supporting a local business.

  5. I’m with you on the toys, but why so judgmental about what kids choose to read? I was a great reader as a kid (advanced level blah blah blah), but I still remember, specifically, choosing Babysitters Club books during at least two bookfairs. What can I say? I liked them and the library didn’t have that many. I also remember choosing Anne of Green Gables, Daddy Long Legs, and Beverly Cleary’s memoir at other book fairs. And a book about drawing horses. Can’t it just be about kids finding books they’re excited to read and own?

  6. Nicole Hewes says:

    Eric, thanks for your comment. I am glad to hear that you have taken action on this!

    I agree that it is easy enough not to sell the stuff, but I remain concerned that not everyone will take the same actions that you have or even stop to think about the implications of the inclusion of these materials with the book fair kits.

  7. Nicole Hewes says:

    Lynn, thanks for this comment. Our schools would be fortunate to all have librarians as thoughtful as you! It’s frustrating to hear that these companies continue to send these items, even when it has been specifically requested that they send something else. I agree with you that Scholastic publishes a great number of quality books — I would love to see them wind up in my kids’ hands!

  8. Nicole Hewes says:

    Freya, it sounds like you have a great system in place. I wish that all schools could be so lucky!

  9. Nicole Hewes says:

    Rebecca, I think it’s awesome that your school can partner with a local, independent bookstore. I wish that were an option everywhere!

  10. Nicole Hewes says:

    Hi Wendy, thanks for your thoughtful comment and critique. I also read the Babysitters Club books when I was younger — I really liked Mary Ann!

    I can see the point in this post where it seemed like I was trying to suggest that kids should be reading only “literature.” I definitely do have a preference for kids to read books that are free of bias and portray strong characters and meaningful content. But, in this post, what I really meant to get at was the fact that so many of the titles available for sale are books that feature pictures of celebrities with little content and that companies like Lego now produce books that seem, to me at least, like little more than book-length advertisements. I am more than okay with my students reading books and magazines, as long as they seem devoted to doing something other than selling a product. I simply question whether many of the titles at these books fairs aspire to do more than that.

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