A Crap-Free Book Fair

I love books — their shape, their smell, their weight, their stories — so much so that if someone were to ask me what my favourite thing about parenthood is, I would have to say — hands down — reading to, and with, my children. I read to them when they were babies who weren’t yet able to hold their heads up, I read to them when they were toddlers who would park themselves on my lap for book after book after book. I read to them when they were older and would snuggle beside me, sucking their thumbs, rapt with attention. And even once they were beyond all that, I read with them, reading the same books they did, once they had finished with them.

So it was a natural fit, when the time and opportunity came, that I would volunteer in the school library, and work at the annual or semi-annual Scholastic Book Fairs. But while I have always loved working in the library, I can’t say the same about the book fair experience.

Now, don’t get me wrong: the idea of a book fair is enough to cause tremors of excitement in a bibliophile, and Scholastic does do a terrific job of getting inexpensive books into the hands of children, an endeavour no one could reasonably object to; however, unbeknownst to unsuspecting and newbie parents, book fairs also have a dark side …

(Why yes, thank you for noticing … I am fond of hyperbole 😉 )

The dark side? Scholastic’s not just selling books. They’re also selling crap.

Time for yet another aside:  my husband hates — with a passion — the word crap. I don’t know why. Other words — actual swear words — don’t seem to bother him to the same extent that crap does. I, on the other hand, think that crap is an extremely necessary word, so much so that if it weren’t in the English lexicon I would have to coin it, just like my nine-year old son and I had to coin clunderwear (clean underwear). So I know I may be running a risk here — I may offend other haters-of-the-word crap — but in my defence, it’s sometimes the only word that fits.

(Aside Number Two: My nine year-old son has just read this tale-of-woe over my shoulder, and it’s his opinion that I’ve way overdone it with the word crap. Now, if you’re at all familiar with the kind of creature a nine year-old boy is — if you have a son or nephew, or know a neighbour boy of this approximate age — you’ll completely understand me when I say that if he thinks I’ve overdone it with crap, then I have absolutely, without a doubt, majorly overdone it with the word crap! Off to the thesaurus I go…)

Now, if you have children who have gone to a Scholastic Book Fair it’s likely you’re already familiar with the junk I’m talking about: pens with huge fluffy bits or stuffed animal heads at the top; top-secret UV pens equipped with battery-operated flashlights; calculators shaped like feet; ornate hard-plastic-encased pencil sharpeners that shred but don’t sharpen. The erasers … Oh. My. Gosh … The bewildering assortment of erasers! The 12 inch-long whips that are supposedly erasers; the humongous erasers for Really Big Mistakes; the erasers shaped like i-pods or trucks or robots. Do these things actually erase? Who knows? I’m sure the kids aren’t going to risk it.

That’s just a small sampling of the novelty items available at a Scholastic Book Fair. Making things worse, a large portion of this plastic crap is further crapified by being packaged in tiny plastic sleeves. You know, because apparently the items are of such high value that they must be individually wrapped and kept pristine. Yes, the novelty section at a Scholastic book fair is a plastic manufacturers’ dream-come-true.

Of course, I’m looking at all this with adult eyes. What do the kids think? Well … they love it! You should see them! They positively swarm over it, picking and choosing, the popular kids selecting the item du jour and the kids further down the social pecking order having near-conniptions about getting the same sizecolourshape. It’s like a small-scale anthropological study of Keeping Up With The Joneses painfully at play. Priced to sell — from 50 cents to a buck or two — who among them can pass it up? Sadly, I’ve seen kids spend the entire ten or twenty dollars their parents have enclosed in an envelope or plastic baggie — in all likelihood completely expecting to see a book come home — on this dross (thank-you, thesaurus…). And whenever this has happened, whenever I’ve rung someone through who’s juggling enough junk to open a Dollarama, I’ve asked the child, “Are you sure your mom or dad is going to be okay with you buying this kind of stuff? Wouldn’t they rather you buy a book?” and the answer is always, “No, it’s fine; they won’t mind.” And you can try — goodness knows I’ve tried! — to lead the child to a book at that point, but once they’ve got their hands on that loot it’s hard to dissuade them.

(I wonder what the parental response is when the child gets home? Are they as bloody-ticked-off as I would be? In my mind, this is like sending a child to the corner store for a loaf of bread and having them come back with a bag of candy).

Okay, so if the kids love this sort of stuff, if it makes them happy — and if I, as a volunteer, don’t get yelled at by an irate parent — then why should I be such a Scrooge about it? Perhaps you’re thinking, Ah Marian, calm down. Don’t get your knickers in a twist! Let the kids have fun! It’s just a little bit of junk! It’s just one book fair!

To which I have to emphatically respond, But it’s not just one book fair!

Unfortunately for me, my mind doesn’t see one book fair; my mind sees them all. This scenario is being played out at schools all across Canada and the US. I don’t see one book fair’s worth of robot erasers, I see mountains of robot erasers. I see factories in China spewing chemicals, using our precious —  and finite — oil to make thousands of these things. I see container ships crossing the ocean, trucks ferrying them across the continent — energy expended at each and every step of the journey — in order to deliver boxes filled to the gills with items that serve absolutely no long-term or meaningful use.

And what happens to all this rubbish? (I mean after annoying the teachers all afternoon (“put that away!”) and causing angst and jealousy in students suffering from woulda coulda shoulda buyer’s remorse). They’re largely forgotten. They’re forgotten, left to languish in our children’s lives — taking up space in their desks, in their bedrooms — as useless clutter, until eventually, one of two things is likely to happen:

  1. The item ends up in the landfill; in perhaps a thousand years it’ll break down to smaller bits of plastic.
  2. The item ends up in the ocean, where it breaks down into minuscule bits of plastic water-borne confetti, the bane of existence for aquatic life.

Really, I think the Onion sums it up very nicely:

http://www.theonion.com/articles/child-entertained-for-5-minutes-by-plastic-toy-tha,36249/

The funny thing (not haha funny, but sad funny) is that in all my years of working book fairs it never once occurred to me that we had a choice. I honestly thought I had to simply grin and bear it: Scholastic sends us the crap, therefore we must sell the crap.

And then last spring several events converged, and no longer willing to stand silently by and let the status quo rule, I approached my fellow parent-volunteer and our part-time teacher-librarian, and made a suggestion about our upcoming book fair: how about we simply hold back the novelty items; how about we simply not put the junk out for sale? To my surprise, and great relief, they agreed. And at that book fair we sold books. Just books.

(Well, okay, full-disclosure: books and bookmarks. My protests against the plastic-coated bookmarks (my own kids have bookmarks but never use them, preferring scraps of paper instead) was judged too extreme).

I have to say I did have a few worries. I was certain we’d make less money, and that as a result, we wouldn’t be able to buy as many books for the library. But no, it was one of our most successful book fairs in my time at this school, and when the time came for our fall book fair, two weeks ago, it was a no-brainer: of course we weren’t going to sell the junk. And the best thing? The kids didn’t even seem to miss it: only two or three asked if we had any erasers or what-not; the rest seemed to be happy just buying books.

It may be a victory, but really, it’s only half a victory. Yes, we did steer kids to books and we kept the rubbish out of their hands. But the junk still came. When our librarian asked Scholastic if it was possible to opt out of getting the novelty items shipped to us, to have only the books shipped, they refused. I understand their point of view: they don’t want to be worrying about which school wants a crap-free book fair and which school doesn’t; every school gets the same stuff, whether they want it or not. And this unfortunately means the whole factory-in-China-using-our-oil-spewing-chemicals-shipping-across-the-ocean-trucking-across-the-land scenario still happened. The only thing I can hope is that somehow word will get out. If more schools refused to peddle Scholastic’s junk, if more schools simply sent it all back, unsold, then eventually, they would get the picture, and the factory-in-China cycle will slow down and stop. After all, isn’t that Economics 101?

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17 thoughts on “A Crap-Free Book Fair

  1. Wow! I’ve been annoyed with my kid’s desire to spend his allowance on silly erasers instead of BOOKS at the book fair, but I never thought about the scale of the thing. I sent this link to the school librarian; maybe she too will consider holding back the crap so the kids will buy more books.

    I certainly agree that Scholastic publishes some good books. I still have dozens of them that I bought from the monthly order forms when I was in grade school, and dozens more that are older than I am that I bought at yard sales.

    Regarding the word “crap”: Years ago, I was shopping in a dollar store near a young couple carrying a baby. The parents kept picking up items, assessing their quality as “crappy”, and putting them back. Then the mother picked up something, and the baby shook his head and said, “Crappy.” Mom agreed, “Yeah, it’s crappy…. Hey! You said a word! Honey, he said his first word!! …Oh…his first word is ‘crappy’….” She almost started crying. It was funny, but I can completely understand her being overwhelmed by the feeling that she must be a terrible parent. Of course, the positive spin is that her child was learning early to identify items that aren’t worth buying.

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    1. I have great memories of book fairs at my elementary school – for a kid who loved books as much as I did, it was so exciting to see a room transformed that way, to see SO MANY books to choose from, and to actually be able to pick them up and read the first page. I loved the order forms too, and I know I still have a few of those books in my collection as well. Truthfully, I felt a bit bad dissing Scholastic in this post; I know they do a great job on the books. I’m just really tired of all the crap that seeps into our kids’ lives from all directions, and I really wish others would see the big picture, instead of always thinking, “oh, it’s just one little thing.” I would be very interested to know if your librarian could be swayed to having a crap-free book fair too 🙂

      Oh.My.Gosh…the baby and his first word, and it’s “crappy” – that made me laugh out loud!! I wonder, if she had a baby book and was recording all his firsts, if she actually wrote that down, or if she fudged the details. (I hope she wrote it down truthfully – I think it would make for a hilarious story to share with him when he got older).

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      1. I heard back from the librarian. She said she does hold back some of the crap, but she puts out the least offensive of the very low-priced items because the school has a substantial low-income population, so there are always some kids who show up with money but not enough to buy a book, and she wants them to be able to buy something. It’s sad that the crap costs less than the books. I remember Scholastic books being mostly priced under $1, but publishing costs have really gone up, apparently; books from all publishers are 5-10 times the price they were 35 years ago.

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      2. Thanks for trying, Becca, and for getting back to me with what your librarian said. On the positive side, she is holding back some of the crap; on the negative side, I’d have to argue that the low-priced items are a waste of money for everyone, but maybe especially so for a child with low income. After all, if you only have a dollar why would you waste it? But I do recognize that’s probably just me…I confess I don’t really understand the whole consumer culture, and the need some people have to buy. Maybe it does actually give these low-income kids a boost, when they can buy something – anything – as opposed to walking out empty-handed?

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  2. Our school’s book fair is this week, I’ll have to investigate and find out what the crap quotient is.

    For the record, I think “crap” is exactly the right word here. “Dross” is good for variety, I was thinking of “dreck” too. I know exactly the kind of stuff you are talking about.

    Earlier this summer my daughter and I went to a native plant sale and there was a booth there with activities for kids about salmon conservation. Ok, great — I like salmon! But one of the things they did was give out these “salmon watch” glasses with paper frames and colored plastic lenses. I don’t know what the point was — it wasn’t as though these things actually help you see salmon in a creek or teach you about how salmon see or anything other than…raising awareness, I guess? But it made me so irritated — now even the environmentalists are handing out crap! Why? WHY? I am not a minimalist, I love my stuff, but this kind of thing just seems to create an expectation on the part of our kids that every event comes with a souvenir. Grumble, grumble, you kids stay off my lawn. 🙂

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    1. Ah, “dreck”…darn it, that would have been good too!

      I am the QUEEN of irritation over the free crap that organizations hand out! My husband tends to get offered a lot of free stuff through his job, but he knows by now not to bring the stuff home because I give him such a hard time over it. (No, you don’t need another baseball cap when you don’t wear baseball caps; no, you don’t need a styrofoam model of this piece of equipment to sit on your desk and gather dust; no, you don’t need a collapsible water bottle when we already have water bottles sufficient for a family of ten (including three he got given this summer and didn’t have the wherewithal to say no to)(and how does one even clean a collapsible water bottle?!)). Oh, and the free stuff for kids! Best not to get me started on how we’ve trained our kids to expect a prize for everything, and a souvenir (or a treat) for everything! Grumble grumble is right!! (And the stay off the lawn part was hilarious, btw 🙂 )

      EDIT: my brain wasn’t working full-power when I replied last night, and for the life of me I couldn’t come up with the word I often use for those non-paper/non-recyclable informational items organizations give away (like those salmon watch glasses you mentioned): detritus! And yes, you would think that an organization whose purpose is to raise awareness about the plight of salmon, would know better than to give out crap that contains plastic…hello? plastic is the bane of the ocean these days!

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    2. Oriental Trading Company, purveyor of the cheapest and dumbest plastic crap for all occasions, actually issued an Earth Day catalog once, offering hundreds of varieties of plastic crap that was different from the usual only in that it said “Love Our World!” or “Recycle!” on it. AAAARRRRGGGGHH!!!!

      Last year we passed some people handing out pink plastic bracelets for “breast cancer awareness”, and after my son had dodged them, he asked me, “Do those bracelets cause cancer?” Probably….

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  3. I flat-out told my boys that their shadows are not allowed to darken my doorstep if they come home with something other than books. I learned that the hard way in year 1.

    I don’t run our book fair, and looking at it the way you are, I’m disgusted by the waste and abuse it causes. I’m trying to think of a way I can broach the issue with the woman who runs the fair without stepping on toes.

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    1. Unfortunately, I think a lot of parents do learn the hard way; after all, it’s entirely reasonable to assume your child will come home with a book after visiting a book fair!

      I hope you are able to find a way to talk to your book fair co-ordinator. Unfortunately, I think most people don’t see the big picture; they tend to view talk of taking away novelty items as Scrooge-ish behaviour. This is exactly the attitude I encountered when I recently tried to see if we could get rid of the crappy prizes that went along with our school fundraiser. “But the kids had such fun collecting those monkey key chains!” I was told. When I asked how long they had fun with them, and whether they were still playing with them, there were shrugs and silence.

      Many thanks, Jules, for coming over 🙂

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  4. Hi Marian!
    I guess I’m a meaner mom than you… 🙂
    When my teenagers were in elementary school and I was the PTA president, I lead the charge for eliminating the book fair altogether. Admittedly, I felt a little bad about this because of the reasons you list but it was out of hand and as fund raiser, we didn’t make nearly enough money for the volunteers hours it took. That was how I sold it to our school community – ROVH – return on volunteer hours. Teachers and students could still order books from Scholastic but we would no longer have a book fair. Instead, we had a used book exchange. It worked out quite nicely because the end result was books in hands of kids. Everyone won – including the planet – which doesn’t get considered enough.
    Thank you for leaving a comment on my site – and I’m glad to know you a little better.

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    1. Hi Sara!
      I’m so happy you wandered over here – I love your site and your philosophy on raising kids and making a home 🙂

      A used book exchange is a fantastic idea! Not only would that take care of the junkier books (the ones that come with all sorts of plasticky accessories attached that I would loved to have pulled), but it also gets rid of the problem that Becca (from The Earthlings Handbook) raised: that some kids can’t afford to buy a book, and can only afford to buy the junk.

      Hmmm…I think my kids would argue that I am a pretty mean mom 😉 This will become painfully evident the more I write, but just to give you an idea…a couple of years ago my husband and kids came up with a hyperbolic nickname for me: KD for short, which stands for Killer of Dreams and Destroyer of Souls (yes, technically it should be KDDS, but the whole Destroyer of Souls part came a bit later). It’s a darn good thing I have a healthy sense of humour (as do they…they say it laughingly, and they use it when I successfully reason them out of unnecessary purchases — sometimes for monetary reasons, sometimes for decluttering reasons, very often for environmental reasons — because just as you say, the planet doesn’t get considered enough!)

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  5. Yes, yes, yes! I came to hate the book fair when my kids were kids–because I’d spend the whole time arguing about why they couldn’t buy crap. Mine wanted crap AND books. Inevitably, we’d come home with some of both. It never occurred to me that it wasn’t an option to hold the crap back. I’m going to share this with the library managers in our district. Great food for thought here.

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    1. I think I’ve nearly completely worn my kids down in the whole crap department – the older two know not to bring crap home; the youngest knows by now that I’ll say no, but will still ask, and then quite often begrudges me for my stance. It’s a good thing I don’t mind being called the meanest mom ever.

      I’m so glad you stopped by – the possibility that the librarians of other schools could perhaps be persuaded to hold their own crap-free book fairs has made my day 🙂

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