12 Cheesy Facts About Pizza Hut's BOOK IT! Program

Pizza Hut
Pizza Hut

If you went to school in the U.S. in the past three decades, you were probably exposed to BOOK IT!, the reading reward program by Pizza Hut that has kids devouring books by the dozen in order to earn free pizza and other rewards. According to Pizza Hut, more than 14 million students across 620,000 classrooms (or roughly 1 in 5 Americans over the past three decades) have participated in BOOK IT! Here's what you need to know about the delicious—and educational—program.

1. THE PROGRAM WAS INSPIRED BY THE SON OF PIZZA HUT'S THEN-PRESIDENT.

Inside a Pizza Hut restaurant, a woman pins a blue Book It button on a boy's shirt. Based on the hairstyles and clothing, the photo dates from the mid 1980s.
Pizza Hut

Pizza Hut's BOOK IT! program was created in Pizza Hut's Wichita, Kansas, offices in 1984. According to a video created by Pizza Hut, the program was created after President Ronald Reagan put out a call to America's businesses, encouraging them to get involved in education. Arthur Gunther, then-president of Pizza Hut, thought of his son, Michael, who had had trouble with reading due to eye problems when he was growing up. Gunther—who later told the Los Angeles Times that he was "truly motivated by my son and my love for him"—met with educators in the Kansas area with the goal of coming up with a program that would encourage kids to read and help them develop reading skills; what was developed became Pizza Hut's BOOK IT! program.

The idea behind BOOK IT! was simple: Reward students with certificates, stickers, buttons, and a single-topping Personal Pan Pizza for reading books. It was tested in Kansas schools before it—and its signature blue button—was rolled out nationwide in 1985.

Just over a month later, more than 7 million grade school students had participated across 233,080 classrooms. Gunther reported that three-quarters of students in the program exceeded their regular reading level. It also cost the chain an estimated $50 million in free pizza, plus $2.7 million in printed materials.

2. ITS CREATORS GOT A LETTER FROM PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN.

On June 2, 1987, Reagan sent a message to BOOK IT! organizers, reading, in part:

"During this 'Year of the Reader,' we can all reflect that reading is essential to the vitality of the mind and to the success and accomplishment of almost every endeavor. As the Book-It Program prepares for yet another tremendous year of bringing the gift of reading to youngsters, I want to commend all those associated with the program for the outstanding work you do. Your efforts give help and inspiration to many and strengthen our Nation. I salute you."

3. BOOK IT! POPPED UP ON TV.

In a 1988 episode of Small Wonder, Vicki's class participated in BOOK IT! In the episode, two students have to finish their reading assignments. This being late-'80s primetime TV, one of the students creates a hip-hop book report comparing Robin Hood to Mr. T. They earned that pizza.

4. BILL CLINTON DECLARED AN OFFICIAL "BOOK IT! DAY" IN ARKANSAS.

October 3, 1988 was a very special day. Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton issued an official proclamation declaring it "BOOK IT! Day," stating that the program was "an effective tool in motivating elementary students to read." He further noted that across Arkansas that year, 5711 classrooms with 142,775 students participated in the program.

5. PIZZA HUT COFOUNDED NATIONAL YOUNG READERS WEEK ...

Pizza Hut extended BOOK IT! in 1989 with a week-long reading event that brought "celebrity" role models into schools to demonstrate the importance of reading to kids. ("Celebrities" are often local figures like school principals, though can include pop stars—see item 11 below!) Dubbed National Young Readers Week, the event was created alongside the Library of Congress Center for the Book. Pizza Hut proceeded to issue a challenge to school principals "to become shining examples for literacy by choosing one day to read their heart out all day long, from first bell to the last during National Young Readers Week." The event runs during the second week of November each year.

6. ... AND THE "BATMAN PRINCIPAL" WON THE CHALLENGE IN 2016.

Principal John Rizzo of Jonestown Elementary in Jonestown, Pennsylvania, won the National Young Readers Week principal challenge in 2016. He dressed up as Batman and visited classrooms in his school, promoting reading. Rizzo then went on the roof of the school to read to students. "We try to develop lifelong learners, especially lifelong learners of books and reading," the Bat-Principal told ABC27 News.

7. BOOK IT! IS FOR HOMESCHOOLERS, TOO.

While many students are exposed to BOOK IT! in public schools, it's available to homeschoolers too. The program runs from October 1 through March 31 each year, and students ages 5 to 12 (grades K to 6) are eligible to participate. BOOK IT! prohibits clubs and other such non-school groups from participating, suggesting that this could dilute the value of the rewards. The program is also available to virtual and online schools, with the proper paperwork.

In its first few decades, BOOK IT! kids recorded their reading with paper logbooks—and that's still an option. But there's an app for that, too. The app syncs student progress with a teacher dashboard, allowing teachers to keep track of ongoing participation.

8. CLASS PIZZA PARTIES ARE STRICTLY PROHIBITED.

The BOOK IT! FAQ explicitly prohibits "group redemptions and parties," including class pizza parties. The guidelines say:

"An important part of the BOOK IT! Program is individual recognition of your students for meeting their reading goals and our team members are trained to provide individual recognition."

9. LOTS OF PEOPLE SELL THEIR OLD BOOK IT! BUTTONS ON EBAY.

A vintage BOOK-IT pin from 1985.
The 1985 BOOK-IT! pin.

Vintage BOOK IT! promo items appear to be slightly collectible, especially the logo button which debuted in 1985. eBay has dozens of pins dating from the '80s and '90s—you can even see how the logo design changed over the years.

10. THE OFFICIAL BOOK IT! STORE SELLS SOME WEIRD STUFF.

For a brand based on reading and pizza, the official BOOK IT! store takes the merchandise to a slightly odd place. With USB car chargers, magnetic fridge clips, and squeezable dart rockets, you'd be forgiven for thinking BOOK IT! was aimed at grownups.

On the other hand, they also carry the "retro" t-shirt design and reader awards, which are great for kids.

11. BOOK IT! WAS EXAMINED IN A RESEARCH STUDY

In 1999, a paper studying BOOK IT! was published. Entitled "Effects of extrinsic reinforcement for reading during childhood on reported reading habits of college students" (Psychological Record, 1999, by Flora, S. R., & Flora, D. B. [PDF]), the paper examined how pizza functioned as an extrinsic reward for reading. In other words, although reading carries intrinsic rewards like enjoying the story, the addition of extrinsic motivators like pizza or money (not part of the BOOK IT! program) can affect students' reading behavior. The study sought to determine whether those extrinsic rewards negatively affected later reading behavior—the concern being that perhaps without pizza or cash, students might stop reading.

From the paper's abstract (emphasis added):

Neither being reinforced with money or pizzas increased or decreased the amount college students read nor influenced their intrinsic motivation for reading. Answers to direct questions about BOOK IT! and parental pay for reading suggest that when a child is extrinsically reinforced for reading the child will increase the amount read, enjoyment of reading may increase, and if they do not yet know how to read fluently, the programs may help the child to learn to read. These results provide no support for the myth that extrinsic rewards for reading undermine intrinsic interest in reading. Rather, extrinsic rewards for reading set the conditions where intrinsic motivation for reading may develop.

12. JUSTIN BIEBER READ THE CAT IN THE HAT FOR BOOK IT!

In 2011, BOOK IT!'s "America's Biggest Bedtime Story" program presented Justin Bieber reading The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss. The program exists to encourage parents to read bedtime stories to their kids. Bieber read the story to benefit the Pencils of Promise charity. The next year, BOOK IT! recruited Tim Tebow to read Green Eggs and Ham. (Back in 2007, John Lithgow kicked off the trend, reading his own kids' book, The Remarkable Farkle McBride.)

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EvgeniyShkolenko/iStock via Getty Images
EvgeniyShkolenko/iStock via Getty Images

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10 Secrets of Ice Cream Truck Drivers

asiafoto/iStock via Getty Images Plus
asiafoto/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Ever since Good Humor founder Harry Burt dispatched the first jingling ice cream trucks in Youngstown, Ohio, in 1920, kids and adults alike have had a primal reaction to the sight of a vehicle equipped with a cold, sugary payload. Today, ice cream trucks spend May through October hoping to entice customers into making an impulse beat-the-heat purchase. To get a better idea of what goes into making ice cream a portable business, Mental Floss spoke with several proprietors for their take on everything from ideal weather conditions to police encounters. Here’s the inside scoop.

1. IT CAN GET TOO HOT FOR BUSINESS.

The most common misconception about the ice cream truck business? That soaring temperatures mean soaring profits. According to Jim Malin, owner of Jim’s Ice Cream Truck in Fairfield, Connecticut, record highs can mean decreased profits. “When it’s really hot, like 90 or 100 degrees out, sales go way down,” Malin says. “People aren’t outside. They’re indoors with air conditioning.” And like a lot of trucks, Malin’s isn’t equipped with air conditioning. “I’m suffering and sales are suffering." The ideal temperature? "A 75-degree day is perfect.”

2. THEY DON’T JUST WANDER NEIGHBORHOODS ANYMORE.

An ice cream truck sits parked in a public spot
Chunky Dunks

The days of driving a few miles an hour down a residential street hoping for a hungry clientele have fallen by the wayside. Many vendors, including Malin, make up half or more of their business by arranging for scheduled stops at events like weddings, employee picnics, or school functions. “We do birthday parties, church festivals, sometimes block parties,” he says. Customers can pay in advance, meaning that all guests have to do is order from the menu.

3. SOME OF THEM DRIVE A MINIBUS INSTEAD OF A TRUCK.

For sheer ice cream horsepower, nothing beats a minibus. Laci Byerly, owner of Doodlebop’s Ice Cream Emporium in Jacksonville, Florida, uses an airport-style shuttle for her inventory. “Instead of one or two freezers, we can fit three,” she says. More importantly, the extra space means she doesn’t have to spend the day hunched over. “We can stand straight up.”

4. THEY HAVE A SECRET STASH OF ICE CREAM TO GIVE AWAY TO SPECIAL CUSTOMERS.

A picture of an ice cream truck menu.
Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images

The goal of any truck is to sell enough ice cream to justify the time and expense of operation, so freebies don’t make much sense—unless the truck happens to have some damaged goods. Malin says that it’s common for some pre-packaged bars to be broken inside wrappers, rendering them unattractive for sale. He sets these bars aside for kids who know the score. “I put them in a little box for kids who come up and ask if I have damaged ice cream,” he says. “Certain kids know I have it, and I’m happy to give it to them.”

5. THEY’RE CREATING CUSTOM ICE CREAM MENUS.

An ice cream nacho platter is shown
Chunky Dunks

While pre-packaged Popsicles and ice cream sandwiches remain perennial sellers, a number of trucks are mixing up business by offering one-of-a-kind treats. At the Chunky Dunks truck in Madison, Mississippi, owner Will Lamkin serves up Ice Cream Nachos, a signature dish that outsells anything made by Nestle. “It’s cinnamon sugar chips with your choice of ice cream,” he says. “You get whipped cream, too. And for the ‘cheese,’ it’s a caramel-chocolate sauce.” The nachos work because they’re “streetable,” Lamkin’s label for something people can carry while walking. “The next seven or eight people in line see it, and then everyone’s ordering it.”

6. THEY DON’T ALWAYS PLAY THE ICONIC JINGLE.

Before most people see an ice cream truck, they hear that familiar tinny tune. While some operators still rely on it for its familiarity, Malin and others prefer more modern tracks. “Normally we play ‘80s rock,” he says. “Or whatever we feel like playing that day. We rock it out.”

7. POP CULTURE CHARACTERS ARE SOME OF THEIR BEST SELLERS.

A Captain America ice cream treat
Doodlebop's

While adult customers tend to favor ice cream treats they remember from their youth, kids who don’t really recognize nostalgia tend to like items emblazoned with the likenesses and trademarks of licensed characters currently occupying their TV screens and local theaters. “Characters are the most popular with kids,” Byerly says. “SpongeBob, Minions, and Captain America.”

8. THEY KEEP DOG FOOD HANDY.

At Doodlebop’s, Byerly has a strategy for luring customers with pets: She keeps dog treats on hand. “The dog will sometimes get to us before the owner does,” she says. “If the dog comes up to the truck, he’ll get a Milkbone.” That often leads to a human companion purchasing a treat for themselves.

9. SOMETIMES RIVALS WILL CALL THE COPS.

Though there have been stories of rogue ice cream vendors aggressively competing for neighborhood space over the years, Malin says that he’s never experienced any kind of out-and-out turf war. Ice cream truck drivers tend to be a little more passive-aggressive than that. “I have a business permit for Fairfield, so that’s typically where I’m driving,” he says. “But sometimes I might go out of town for an event. Once, a driver pulled up to me and asked if I had a permit. I said ‘No, I’m just here for an hour,’ and he said, ‘OK, I’m calling the cops.’ They try and get the police to get you out [of town].” Fortunately, police typically don’t write up drivers for the infraction.

10. SOME LUCKY CUSTOMERS HAVE AN APP FOR HOME DELIVERY.

An ice cream truck driver.
George Rose/Getty Images

Technology has influenced everything, and ice cream trucks are no exception. Malin uses an app that allows customers to request that he make a special delivery. "People can request I pull up right outside their home," he says. If their parents are home, there’s one additional perk: "I accept credit cards."

This article originally ran in 2018.