The New York Times today, in an article by Motoko Rich, reports some criticism of Scholastic Book Clubs. Here’s the lead:
Scholastic Inc., the children’s publisher of favorites like the Harry Potter, Goosebumps and Clifford series, may be best known for its books, but a consumer watchdog group accuses the company of using its classroom book clubs to push video games, jewelry kits and toy cars.
The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, an advocacy group based in Boston, said that it had reviewed monthly fliers distributed by Scholastic last year and found that one-third of the items sold in these brochures were either not books or books packaged with other items.
I worked on the book clubs from 1985-90, and this kind of thing has always been an issue. Back then, it was more centered on the types of books offered — media tie-ins (Voltron, Transformers, Care Bears) vs. “real” books. Poster sales have always been an issue.
A page from Lucky Book Club.
Of course, there are profits in the non-book items. But the company always has to be careful in striking a balance, because teachers are the gate-keepers: They either hand out the book clubs, or throw them in the trash. I think this kind of watchdog group plays a vital role, and I’m glad to see it. Moreover, many teachers don’t realize the kind of power they wield. Believe me, complaints and comments are taken very seriously. Teachers function as sales representatives for Scholastic; and if they — or you — are not happy with the product, they — or you — have the ability to effect positive change.
What do you think? Is this a tempest in a teapot, or a real issue?
For me, it’s an issue that touches home. “Book-and-thing” publishing — most effectively pioneered, I believe, by Workman Press, has become a staple for Scholastic. Sometimes it’s value added, sometimes it’s simply a way to raise revenue (witness the 39 Clues marketing machine at work). New Jigsaw Jones titles are no longer sold in trade. I get the opportunity to write one when the clubs make that call — and they will sell it the best way they can. My latest title, which I’ve documented here, will be packaged with a “Spy Ear.” It’s a cool item, I think, and I weaved it directly into the story (at Scholastic’s request, and with my complete agreement). I’m excited about it, the creative process was fun, and I think everybody involved is trying to make a quality product that kids will read and enjoy. The book is very good, in my biased opinion, and could certainly stand alone; my only regret is that it will be available exclusively through the clubs, nowhere else. But on the other hand, I see how my series, something I’m very proud of, is in a way being turned into merchandise. But if not, does it go away completely? Is it “book and more” or “book as Other?” Where is the line?
At the same time, we live in the real world. Books are products, and they need to sell. The only difference here is the role of the teachers as gatekeepers, and Scholastic’s unique position in schools. It is the checks and balances of capitalism. Scholastic will only go as far as teachers, and parents, allow them to go.
My husband taught 5th grade last year and he never seemed to care about the additional merchandise sold in book order forms. I myself noticed that some kids ordered toys and the like but most of them went for the books.
I think this issue might be tied to a school’s income level. If kids are well off, they’ll probably order books AND toys and so what’s the problem? But it seems in bad taste to peddle toys to kids with lower incomes when you’re hoping the book order forms will spark an interest in reading.
Parker, thanks for your comment. And congratulations on your great new blog, The Spectacle (which I put on my blogroll two days ago). Wonderful stuff already. I especially liked the entry on “Magic Realism,” a subgenre that I really like. I’ve often thought about dabbling in it myself. I am decidedly not a wizards and dragons kind of full-blown fatasy, but I do love strangeness, exaggeration, the twilight zone where the magical enters the world of straight realism. I think of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, when a character — a grandmother in “100 Years of Solitude,” if I recall correctly — was out doing laundry and then, suddenly and mysteriously, floated off into the sky. Strange, bizarre, and yet matter-of-fact and so metaphorically true.
Regarding book clubs, at my house we simply say, “I’m not buying any junk, pick out a book.” Easy. But the complexity is in Scholastic’s place in schools — a teacher sends it home, thereby giving it her tacit stamp of approval. The worst nightmare for Scholastic is for teachers to decide a club is unworthy of her support. All the power rests with teachers, but they often don’t exercise it.
I’m glad you liked the post about Magic Realism. It’s such a fascinating genre, and people really have opinions about what comprises it.
I remember as a kid I got a Jeopardy computer game from a book order form. It was awesome–somewhat academic and definitely not junk.