How We Hacked The Scholastic Book Fair So That Every Kid Could Buy A Book
“For the first time, every kid in our school came to the fair, and no one left empty-handed.”
When I took over the Scholastic Book Fair at my kids’ elementary school in 2022, the institution itself seemed to be governed by two different forces: millennial nostalgia (Goosebumps paperbacks; holographic puppy bookmarks) and class politics. The book fair, the savvy pointed out, was a formative delight for some, but a nightmare if you didn’t have money. Having run the book fair at my kids’ school the past two years, I can say from experience: It still is both those things.
During my week working that red register, I saw everything I’d heard about: kids hanging off to the side, kids trying not to look at the books as they went to lunch, kids bringing things up and having to hear the word no. We tried offering kids who didn’t have money books from the free box, but the free box did not have the gorgeous Roblox gaming guide. And, aside from, shh, a corporation raking in millions off the work of volunteers, isn’t choice the whole point of the fair?
Choosing the book that speaks to you from dozens of titles, buying it, owning it — this is how the fair lights kids up around reading. It’s easy for me to imagine shutting down on reading altogether if I had found the fair embarrassing or upsetting. (It’s been 27 years since I fell off a rope into a creek at Brownie camp, and still when people want to do nature things, I’m like, “I can see the nature fine from here.”)
For the first time, every kid in our school came to the fair, and no one left empty-handed.
The Scholastic Book Fair will pop up in 85,000 schools this year, including more than 40,000 schools that are Title I, meaning they serve a high proportion of students from low-income households. There are a few existing and commonly recommended ways to fight inequity at the fair. Scholastic has offered an initiative called All For Books, which allows shoppers to round up their change or donate money to a fund. That fund can then be used to cover books for kids who don’t bring money or who come up short at checkout. Some schools start trying to stock their All for Books fund months in advance, by holding coin drives or doing carnival games — a quarter a chance, and so on.
Then there are the tricks fair chairs and parents have come up with to get around heartbreak: Consulting free-lunch lists and quietly issuing vouchers, rigging gift certificate “raffles,” sending their own child in, if they’re able to, with a budget meant for two kids. These methods work best at schools where most of the kids do have money to spend, and the risk of being left out is confined to a small group of students. They aren’t as useful at schools where the opposite is true, and where, subsequently, the pain the fair causes can be equal to or greater than the magic it creates.
If your school is a Title I, serves students from a variety of economic backgrounds, or happens to be full of families stressed by post-pandemic inflation and child care shortages (read: everyone), let me make a suggestion that worked for us. Toss those coin-drive boxes and lollipop pulls, and implement a whole new model: the sponsored book fair.
1. Consider the advantages of a sponsored fair.
I first became aware of this possibility when I read a news story about the show Abbott Elementary sponsoring Scholastic book fairs. At six Title I schools in 2022, ABC and the show covered the costs of two books per kid and 10 books per teacher.
Instantly, I got the appeal. This arrangement would preserve the crucial choice element of the fair. It would allow all students to participate in exactly the same way, without so much as a telltale coupon crushed into their little hands. In short, it seemed like a path to minimal angst, and maximum magic.
2. Find the right sponsor.
Pull up your school on a map and widen out. Look at the businesses around it. The sweet spot is a company that’s large enough to handle the expense but small enough to have a connection with your area. Bonus points for a business that’s relatively new to town — it’s less likely to already be full up on sponsorship requests. In our case, we were lucky to connect with Gerrity’s the Fresh Grocer, a regional supermarket chain here in Pennsylvania. Gerrity’s had just taken over a store we could see from the school’s front door. The connection was authentic; I shop there. Tons of our families shop there. We were asking the company to invest in kids who eat their food for dinner. Fortunately, Gerrity’s completely got it. They were eager to introduce themselves to the community, and identified with our vision of literacy and equity. (It didn’t hurt that the founder of the stores was once a teacher herself and goes by “Mom.”)
3. Offer the sponsor meaningful involvement.
We hung a banner above our fair that read “Everybody Reads Thanks to Gerrity’s the Fresh Grocer.” All the kids took their books home in bags that said the same thing. (Rest assured: All promo merch was either donated or purchased on deep discount. I hand-stamped the bags while watching TV at night.) The Gerrity’s team visited and toured our school on day one of the fair. And of course, we publicized their gift to our school families and our district at large.
4. Don’t be scared that Scholastic will be mad at you.
At first I wasn’t sure how my fair rep would feel about us taking on a corporate sponsor. When I felt it out, though, she was nothing but enthusiastic, and everyone I’ve talked to at the company since has been supportive.
In fact, Scholastic reps told me that if you own or work at a business or organization that wants to sponsor a fair, you can email firstname.lastname@example.org to have them match you with a high-need school. Last year, they matched donor organizations, including the Detroit Lions and the Scripps-Howard Foundation, with schools to host over 700 sponsored fairs like the ones Gerrity’s funded for us.
5. Hammer out a book buy strategy.
Gerrity’s was generous enough to commit $1,000 per fair to our school. That felt like a lot of runway, but since we’d never done this before, we puzzled: Should every kid get a free book, even the ones who brought money? What if we ran out? During these discussions, our principal reminded me of a core principle: Equity doesn't mean that everyone gets the same. It means that everyone gets what they need.
In the end, we settled on a sliding scale arrangement. The first two days of the fair were devoted to classroom shopping. During those trips, every child had to leave the fair with a book. If you brought money, whatever denomination it was went toward that book. Meaning: If you brought $20 and wanted a book that cost $14.99, you bought the book at full price and got your change. If you brought $5 and wanted a book that cost $14.99, our donated funds covered the difference. And if you brought nothing and wanted a book that cost $14.99, our donated funds purchased it outright. We sent a letter home prior to the fair explaining the new arrangement, and specifying that every kid would get a book, no matter what they brought. That way, any parent feeling particularly stretched that month could err on the side of not sending cash, or not sending more than they felt comfortable with.
6. Supplement your sponsorship with Scholastic Dollars.
I’m getting into the true Scholastic wonk stuff here, but stay with me. For most fairs, schools can take their profits in two ways: in Scholastic credit, or “Dollars,” or in cash. You can get more in Scholastic Dollars than you can get in cash, which is why many schools opt to take the Dollars and use them for various building needs — new library books, equipment and supplies, or even author visits. But Scholastic Dollars can also be spent right at the fair, and most of them don’t expire. They build up year to year.
So, if your school doesn’t typically need to use every Scholastic Dollar you make every year, it’s possible to build yourself a savings account that’s constantly refreshing. Spend Dollars at the fair, earn more Dollars at the fair. If banking those Dollars toward a great fair experience for all becomes a shared school priority, you may even get to a point where you don’t need a sponsor’s money.
7. Embrace the learning curve.
Was our first sponsored fair flawless? No. Some of the kids didn’t love that they had to get a book before buying other things, which I get. The smell of the gummy bear erasers intoxicates me, too. Sometimes people were confused by the sliding scale system. I understood that, too. It takes a minute to absorb, but I stand by the principle behind it: The book fair is a fundraiser. Every dollar spent there helps the school — and under this new model, it also helps to ensure that all kids get a book, indefinitely.
Frizzy retails for $12.99, but at various points during our fair, it also went for seven bucks, a dollar, and zero dollars, zero cents.
Of course, you can’t chase inequity out of the fair altogether. When the one-book days were over, those with the means to do so could still snap up sushi pens and fuzzy journals by the armful. But for the first time, every kid in our school came to the fair, and no one left empty-handed. Students shopped as classes — we’d never done that before — and they had long, leisurely visits. They browsed. They agonized: Bounce Back: Misako Rocks or The Tryout? (Having read them both, it’s a tough choice.) When they were ready with their selections, the students formed a single line. The transactions looked the same whether money changed hands or not.
Our top seller, Frizzy, a graphic novel about a Dominican-American girl’s hair journey, had to be restocked twice throughout the week. I was not surprised. It’s gorgeous, spunky, and lovingly rendered, from the heroine’s first prickles of “good hair” angst straight through to the moment her cool aunt guides her through her first wash day. Three days after our fair closed, Frizzy (written by Claribel A. Ortega, illustrated by Rose Bousamra) won the prestigious Pura Belpré Children’s Author Award, a yearly prize the ALA awards to a work of fiction that affirms Latino culture. Frizzy retails for $12.99, but at various points during our fair, it also went for seven bucks, a dollar, and zero dollars, zero cents. I would estimate it took less than $80 in donated funds to span the gap between no one in our school reading Frizzy and 20 different kids now owning it. At the fair, when students were done checking out but still waiting on their classmates, most of them sat right down on the linoleum and started reading. It was warming to see, but mostly it was a reminder of how little help kids need, when it comes to making magic.