Browsing Through the History of School Book Fairs

School book fairs can help create readers for life.
School book fairs can help create readers for life. / Doug Scaletta/Scholastic

Memories of grade school often involve valued teachers, friends, athletic achievements, and square slices of sheet pizza. And for millions of kids, there is another indelible bit of nostalgia: It’s the week when a school gymnasium or auditorium was temporarily given a facelift, collapsible steel shelves were wheeled in, and the area was suddenly alive with fresh reading material.

For a few days or a week, school became a place to conduct a bookworm’s business. It was all because of the school book fair.

For decades, book fairs have generated excitement among kids by disrupting their daily routine and broadening the over-familiar collection of the school library. Affordable paperbacks line shelves, with kids able to catch up on book series like Goosebumps or The Baby-Sitters Club or procure classroom accessories like glittery pens and stationery. Book fairs are the rare school event where the freedom of choice is granted to students; their opportunity to consume classics as readily available as the option of buying a new Marvel tie-in book.

Since the 1980s, the predominant name in book fairs has been Scholastic, which operates roughly 120,000 Scholastic Book Fairs annually. More than 100 million books are sold to over 35 million kids each year, with a portion of proceeds going to participating schools.

Book fairs offer kids the freedom of choice.
Book fairs offer kids the freedom of choice. / Doug Scaletta/Scholastic

Scholastic was born in a sewing room in 1920, when Maurice R. Robinson decided to publish a four-page high school sports magazine, The Western Pennsylvania Scholastic, for circulation in classrooms. (He used his mother’s work area as an office.) By the 1940s, Scholastic was promoting book clubs in schools. By the 1970s, they were a respected educational publisher as well as a force in entertainment. An animated version of their Clifford the Big Red Dog series was on the air. Later, Scholastic would publish two of the most successful book series of all time: J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter franchise and Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games titles.

In 1981, Scholastic purchased a regional book fair promoter, California School Book Fairs, and began to supplement their book club arm with bookselling events. Along with other companies like Educational Reading Service Book Fairs, Inc. and Book Fairs Services, Scholastic offered book titles for readers in kindergarten through sixth grade, though modern fairs often include books appropriate through eighth grade.

Then as now, the events would normally be sponsored by parent-teacher associations or school librarians, and a division of labor was involved. Scholastic and the other companies would drive the books to the school, where volunteers would set up the provided displays, handle payment, and box up the unsold books. Then Scholastic would haul away the unused inventory. Books cost between 75 cents and $3.95, with the schools getting between 20 percent and 33 percent of the gross revenue. In the 1980s, a typical fair might collect $1500.

While the school faculty appreciated the revenue and the promotion of literacy, students were less interested in the economics than the shelves of books that flaunted their unbent spines and promised a break from required reading. In both the book fairs and catalogs, volumes about boy detective Encyclopedia Brown mingled with Garfield collections and Captains Courageous by Rudyard Kipling. Poster books of BMX bikes and joke books were in plentiful supply.

School book fairs introduce kids to books and authors they might not have discovered anywhere else.
School book fairs introduce kids to books and authors they might not have discovered anywhere else. / Doug Scaletta/Scholastic

The favored genres were binary in nature. It was said boys gravitated toward mysteries, adventures, and books about sports. Girls were thought to like books about horses, which were always well-stocked. Everyone seemed to like tie-in books that offered recognizable characters from movies or television. A Newbery Medal-winning book like Caddie Woodlawn might share space with The Supergirl Storybook.

The fairs were not without critics. Scholastic and other companies were accused of inserting just enough well-regarded books to satisfy teachers and stuffing the shelves with more questionable titles. Organizers refuted the complaint by pointing out that the low price points eliminated some of the more popular books from being stocked. More recently, there have been concerns that Scholastic is pushing merchandise like classroom items more than books, but the company insists that schools can decline to display or sell any non-reading material.

Scholastic wound up acquiring other regional book fair companies and eventually became synonymous with the events. (Another company, Follett, entered the book fair scene in 2017.) Today, Scholastic sifts through advance copies of many major children’s book releases, a group of 50 employees gathering and discussing what’s been successful in past fairs and what might be worth curating for the next one. Kids navigate shelves marked with genre labels like Picture Books, Chapter Books, Friendship Tales, Fearless, and Fun Facts. A new category, Girl Power!, was added in 2017.

The most telling evidence of the book fair’s hold on our psyche may have come in 2018, when the Junior High art gallery in Los Angeles convinced Scholastic to allow them to set up a real book fair in the gallery space. Open to kids and adults, it may have been the first school book fair in a non-academic setting, and one that undoubtedly brought visitors back to a time of slim paperback volumes, sticker books, and horse adventures.