Economic barriers to book fairs inspire teachers to take charge

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Graphic of book with dollar sign on the cover against a red, polka dot background.

Not all students are able to afford items at Scholastic Book Fairs. To keep these students from feeling left out, some teachers are deciding to step in. Original artwork by Aubrey Roskoskey.

Scrolling through the feed of a millennial Twitter user, it’s hard to deny the trendiness of nostalgia. One account titled “90s Girl Problems” reaches over half of a million followers, with the popularity of other “throwback” themed accounts and posts following closely behind. Yet amidst all of the tweetable references to hair scrunchies, Nirvana and Lisa Frank, the remembrance of one educational event seems to repeatedly evoke fond memories from today’s young adults – Scholastic Book Fairs.

“When the revolution comes I hope they let us keep the Scholastic Book Fair,” one tweet reads.

“Marry someone who makes you feel the way you felt during Scholastic Book Fair week in grade school,” says another.

With over 130,000 events hosted across the world each year, Scholastic Book Fairs continue to be a highlight for many elementary and middle school-aged students. However, due to factors including income and accessibility, it would be naive to imagine all students are able to enjoy Scholastic Book Fairs in the same way.

To combat this issue, some Michigan teaching staffs are choosing to intervene.

Jill Wolfe is a second-grade teacher at Potterville Elementary School in Potterville, Mich. With a median family income of $58,642, Potterville certainly isn’t Michigan’s poorest school district, though it’s still a significant distance away from some of the wealthiest. Even so, Wolfe says she witnesses a handful of students feeling left out around around the Scholastic Book Fair season each year.

“You’re always going to have the kiddos that aren’t able to purchase books, so a way that we try and help out with that is through our PTA,” Wolfe said. “We have a wonderful PTA that during reading month purchases a book for every student.”

Also, when the PTA has extra money from the fair, she said, it gives that money to the teachers to buy books for the classroom. Even though students might not be able to take those books home, they’re able to pick out something they can read at school.

Recently, Wolfe said, the PTA has taken extra steps to ensure no student goes home empty-handed. The PTA provided funds for her to purchase books for five students in her class. “Each kid was told that they won a drawing, so they were able to go and pick out a book,” Wolfe said. “It was nice just to be able to include those kids that didn’t have any money.”

Rebecca Bruckner, a fourth-grade teacher at Schoolcraft Elementary in Waterford, Mich., said she experiences similar issues around book fair season. Many of her students, she explained, are unable to purchase books during the two Scholastic Book Fairs her school hosts each year.

“My students who can’t afford books usually just look around and don’t buy any,” Bruckner said. “The parents who care about reading are readers themselves, so they’re usually the ones buying books. However, I usually buy about $100 worth of new books to add to our classroom library.”  

Mark McCarthy, a doctoral candidate in Michigan State University’s College of Education, explained that while a major factor of student’s success in school is early reading and access to books, the role of book fairs like Scholastic are not always so simple.

“On one hand, book fairs provide access to a wealth of books that may not be easily available to young people,” McCarthy said. “However, it is about buying books. Sometimes the underlying problem is economic, though the selection of books and particular vendors may also bring in social, cultural, and political concerns.”

McCarthy said the act of teachers paying out of their pockets for students’ books is a considerable solution, but also commented on his concern regarding the increased commercialization of public schools.

“I imagine schools as spaces that provide books and that both the school and the books are free,” McCarthy said. “I wonder more about what it says about our society that we encourage consumerism, even with books, more than whether a child might feel left out if the family cannot afford to buy them.”

Representatives from Scholastic Inc. declined to be interviewed for this story.

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