For an entire week, the elementary school has been abuzz. Children bow their heads over catalogs, pencils in hand, excitedly circling what they hope to purchase. The school cafeteria is off-limits the previous day, making lunchtime novel and exciting as students see large, colorful carts rolling down the halls. The day of, the cafeteria is so transformed that entering it feels almost like attending a field trip; the anticipation is palpable, as if all these kids are about to be let loose in a candy store.
But it’s not Willy Wonka paying a visit to the elementary school. It’s a book fair.
Book fairs are integral to many Americans’ memories of their education. Regardless of whether they enjoyed school or didn’t, were popular or unpopular, excelled in class or struggled, an overwhelming number of people found book fairs to be a unifying joyful memory from childhood, even if they had a complicated view of their education generally. Though not without flaws, book fairs provide something critical and unique for anyone who’s ever been to one: They show that books are not something to be dreaded, nor viewed as compulsory and difficult. Instead, books are desirable, talked about, and treasured.
They’re also big business. Scholastic, which is the biggest book fair company by far, has hosted between 115,000 and 120,000 book fairs each year for the past 20 years. Internationally, that number balloons to 160,000 book fairs every year, bringing in a total revenue of nearly $500 million in 2019 — a number that dropped precipitously in 2020, when the pandemic shut down many schools across the country and made it difficult, and even impossible, to host book fairs.
In an attempt to make book fairs safe during the pandemic, Scholastic hosted virtual and drive-through book fairs throughout the country, but the dramatic decline in revenue shows that it had limited success, and that part of the magic of book fairs is in experiencing them in real life. None of the many parents I chatted with for this piece mentioned participating in a virtual book fair with their children, indicating the huge number of people who simply decided to opt out during the pandemic.
No matter how well-intentioned, a virtual or drive-through book fair can’t capture the ecstatic energy that surrounds a book fair when it comes to a school. It’s a sensory experience that is fundamental to many people’s memories of the long-ago elementary school events. “They always smelled nice. Like new books, but not in the way a bookstore smells,” says Nick Nickolin, a legal office assistant, who lives in Sacramento, California and grew up in Orange County. “I just remember it being a very cathartic part of the experience.”
The unique sounds, smells, and sights of the book fair were key in establishing its anticipatory mystique, year after year. “The thing I remember most was that they pulled out these heavy metal cases that were like the band's equipment, except full of books,” says Eric Ravenscraft, a journalist based in Washington, D.C. “We'd see them in the gym or wherever sometimes beforehand and as soon as they were rolled in, you know shit was about to go down.”
The tell-tale signs of the upcoming book fair not only gets children excited about books, but it also gets them talking about books of their own accord, rather than being compelled to discuss assigned reading in the classroom. Ravenscraft says that the way kids in his school looked forward to the book fair echoes the furor that builds around popular television shows today. “There were the big series everyone was talking about, but then you'd have a friend recommending whatever series they got really into recently,” he says. “You'd even have that one esoteric friend who got really into some obscure high-concept sci-fi series like Remnants.” (He was that esoteric friend, Ravenscraft confirms.)
While class discussions of assigned reading are an important way for children to build critical reading skills, children’s enjoyment of such an activity is limited. Book fairs allow kids to find pleasure in reading, in large part because they’re able to choose their reading material for themselves. Not many elementary school teachers would assign a science fiction series like K.A. Applegate’s Remnants, but Ravenscraft counts the novels as one of the reasons why he’s a big reader today, particularly of science fiction. “I still love the same kind of stories I read as a kid, and it gave me a better appreciation for more off-beat stories than I might get otherwise,” he says.
Research shows that choice is essential to forging engaged young readers. “Choice is tremendously important, always has been,” says Lesley Morrow, director of the Center for Literacy Development at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Pamela Mason, the director of the Language and Literacy Master's program at Harvard Graduate School of Education, agrees. “It can promote independence — that motivation of, ‘I can read this, I can choose what I want to read,’ is there.” A study conducted between 2013 and 2015 by the University of Rochester found that elementary students who got to choose their own books to take home with them over the summer lost less reading ability than those who had books assigned to them.
Enjoyment is yet another important facet of building capable readers. A 2015 dissertation from George Fox University in Oregon found that time spent reading for enjoyment is correlated with better reading scores among teenagers. The celebratory air that circulates around a book fair helps kids believe that reading and books are something to get excited about and take pleasure in. And unlike a library (which, to be clear, are unimpeachable resources for promoting literacy), children get to keep the books they choose at the book fair, which makes it a considerably more thrilling event than borrowing a book with a due date for its return looming in the distance.
Oset Babür, a culture editor based in Brooklyn, loved the book fairs she attended growing up in New Jersey. “I think it was actually the first time I had agency with money,” she says, noting that though she was a huge bookworm, it was the independence she was allowed to exert that made the book fair special.
Elizabeth Gonzales James, an author based in Oakland, California, had a similar experience going to book fairs in Laredo, Texas. “I loved having the authority to spend my own money on stuff I wanted to read,” she says. Though there was a local Barnes and Noble, it was on the edge of town near the mall, and the books were too expensive for her family. “The Scholastic fair was great because it came to where I was, and the prices were low enough that I could buy something even if I only had a few dollars.”
Though book fairs are often priced to be affordable to children and their meager budgets — Scholastic told me in an email that most of the books at their book fairs are priced between $2 and $5 — that’s still out of reach for many American families. This can make book fairs painful experiences for children whose parents can’t afford to give them money to buy any books.
“I remember bringing home the pamphlet before the first fair I attended and circling every book I was so excited for. I added it up and asked my mom for the money,” says Cornelia Poku, a communications professional in Washington, D.C. Her mother said they couldn’t afford it, which Poku says “crushed” her. One year, though, her mom gave her money for a book. “I was very careful and intentional to buy a book I knew I couldn’t get at the library and even as a kid I thought, I need to buy this now because it’ll be worth a lot one day,” she says. She landed on a Britney Spears biography. “To me it was an investment. I read it over and over and over again.”
Some schools work around this by distributing tokens to lower income students so that they, too, can participate in the book fair. Stephanie Lucianovic, a Bay Area-based children’s book author and parent, says her kids’ elementary school has a program that allows all children access to everything their book fair has to offer. “One of our school's initiatives during the book fair is to make sure every child has the funds to walk away with a book,” she says. Recently, she says, the book fair committee has lobbied the school to allow the children to purchase whatever they want at the book fair with the distributed funds. “As a parent, reader, and children's author, of course I'd prefer that kids buy books, but I really just want them to enjoy the book fair.”
Mason says the book fairs she hosted when she was a school principal included book swaps, so that children without money would still be able to walk away with a new read. And Scholastic says that $200 million of the money earned by the book fairs goes back into schools every year. Lucianovic notes that, for better or worse, much of the money raised during book fairs for the school library comes from purchases of the non-book items Scholastic includes on its shelves, such as stickers, pencils, and bookmarks.
Perhaps because few events are more capable of instilling a child’s delight in books than a book fair, the nostalgia adults feel surrounding book fairs remains keen for years and years. It is so great, in fact, that Porter Square Books, a bookstore in Cambridge, Massachusetts, hosts a book fair for adults at a local brewery. Though the library was where I built my own lifelong love affair with books, I — and countless others — consider book fairs unique, integral contributors to my relationship with reading. For children flowing back into the classrooms this fall, that joy will be doubly sweet — and, hopefully, their connection to books will be a lifelong one, too.