Book fairs fail to fill in the gaps. I have seen too many sad book fairs. In fact, I mostly hate book fairs. Those fairs separate the haves from the have-nots too vividly for my comfort.
I’d like to take a trip sideways here to suggest that schools look objectively at book fairs they have in place. Does the book fair promote literacy? Can children without money get books? Is that 10% to 25% of sales the school receives for putting on the book fair enough compensation for the instructional time lost? Do you want students to be exposed to the TV shows and movies that are part of book fair merchandise? Could you make money more effectively by putting on your own book fair with local merchants? Information can be found on the internet about creating a book fair that provides books without all the commercial tie-ins, toys and geegaws now sold at these fairs. A good place to start is CCFC’s Guide to Commercial-Free Book Fairs at http://www.commercialfreechildhood.org/resource/commercial-free-book-fairs.
As currently practiced, the typical book fair involves the librarian and others, who set up displays filled with often expensive books, shiny pencils, decorated erasers, movie posters, posters of Justin Bieber and other modern heroes, plus candy and tiny plastic toys, DVDs, video games, posters, and even key chains. Students visit the book fair, filling out wish lists to take home. Schools receive a percentage of total books and merchandise sold.
In practical terms, a teacher sacrifices instructional time as she shepherds students into the book fair to fill out their wish lists. The teacher makes reading suggestions, even as she watches to make sure that pencils and erasers do not disappear into student pockets. Students fill out lists with books, posters and toys. Nobody ever writes down erasers or pencils. In financially disadvantaged districts, though, students buy a lot of erasers and pencils, along with plastic spiders and other cheapies, because those items are all many kids can afford. Even kids with money make bad choices. The boy with $5.00 may return home with flexible pencils and a Star Wars poster. Teachers can encourage books, but the school receives a cut of the flexible pencils, and those pencils return, year after year. More class time will often be sacrificed to make purchases.
A large percentage of the books sold at a typical event may be linked to a movie, television show or video game. Personally, I think selling the Hunger Games, Divergent or Twilight may promote reading, so I am not as negative on commercial book fairs as many of my colleagues seem to be. Any book that walks out the door is a win in my view.
Unfortunately, too few books walk out the door. Few students in financially-disadvantaged districts can afford hardcover books and even paperbacks are becoming pricey. Six dollars might as well be twenty dollars if all you have is $1.87. Some students have no money and are simply standing around looking at books and toys they know they cannot afford, while watching other students make purchases.
I have watched my students with no money as they look longingly at different displays. A roving Facebook post on a prominent book fair contains thousands of entries, quotes like “True story! I would go look and make my list take it home and i’m pretty sure it went in the trash!” or “All i could afford were erasers and bookmarks…. That i never used. Haha” or “I never had money for a book. Now I make sure my kids have money so they don’t feel like I did.” I hurt to read the pathos in those posts, toss-off lines from adults who still recall the pain of book fairs, and who felt that pain acutely enough across the years to add their thoughts to a lengthy and lengthening post.
Schools pay for many goods and services. I would like to see schools add “recreational books for students,” books that are not loans, but outright gifts. One easy approach would be to give students vouchers for $15 worth of books (and only books) at the book fair. Not all our free books will be read, but nothing will ever be read in a home empty of printed words.