The Book Fair: Let’s End Commercialism and Focus on the Joy of Reading


My six-year-old son was in uncontrollable tears and it was only 7:00 AM. Our mornings don’t usually start like this, especially the morning before our family heads to the annual school book fair.

But the book fair was causing all of this chaos.

book fair display“There are three books I want. We can pick three!” He’s yelling over his abandoned bowl of oatmeal.

“One. You can pick one. It’s always been that way.” My husband and I are trying to stay calm. Our coffee hasn’t even gotten a chance to kick in yet. We aren’t quite ready to have to discipline this early.

“But she said we could pick out three!” Suddenly my husband and I stop and look at each other.

“Who’s ‘she’?” If our coffee had kicked in, we would have hollered “Jinx!” at each other. But not this morning. My mind was in serious mode.

Who was this ‘she’ that was telling children how many books their parents would be buying?

My son gave me the name of a woman or girl that I had never heard of before. My husband, Andy, and I were lost. Where was this all coming from? Then it came to me. It had to be a school friend who had told my son that she was allowed to pick out three books. That made the most sense.

It was then that we had to have the talk that most parents eventually have to have. We told our son that our family chooses to only buy one book per child at the book fair each year and if he wanted to get more he would have to buy the other ones from his allowance. We also told him that he needed to be happy that he was getting one book, as we were sure that there would be children whose families couldn’t even afford that.

He calmed down and Andy and I hoped that the lesson had sunk in and we hadn’t gotten too far into lecture mode. (We probably had. His eyes were more glazed than a donut by the end).

We went to the book fair, both kids picked out a book they loved, and we went home. For a few days, that was the end of it.

Then my son’s Friday folder came home. I opened it and suddenly that early morning eruption began to make complete sense.

Inside the folder was a, “My child’s book fair wish list” sponsored by the publisher of the children’s books that would be sold at the fair. Underneath the header were the words, “These are books I found awesome at the book fair.” Someone had written three titles that my son had wanted underneath. They had taken school time to browse at the book fair and someone had helped each child to fill out this form and send it home with us.

We had gotten it a little too late.

I’m not someone who gets irritated very easily. I have loved the school that my children attend. But I have to say this was the first time I was genuinely angered by school policy.

Okay, I’ll admit it, and some of you will roll your eyes at me, I don’t like advertising that prays on children.

candy bar advertisement

The last place I figured I would have to battle over manipulative advertising would be the school book fair. Now, I fully understand that the school gets a portion of the money and that schools always can use more money. But where did the concept go of simply putting a flyer in the folder that announces the book fair and having parents choose whether or not their family can go… or if they can afford the book fair?

When I was a kid, we had a wonderful program that came to our school called R.I.F., short for Reading is Fundamental. One glorious day of the school year, we were brought to the library and for that one glorious day, new books were stretched out across the library table and we were allowed to pick out one. FOR. FREE. Can you believe it? The program believed so much in the sanctity and wonderfulness of reading that each child was given a free book to start their personal library at home.

What a great way to take kids out of class for a half hour and to encourage reading.

Taking my child out of class for a half hour to browse the book fair and be manipulated into wanting me to purchase books isn’t right. I don’t feel like it’s right to bring every child through the process of writing down a wish list and bringing it home when the school doesn’t even know if that child’s parents can afford to buy one book, let alone three or four.

Please don’t get me wrong. Book fairs are wonderful. They allow you to buy books at a reduced rate, to get books for your child’s classroom if you’re so inclined, and to see what kinds of things your child is into as you shop together. And, yes, you can have that conversation about money management at the book fair, if you choose to go.

But let’s leave the kids out of advertising altogether. Let’s allow parents to choose what we spend money on. Don’t parents have enough to feel guilty about and enough to buy without having school conning kids into demanding that we buy more?

toy house and car on money

The conversation that we had with my son that morning was a very valuable one. I look at that conversation as the lemonade we made out of the lemons we were handed. But the very conversation we were having with him that morning is the entire reason the book fair wish list bothers me. Our family lives in a very wealthy community. We don’t fit into that demographic. We can afford to buy at least one book at the book fair, but we aren’t the only ones who would rather not be guilted or pressured into buying books at the book fair.

The book publisher and our school need to know that all students, financially speaking, are not created equal.

Obviously, I think book fairs should continue and should be attended.

But I also feel like we need more free programs like R.I.F. to fill in the gaps and leave the commercialism crisis for holidays.



  1. Thanks for sharing this Meredith. I’m not sure I would have ever considered this perspective for and I truly appreciate it.

  2. So, I am a school librarian and I run 2 book fairs every year at one of the poorest schools in the state. So first I would like to explain to you why librarians do things like this so maybe you can understand where she was coming from.
    1. Trying to teach children about responsibility. Many librarians, including me, use the wishlist as a way to let students take a little responsibility at the book fair. Students should always get a choice in what they read, because it makes it much more likely that they will enjoy and comprehended.
    2. Giving parents a choice. When you send home 3 books on a wish list, it’s not meant for that to be a statement to the parent that they have to buy all 3 of them, it is rather meant to give the parents a say about which one they want to buy. Given their own way, most students will not buy a book that is good for them. They will buy one that is too easy, or hard, they will buy one that a parent thinks has no value whatsoever. I have long since lost track of how many refunds I had to give because a parent doesn’t look at the wishlist, just sends their kid to school with money, and then when the kid comes home with a Peppa Pig book or something, the parents are all upset and come to school wanting me to refund the book and so they can buy something “more educational”. Giving the kids a few choices beings that when they bring that list home the parent can look at jokes of the kids have decided they really want and then choose the one that they think is most appropriate. The kids still made a choice, they chose the 3 books on the list. Now the parent gets to make the final decision. And yes, I know that sending home the flyer could work the same way, but hundreds of books on a fire is kind of like overload for some students.
    3. Which brings me to point 3, it takes away some of the impulse buying. Think about it this way, the student sees the flyer and everything on it they want everything cause it all looks awesome. The get to the book fair, everything looks awesome. Now someone takes them around and lets them choose only 3 books. They put those books on a list. They have done 2 things to help you. 1st, they made it so that you don’t have to come to the school and help your child shop. 2nd, they have limited the child’s choices down to 3, that way the day you send the money, the child doesn’t impulsively buy some random book, or toys, that you don’t want him to have. It’s basically just a way to get your approval on the book the child is going to get.
    4. So now let me explain to you the other reason librarians do this that you probably won’t like but hopefully you can understand. We actually have quotas that we have to meet on book fairs to be able to keep having them. If we dont, they can downsize our fair (I have one of these, and they are MUCH harder to run and have no where near the options the normal case fairs do). So on the off chance that we can actually get some parents to purchase several books, that the other reason we put more than one on the wish lists. If you live in a well off area, your library and it probably banking on that.

    So now here are some things that you can do.
    1. Depending on your librarian, you could let her know your budget and that you will only purchase one bug, or that you can purchase more than 1 book as long as it falls under the budget, and then she can make sure that the things on the wish list match your needs. As I said, that depends on your library. I would do that if a parent after me to, but maybe not everyone would. It doesn’t hurt to try though.
    2. Ask that your librarian requests more books that are cheaper from scholastic. I fill my book fair with books that are less than $5, because that is the only chance I have to get them to buy a book instead of pencils or invisible ink pens. Most of them come with only $5, if I’m lucky! So if they want a lead pen for $2, if I have a good selection of $3 books, I can almost always talk them into buying a book with the lead pen. In more affluent areas, I can almost guarantee that they are not sending the books that are under $5. She would need to request it. If she has always worked in an affluent area, there’s a chance that she doesn’t even know this is an option.
    3. If she does not do this already, you can also tell her about scholastics bruised books. They will send her a box of books that are only slightly damaged, and by slightly I mean sometimes you don’t even know why they’re in there because they look perfect, and then she can use those books as giveaways. I always do 2 things at my fairs. First, I do whats called a sucker pull, though some people also do it with pencils. Basically, kids pay a quarter, they get to pick a sucker that are all standing up in a box. Some of the suckers are marked with a color on the bottom of the stick. If they pull one of those, they get to pick a free book from the bruised books box. Second, for any book a child buys, they get a ticket in a drawing to win something at the end of the fair. I have a display board with all of the junk stuff and all of the posters have one example hanging on the wall. I give all of that away to the students from the ticket Box. Only giving them a ticket for buying a book is my way to get them to buy books instead of junk in the first place. If the library is giving things away in, it promotes goodwill among the kids and the parents. As you said in your article you remember getting to come and pick up book for free, this is a way that they can do that.

    Anyway, I hope this ridiculously long response helps you to see why librarians send home things like this.I will say, if she actually told your child that they could buy 3 books, rather than that they could put 3 books on a wish list, then that is a problem. I would never tell a child that they can buy 3 books at the fair, because I know well and good that they may not come with money at all. But if she told him that he could put 3 books on the wish list and then he assumed that meant that he could buy 3 books guaranteed, well then that’s the kind of conversation that the parent then has with the kid.. Also, that wishlist with supposed to come home the 1st day.

  3. Hey Meredith,
    When my kid was in school, my husband was in college. Every penny we had was to do things like the electricity on. We rarely said no to her if we could find a way because we didn’t want her to feel the stigma of being the poor kid. Stuff like this killed us.
    Well said! I totally agree.


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