Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Have You Seen This?

Recently there was an article in the New York Times about Scholastic book clubs. I seem to remember a previous article that spoke out against Scholastic book clubs, but this is a fresh one. The article was about if Scholastic's inclusion of toys and games negates any good they might be doing. Some in the article feel the book club entirely too commercial and not literary enough. I can see the point being made--in a way--a video game is a video game is a video game. But lumping stickers, posters, educational board games (teaching math and whatnot) and craft books (be it oragami or necklace-making with beads) into the same 'evil' category seems a bit much. Okay, stickers and posters may not engage the mind, but are they harmful? With the educational board games and craft books I'm a bit stumped as to what the harm could be? See, both of those would be engaging the mind. It takes brain power to learn how to do a craft, and to actually do it. It is engaging your hands and your mind. And it is bound to be 'better' for the brain that watching television, playing on the computer, or playing video games. I'm curious now actually, the article is saying that kids may be ordering things just to get these goodies. Ordering a book...just to get a page of stickers. Really? I'm not saying that it couldn't happen. It might be happening. But while stickers are appealing--to some more than others--stickers are available in multiple places. It's not like there's a shortage of stickers. My thinking is at least it's not candy. I could see the outrage if it was order this book and I'll give you a bag of candy. But a page of stickers?

Personally, I'm a book girl. If a book came with something else--usually something I thought was silly or useless--that was besides the point.

If you're going to make a case against Scholastic--and I'm not saying you should--I would think that you'd target the kinds of books being included. The fluffy items of little literary value. The celebrity tie-ins. The movie-and-tv-show tie ins. The toy-tie-ins. They're a waste of money--in my humble opinion. Barely worth the paper they're printed on. Of course, there may be exceptions to the rules. And if the movie-was-a-book-first, I don't have a problem with the movie-tie-in book being included. If it's still the same book underneath.

But the bigger issue here is judgements. Who has the right to judge in this case? Is there any harm if a child chooses a fluffy un-literary book (High School Musical, Miley Cyrus, etc.) over something more literary? Is reading a book reading a book? Don't we all go through a phase where we're interested in the book-equivalent of junk food? Don't we all have to go through that phase at one point or another? Don't we all come out of it...in our own time...in our own way. For some readers, it may last a month or two...in others it might last a year or two. But things do get old....and tastes change...improve. If I'm honest I'd much rather a child pick up a book that I deem 'worthy' but really the point is that they're reading something, excited about something.

A further thought...who's doing the choosing here...and who should be doing the choosing? Isn't it up to the parents as to what they spend their own money on? Parents have the power--and ability--to say yes or say no (or say not now, not this month.) They can order quality books--yes, there are still quality books in these book orders. They can order junk--yes, there's plenty of junk. They can order a bit of both. They can let their kids pick out a book or two that may not be the best book in the entire world...but they can also order something else to balance it all out.

Is literacy being damaged by the book club? Or is it being encouraged? It really is a matter of balancing choices. As my mother says, food in and of itself isn't bad. It's your choices about food that can be good or bad. Some foods are better choices than others. But all food--in moderation, of course--can be okay. If you choose to buy junk food at the grocery store...who is responsible? The grocery store? The food manufacturers or companies? Or you? Do they all share the blame? I suppose you could always argue that Scholastic could be doing a 'better' job offering 'better' choices. And that would be true enough. But it's also equally true, that just because they offer junk, you don't have to choose it. No one forces you to give Scholastic money. Parents can make 'better' choices too if they're concerned about what their kids may be getting.

And for older kids, those that may have money on their own to spend. It can be a lesson--good or bad--on money management. If you buy something, and you're disappointed with it. Or you don't end up loving it as much as you thought you would. Or if it turned out to be a dud, poorly made, not worth what you spent on it...then that is a lesson. And it's something that you've got to learn on your own. You've got to be allowed to make these kinds of mistakes. And if you end up loving it, even if others don't understand just how you could...then that's a lesson too. Everyone has to learn personal responsibility and accountability for their choices.

What do YOU think? If you've got thoughts on this issue, please leave a comment...

© Becky Laney of Young Readers


  1. My response would be two-fold. First, I agree that the book orders don't offer enough quality or variety. Luckily, my son has a good teacher that collects a stack of the various forms and allows you to order across them to be able to pick a gem or two off of each flier.
    Yet, I don't think that this is reason to malign the program. If the fliers were full of award-winning books, it doesn't follow that more kids would choose to buy those books. They might not even look at the fliers. The "junk" is there to draw the kids in and hopefully while they are looking at the flier, they will see a book that is interesting and give it a try. And if they read about Hannah Montana, at least they are reading about her instead of watching her on tv.

  2. Excellent post, Becky. I especially like the last paragraph and last sentence. Personal responsibility is SO important, but an issue I don't hear much about in our society. We like to blame others, like Scholastic, for things we have pushed them to do by the buying choices we have made. If the only things people bought out of their book clubs were literary, high-quality books, you can bet that's all they'd put in their catalogs. But they don't- they include what sells. That's just a business decision and that's what Scholastic is- a business. I don't think we can blame them for that.

  3. I remember posting about this before as well. It's a double edged sword. I love buying my girl books but some of the books I question. I really don't like to buy a commercial in book form. We compromise though. She can have either a Barbie or Tinkerbell book, not both. The other books must be the 'quality' ones. I have the veto power in the end though. I've also said "No toys!" We're buying books here not toys. In the end, it's the parent who has to put their foot down.

  4. This is a very worthy discussion... you ask "Is literacy being damaged by the Scholastic book club? Or is it being encouraged? "
    I think it is encouraging literacy, because children are encouraged to buy books monthly. For some children that receive Scholastic Book Club catalogs, this is their only chance to buy books. They do not frequent book stores. The books are also well priced. They like the content they see and learn about choices in reading. Even though, in my family, we do not buy every month, my children come home excited to look through the selection and circle their choices. It promotes discussion about books and ultimately leads to more reading.
    That being said, I really do not like the video/media scholastic pamphlet and of course my children ask for things from that pamphlet too. It just puts me in the position of having to say "No, we do not buy those from Scholastic." However, some parents may like to buy those for their children and that is fine too.
    Your point about parents having the control is very important. We only buy from Scholastic occasionally and while I do allow them to choose some "commercial" books we then balance it with better literature. Scholastic offers a little something for everyone and parents who wish to be involved in their children's reading may filter and promote the reading of good literature along with some fun for down time.

  5. I posted on this a while back, as an author and former Scholastic book club copywriter. I know that business very, very well. And this is an old story, the struggle to find balance, that's been going on for many years.


    The point missing from this discussion, for me, is the unique role of the teacher as sales representative. When something comes home from school, it is quite different from a store setting or any other catalog. There is a tacit message that this is approved and endorsed by your child's teacher; that it is educational. However, sometimes commercial items overwhelm the literature, the "good stuff," and many kids come away with fluff. Is that the end of the world? Of course not. But as a company, Scholastic realizes that teachers are the lynchpin to their business. Scholastic works for and covets that support. The last thing in the world they want is to alienate a teacher. If a teacher writes to Scholastic and says, "Too much junk, I threw the March offer in the garbage can," -- and if those comments are reflected in overall sales -- then Scholastic will absolutely listen.

    On the other hand, if teachers can look at the balance of items and feel okay about it, then there's no problem.

  6. Jimmy, you make for a great point. I think teachers can make a difference. I hadn't thought of it as such. I in a way took it for granted. My sister teaches first grade and I know there are flyers/book clubs that she doesn't send home at times. I know that she looks them over and evaluates them first. Though I don't think she has ever considered writing Scholastic and letting them know that a particular flyer is too junky to send home.

    Back when she had more time--her first year or so starting out--she'd book talk certain books in the book club and make notes of which ones were especially recommended.

  7. Interesting thoughts! I used to teach first grade in an underprivileged neighborhood, and I tried to encourage the Scholastic order when it came around. I especially made a point of showing the kids which books were extra-cheap because their families had so little money. I also talked up the best books. I was a little disappointed when the kids went for the movie and TV tie-ins, but I didn't tell them that--if those books helped them become "people who read," I didn't want to be a naysayer in the slightest. They just liked the recognition factor, I think. As for toys and videos, it bothers me to think that this stuff would become a higher percentage of the offerings rather than three or four items per sales booklet; regardless of commercial decisions and parent choice, I feel there is some kind of abuse of power going on if Scholastic loses sight of its primary mission. If the only time a child like my students even has the possibility of buying a book becomes yet another pitch for a plastic toy, I do have a problem with that.