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 an 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:
- The item ends up in the landfill; in perhaps a thousand years it’ll break down to smaller bits of plastic.
- 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 says it best when it comes to talking about plastic toys like these.)
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, 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?