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School Librarians Are Creating Free Book Fairs. Here’s How

Everything about book fairs felt wrong to Julia Stivers.

As a parent volunteer at the book fair, she would watch teachers bring their classes through, and see how students would be split: those who could buy something, and those who couldn’t. She remembers students sitting on the floor, waiting for their peers to finish buying books and trinkets.

After she became a school librarian, she said, someone suggested that she host a book fair as a way to raise funds for the library. The answer was no, she told them.

At least, she decided, it wouldn’t be a traditional, for-profit book fair. It would be, as a student later termed it to her, a “True Book Fair.”

The first was eight years ago at Mount Vernon Middle School in Raleigh, North Carolina. It was a year-long hustle, as she describes it, to find high-quality, new, popular books. She used family engagement dollars already in the budget to purchase books and host a family event in the evening. The next day, teachers came by with their classes. Every student could leave with a free book.

“It was never framed as charity, just how we did things,” she said. “Students aren’t sorted inequitably. Everyone comes and everyone picks up a new book, for free.”

It’s a model Stivers thinks more and more school librarians are moving toward, as a way to instill literacy and build a collection at home for students whose families don’t have the means.

Economically marginalized parents have told Paul Gorski that book fairs are often the most embarrassing experience for them at school.

Gorski—who is the founder of Equity Literacy Institute, an organization that provides professional development and training around equity—said in researching his book on erasing the opportunity gap, he held focus groups of students and families to learn what everyday things at school may unintentionally humiliate low-income students and their families. For elementary parents, it was book fairs.

It’s easy, he said, for a school or teacher to be dismissive of its impact, couching it as just one small thing, something that’s done every year and is a fundraiser. But it doesn’t come in isolation, he said.

“There’s lots of things that are in this sort of category of things that families can purchase a sense of belonging for their kids and the families who can’t do that, their kids don’t get access to that sense of inclusion,” he said. “Book fairs, yearbooks, field trips—all these ways that supposedly free public schools come with a lot of costs.”

Access to books, and making students into readers

Reading habits start young, said Susan Neuman, a professor of childhood education and literacy development at New York University. The number of books in a home is predictive of a child’s educational success. But access is only part of the picture.

“I think too often we’ve been satisfied on the basis of, ‘Well, we’ve got books to people in low-income areas,’ and that’s just insufficient,” she said. “Very often that does not lead to real reading and engagement. It takes a person, a connection, to really make that happen.”

In families where some are reluctant to read to their children because they might have reading difficulties themselves, events like story hours at libraries are critically important, she said, because it provides a way for families to connect with books.

For librarians, curating a collection that directly responds to the community’s interests and backgrounds is important, said Kathryn Cole. As is making sure that the library is always free—including the book fairs it hosts, she said.

Her school library at Northside Elementary School, in Chapel Hill, N.C., had long hosted for-profit book fairs, and while they tried to mitigate inequities—by handing out coupons for free books, for instance—she felt like it wasn’t enough. Some kids still walked out with piles of books, while others only had one.

“It didn’t feel like it was building [a] community around literacy the way it should be happening in the library,” she said.

The school rolled out its free model three years ago, put together using a community grant, advance-reader copies of books she picked up from conventions she’d attended, and other new books she’d collected. She worried the kids and community would resent a change, especially since they were familiar with the for-profit model.

They didn’t, though. Now she has the support of the PTA and a public school foundation, and other schools in the district are rolling out their own versions.

“We knew there was no going back to the old way,” she said.

Librarians come to free book fairs in different ways

For other librarians, the for-profit model wasn’t a fit for their schools.

Melissa Corey, a school librarian at Robidoux Middle School in St. Joseph, Mo., had always liked book fairs, but it didn’t make sense for her school—which is low-income, where families couldn’t afford to purchase books from the fair.

During remote learning in 2020, the family involvement coordinator approached her about holding a book fair as a family engagement event. It took a few months for her to research where to find good books for a low price, and purchase them. Now, the school holds two fairs a year. By the time students matriculate to high school, they will have had the chance to bring home about 18 books, she said.

And because she knows that the trinkets and toys are popular parts of a book fair, she sets up a prize wheel when students “check out.” She stocks them through her Amazon Wishlist: rubber ducks, water bottle stickers, bracelets, candy, and pencils.

She remembers watching as a parent looked for the price tag on the back of one volume as she perused the book fair. Corey told her the book was free, and that her child could choose three.

“She had never been able to purchase a book at the book fair before,” Corey said. “She was so moved by it.”

Jenni Clark, a school librarian at Ben Martin Elementary in Fayetteville, North Carolina, would watch colleagues bring in $20,000 from a traditional book fair, where she’d only raise $5,000. She got dropped from one book fair for not raising enough money. It wasn’t worth her time, or seeing the disappointment in kids’ faces.

Instead, she moved to a free model, inspired by Stivers. She’s spent hundreds of dollars of her own money picking up books herself. She connected with the community and a real estate company volunteered employees’ time to help with outreach. She put decorated donation boxes for books in local coffee shops. The turnout from community donations was immense. She collected more than 4,000 books, and kids got five books each. She has vowed to go even bigger next year.

“I know it’s really important because the kids don’t have access,” she said, noting that books are competing against phones and tablets. “I try to do everything in my power to make reading fun and exciting, and find things to connect with them.”

Still, moving to an entirely free model may not be feasible for some librarians, said Courtney Pentland, the president of the American Association of School Librarians and school librarian at North Star High School in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Many school libraries nationwide don’t get budgets from their districts to add to their collections. For-profit book fairs are how librarians collect funds for their collections, and Pentland heard from many across the country about how to use the system to still give books away.

Scholastic, the largest children’s book publisher that provides books to more than 100,000 book fairs, offers Scholastic Dollars—funds raised through holding a book fair that a school can use to purchase books and other supplies for libraries and classrooms at a discounted rate. Many librarians use that to help give away books to children experiencing poverty, Pentland said.

Scholastic says book access is ‘essential’ to work

That’s something that Scholastic is thinking about, too. As librarians work to innovate and hold fairs for free, the book fair giant is trying to challenge inequities in book fairs through initiatives that lower costs for schools and their communities.

In one new program beginning this fall, the company will offer Share the Fair, where community members purchasing books will be able to donate funds or round up purchases at checkout to support students who can’t buy books, Alison Angell, vice president of strategic partnerships for the publisher’s school reading events, said in an email.

The new program builds on a previous initiative that Angell said provided 20 million free books to students for nearly two decades.

But the company seeks to lower obstacles to books in a number of ways, Angell said.

The company creates its own low-cost products if it can’t find one from another publisher. They work with publishers to provide less expensive editions of popular books, and a portion of best-selling titles are marked $5 or less.

For poor districts where a book fair isn’t feasible, Angell said Scholastic has a sponsorship program. It connects under-resourced schools with nonprofits and local businesses to underwrite the costs. They have connected more than 100 sponsors to support nearly 2,000 schools, she said, creating “full fair experiences” where students are able to pick up to five books for free in some cases, she said.

Scholastic also works directly with districts to use federal funds, grant money, and Scholastic Dollars to make fully free fairs, Angell said.

“Ensuring every child has access to books and all the life-changing benefits they bring is our essential work,” Angell said.

There’s no one way to do a free book fair model

There are ways to be creative, school librarians said: book swaps, community book drives, local grant funding, thrift stores, book wholesalers, partnerships with local businesses, and picking up advance reader copies at conferences are all ways to give out books for free.

It doesn’t have to be a full book fair in the first year, either. Librarians can start small, and build up to bigger, school-wide events in subsequent years.

Instead of a full fair, Pentland said that one event she holds is a virtual author visit, where she buys 20 copies of the book to provide to the students for free, and sends the author bookplates to sign. When the author sends them back, the students have a signed book addressed to them. She’s had students come up to her and say it’s the first book they’ve ever owned.

“Being able to have your own copy of a book is magical for students who have never been able to do that before,” Pentland said. “The spark that was in their eyes that they have a book that belongs to them, that they get to keep, that they get ownership ovear—it provides this opportunity to engage with that material in a different way than when you are assigned a book in English or borrow one from the library.”

It takes time and effort, Stivers said. But it’s worth it.

“There is some really beautiful energy around a school book fair. They can offer a pathway to more books in the home, which we know is important, and they also generate a lot of interest amongst teachers, and so it’s a very collaborative event, and a schoolwide event about literacy always feels like a win,” she said. “That’s why I didn’t want to give up on the idea of a book fair.”

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