I Worked At The School Book Fair And It Completely Destroyed The Magic

"For a lot of us book-lovers, the book fair of our childhood holds a misty, sepia-tinted place in our memories."
The author in her reading nest as a child.
The author in her reading nest as a child.
Photo Courtesy of Emily McCombs

I was the definitive bookworm as a child ― one of my main hobbies was building a “reading nest” out of pillows and blankets in which to read undisturbed. I was the kind of kid who sat against a wall at recess and read, who overloaded those plastic book sacks that tied with a string with library books until they burst, who got in trouble for hiding a paperback in my textbook so I could read for pleasure during class.

You know, the kind of kid who was known to read a book while walking. If you’ve done it, you get it, and you’re my kind of people.

Books and reading unlocked a different world to me, one that wouldn’t have been accessible to an evangelical Christian girl from Bible Belt Oklahoma, in a town that consisted primarily of fast food restaurants and churches. Books exposed me to different perspectives, when everyone around me seemed to subscribe to the same myopic worldview. I credit the fact that I eventually was able to leave and build a different kind of life for myself largely to being a voracious childhood reader. After all, how would I have known there were any other options if books hadn’t shown me?

Further, when I was lost in a book, I wasn’t thinking about the kids who bullied me mercilessly every day at school, or the simmering shame I felt for basically just existing without fitting into the rigidly drawn boundaries everyone else seemed to find comfortable. Books were a relief from a reality that sometimes felt too painful to sit inside without the escape hatch reading provided me.

For a lot of us book-lovers, the book fairs of our childhood hold a misty, sepia-tinted place in our memories. It’s high-octane millennial nostalgia that garners hundreds of thousands of likes and shares when reminisced about on social media. As a generation, we remember the book fair as the apex of childhood magic.

In fact, it was sharing a nostalgic book fair meme on social media that got me roped into volunteering at one in the first place. Shortly after posting it, I received the following DM from my friend, a fellow school mom who also happened to be an officer in the PTA.

We were joking, but she really did add me to the committee.
We were joking, but she really did add me to the committee.
Photo Courtesy of Emily McCombs

We were joking, but she actually added me to the email thread for the book fair committee, despite the fact that I am a notorious non-joiner when it comes to the PTA. (I went to one meeting when my son was in pre-K, and found it so contentious and stressful that I swore it off forever.)

So I was painted into a corner, but I also started to get a little into the idea, because again, I really loved the freaking book fair. It has also been a joy seeing my son experience his own book fairs. While he’s never really gotten into reading for pleasure, he still gets hyped for those journals that lock and invisible ink pens and whatever video game guide he picks out when I insist he purchase an actual book.

Book fairs, which started in 1981 with the first Scholastic fair, usually involve a division of labor between the book company and volunteers from the PTA or the school library. According to this Mental Floss article on the history of school book fairs, “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.”

There was a LOT of work to be done for our school’s book fair, most of which I did not feel qualified for or have the time to do. Could I “manage creating the flyers, announcements, posters and principal’s letter from Scholastic templates?” Or assist with the “translation of all content into Mandarin?” Maybe I was qualified to be the “book fair social media manager,” but I had my doubts. I fully admit I was not very helpful with the organization aspect of the fair.

But I did sign up for daily shifts during the week-long fair, which, having worked several customer service jobs that involved a cash register in my adolescence, I figured I could handle.

Sitting behind that cash register for the first time was a rush, so much so that I made a PTA dad snap my pic so I could post it on my Instagram with the caption, “5th grade me is losing my shit right now.”

The author working at the Scholastic Book Fair.
The author working at the Scholastic Book Fair.
Photo Courtesy of Emily McCombs

It was all there! The Lamborghini posters, the little erasers that looked and smelled like food items, and of course the rows and rows of books for sale. Depending on the shift time, teachers brought their classes through or kids stopped by with parents after school hours. I mostly worked the register, and other volunteers circulated and helped the kids make their choices.

In some ways it was still a wonderland. But here’s what I quickly discovered about working at the school book fair: 90% of the job was telling kids they couldn’t afford what they had picked out. Maybe, like the little kids, they didn’t realize that they needed money to get a book. Maybe, like nearly all the kids, they didn’t understand that they would be charged sales tax, and when it was included, their carefully calculated book pile came up to more than they had to spend.

“I don’t know a tax!” one incredible little girl yelled at me when I tried to explain.

I watched face after tiny face fall as I explained that they just didn’t have enough money. Besides dashing little spirits, the whole thing took a highlighter to the inequity between students, as it was easy to see who had ample funds to spend and who had nothing. Instead of the sparkly rainbow gel pen magic I remembered, the whole experience was sort of a giant bummer.

My child goes to school, and we live in a community in which 29% of residents live below the poverty line. To the school’s credit, they allocated some of the PTA money into a fund for students who did not have any money to spend at the fair, something I don’t remember happening back when I was attending them. Each student who didn’t have their own money could spend $5 from the PTA fund, which was at least enough to get a cheap paperback or a pen.

It wasn’t perfectly or consistently executed, but it made the whole thing bearable. If it hadn’t been for that PTA fund, I honestly don’t think I could have stomached the job.

My own class background has had an enormous impact on my life. I’m from a relatively small town in Oklahoma known for its tornadoes, and neither of my parents had graduated from college when I was young. (My dad eventually went back and received a degree when I was an adult.) The per capita income there was $17,689 in 2000. My mom was the breadwinner for our family, and my father did hard physical labor outside as a landscaper for most of my childhood, and was sometimes unemployed. We lived paycheck to paycheck.

When I moved to New York for college, which was funded largely by scholarships and student loans, I experienced enormous culture shock. I didn’t understand before I arrived that some people’s parents simply paid for college ― their entire tuition ― out of pocket. I didn’t know, when my hours-new roommates suggested buying a rug for our dorm room, that they would expect me to contribute money to a $90 version they picked out from Urban Outfitters. I certainly didn’t know that to get a foothold in my chosen career I’d be expected to somehow provide for myself while working unpaid internships, and taking 20-30k entry-level salaries in a city known for its exorbitant rent prices.

But while my class background is very different from most of my peers in the media industry in New York, I still benefit from enormous privilege. I am white, to name the biggie, and also managed to get myself to college by the grace of supportive parents who helped me fill out the forms for financial aid and paid what they could. I have always had a home and never remember going to bed hungry. And my family had enough that I had something to spend when book fair time rolled around.

I asked around on social media for memories from those who didn’t have enough money to buy anything at their childhood book fairs, and the conversations we had echoed my experience at my son’s fair. For kids who loved books and reading but were also poor, book fair time could be a painful memory.

Missy, who like the others I spoke with, agreed to be quoted by first name, remembers: “During the book fairs, it wasn’t about loving books. It was what the kids could buy.” Instead, her single mom would drop her off at the library where she would spend hours lost in the stories.

Katherine, who grew up poor, has such residual trauma from her childhood book fairs that she wept last year when she accidentally missed an email about her kid’s book fair and sent her without money. She remembers the fair as another in a series of alienating elementary school experiences like being the kid who “never had a snack packed at snack time.”

And Mary, who was also raised by a single mom who “barely got by,” was so embarrassed about not having money to spend like her classmates that a few times she skipped eating so she could buy something cheap, like an eraser.

Devi remembers the school’s handling of the fair exacerbating the shame of the experience. “They would tell everyone there wasn’t a lot of room, so if we weren’t planning on buying anything we would be told to wait out of the way... I remember they had us wait in another room sometimes if we ‘couldn’t participate.’”

I got a LOT of messages from people who grew up poor and remember book fair time as upsetting and alienating. This is not an isolated experience ― but it’s one I never see represented when we talk about book fairs.

School book fairs are positioned as sort of altruistic, because the price points are low, and the school sometimes receives a portion of the proceeds. And it’s true that they promote reading (although I can count on one hand the number of kids I saw buy actual books as opposed to novelty items like the pens), and that they get books into (some) hands. And they obviously provided enormous joy to many of us who were able to participate in them.

But in the end, the book fair is about using mostly volunteer labor to sell things to kids, some of whom can’t afford to buy them. And I’m willing to bet those (like me) who remember the book fair with such hyper-fondness are the ones who had money to spend there.

“Every time I see memes about the book fair, I feel a little pit of sadness in my stomach,” says Ingrid. “There’s something very lonely about feeling misunderstood about what seems to be a general consensus about a shared childhood memory where many other people have happy feelings about something that brought me a lot of pain.”

I’m not saying book fairs are bad or should be eliminated. Funds like my son’s school provided, when allocated discreetly and consistently, go a long way to making the fair a good experience for every child. I really don’t want to be the lady who ruins book fairs for people, because again, I also freaking loved them. I’m just pointing out that there’s another layer that is being missed in our rosy reminiscing, and that it wasn’t all sunshine and kitten posters for everyone.

And honestly, don’t we all deserve a kitten poster?

Emily McCombs is the deputy editor of HuffPost Personal. She writes and edits first-person essays on all topic areas including identity (race, gender, sexuality, etc.), love and relationships, sex, parenting and family, addiction and mental health, and body politics.

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