Revisiting the Scholastic Book Fair

I don’t think there was anything that got me more excited in elementary school than the Scholastic Book Fair, although getting to play on Kid Pix in the computer lab was a close second.

The shiny metal boxes filled with books called to me, and the various erasers, pencils and other miscellany were a cherry on top of the cake. There was something about the book fair that created an air of excitement. I remember flipping through the pages of the books, trying to find the perfect one, trying to calculate my total, my mom’s money crushed in my sweaty fist.

During a recent episode of our podcast, I chatted with Andrew Kleidon about bookstores, which led to a tangent about book fairs. What we thought was an off-hand question – requesting information about the book fairs of today – yielded results, but in an unexpected way.

Mary Zeller, a former representative of the Scholastic Book Fair, got in touch to answer our questions, and, curious to learn more, I talked with her in person. 

It was a beautiful fall day when I visited Zeller at her Egg Harbor home, with the lake only a few yards away and waves crashing with the wind. Cups of coffee in hand, we settled down to chat.

Zeller wasn’t always a book fair rep. She had been a librarian at a Green Bay school where she helped to organize the book fair, but when she heard the rep for her region was leaving, she decided to apply for the position.

“I didn’t have the mean librarian part; in my mind it was all fun,” she said when asked why she decided to make the career shift. And for the most part, the job was fun.

Photo by Rachel Lukas

As a rep, Zeller coordinated book fairs in the Wisconsin counties of Brown, Door, Outagamie, Winnebago, Calumet and Manitowoc. Her job was to meet with school staff members in advance of their fair to show them what was new, discuss their plans, help newbies orchestrate their first book fair and brainstorm ways in which schools could make their fairs more profitable through a grandparent or family night, or making wish lists using the Scholastic catalogs.

“It was kind of a double goal of getting kids more excited about reading and getting more books into kids’ hands, and making money for both the school and Scholastic,” Zeller said.

And this is when the glittering curtain of nostalgia dropped for me. As a kid, you aren’t tuned in to the monetary stakes involved in something like this.

From her time as a parent, librarian and rep, Zeller felt there was a shift on the corporate side that went from a focus on getting books into kids’ hands to making a profit.

The size of a school and, thus, its potential profitability determine what a book fair looks like for each school. A bigger school with more students makes more money and therefore is going to have a larger fair than a smaller school that doesn’t generate as many sales. Scholastic deems some schools not profitable enough to even have a book fair – with Sturgeon Bay and Washington Island on that list.

Although Sturgeon Bay is the largest school district in the county, the way the grades were separated into three buildings made it difficult to plan a fair, and ultimately it didn’t bring in that much money. Washington Island – which hosted a book fair every other year – just made the threshold for profitability, but its island location made it too difficult to coordinate the drop-off and pickup of materials.

Although Zeller enjoyed working with less-affluent schools, trying to get books to kids who wouldn’t get them otherwise, she was encouraged to focus more on the schools that brought in the most profit.

When I saw that Sevastopol was going to hold a book fair, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to check out what one looks like today. I contacted Stephanie Ayer, who teaches fifth-grade reading and organizes the book fair for the school.

Stepping into the new part of Sevastopol School was an experience in itself, and when I was directed to the Carl Scholz Pioneer Room, where the fair was being held, I felt … something. Not excitement or disappointment – just a little adrift. After learning what I had about how fairs work, I wasn’t sure how to feel, but talking with Ayer helped to illuminate things even more.

Sevastopol hosts one fall and one spring book fair during the school year, and as with most other schools, Ayer tries to schedule the fair during parent-teacher conferences so that parents, as well as students, can stop by to help increase sales. The school receives 50% of the proceeds, which Sevastopol uses for its RIF (Reading Is Fundamental) program, through which students get to take home a free book three times a year.

Looking around, I started to feel more excitement. Watching the kids look through everything with their friends, trying to find the perfect item, made me smile – because how could it not? Despite the way that any company must seriously consider its bottom line, isn’t the whole point to get kids excited about books? And here was a room of kids, excited to explore.

But what makes the book fair so memorable and nostalgic? About this, Zeller and Ayer had similar thoughts: Kids get to experience and interact with books in a new way. For Zeller, it was the fact that kids get to pick and read the book they want versus having something assigned to them, and it’s those books that are the most memorable. In fact, she still has some that she purchased from the Scholastic catalog (before the fair started).

“My husband and I, who went to different schools, both had the same book that we had both gotten from the book fair when we were kids,” she said.

For Ayer, it’s the experience. Instead of the structure of the classroom, the students get to move around, explore and talk with each other. Her favorite part of the fair? When students excitedly tell her about which books they picked.

So where does this leave me? With complex thoughts about my memories and feelings. But I did appreciate getting some insight into this favorite childhood experience and revisiting some of my favorite school memories.