If you asked me, some twenty Book Fairs ago, what I thought the purpose of a Book Fair was, I would have told you that it was a way to raise funds for the school and get some more books into the hands of students. Over the two decades of organizing these Fairs, my early career preconceptions have been thoroughly turned on their heads. Few are the occasions that elevate a school librarian to the status of ‘rock star’, but at St. Hilda’s & St. Hugh’s, this highly anticipated event has become a highlight of the school year. This year’s Book Fair, which was a return to our traditional in-person event, was typical of the Fairs that have preceded it. And over the years I have learned to take advantage of this momentum to make the Book Fair into a celebration of reading. Here is what I learned:
1. Book Fairs are ways for children to come together and share their joy of reading. In September, without fail, one question I am asked by many students is, “When’s the Book Fair?” Some other snippets overheard over the years include, “I can’t wait for the Book Fair,” “the Book Fair is my favorite,” and perhaps reflecting some pandemic rebound, was, “This is the best day of my life!”
2. Book Fairs fosters independent thinking and decision making. As humans, we crave autonomy and independence and this is no less true with children. I think part of the appeal of participating in the Book Fair is that children can exercise their self-reliance by selecting their books and being in charge of purchasing them. One week prior to the Book Fair, my lessons will include teaching the youngest children to locate the price of a book, encouraging my third and fourth graders to practice mental math when determining the total cost of their purchase, learning to stay within your budget, and financial etiquette (i.e.: the concept that it’s not polite to talk about how much money you are bringing to the Book Fair). All basic stepping stones to introducing students to the idea of being responsible consumers.
3. Librarians are the experts and we know our student’s reading preferences. This means circulating throughout the Fair and making tailored recommendations. At St. Hilda’s, we intentionally schedule our Book Fair the week before Memorial Day, and promote it as an opportunity for students to buy books for their summer reading. Our summer reading lists are distributed two weeks prior, so students have a chance to peruse books they might want to read. I quickly learned the reality that as much as I try to encourage the vendor to coordinate their inventory with my summer reading lists, inevitably, certain titles won’t be available. Students are reminded that the Book Fair does have an online presence, which is available to them until the end of the week.
4. It’s important to partner with a vendor that works for your planning situation. Over the years, I’ve collaborated with BookSmart, Allbook Fairs, Signature Fairs, and Scholastic. There have been benefits and disadvantages to each. For the past several years, Scholastic has been our retailer. One considerable drawback is Scholastic only provides titles belonging to their publishing house. This year’s very modest selection was particularly evident as pandemic shipping delays and indirect consequences of book banning affected the titles made available to us. However, if your staff of Book Fair volunteers is on the smaller side, then Scholastic remains a viable consideration as the set up and post event packing can be done in approximately two hours, leaving the remainder of the time to prep your Fair for the celebration you intend it to be (see point number six). All good work requires revision, and next year I hope to collaborate with Book Culture, Morningside Heights’ local independent bookstore.
5. Librarians are the promoters of Book Fairs. I use our school’s main public forum, the Gordon Chapel, to announce the coming of the Book Fair. I discuss the significance of the Book Fair by presenting a short talk to the student body on various book-related topics. This has included the history of Book Fairs, famous first lines of books, and my personal journey from reluctant reader to librarian. I’ve also spotlighted some of the various themes I’ve used over the years to generate excitement.
6. Celebratory decorations set a festive tone. Though it can be a cliché, themes can be useful. Enchanted Forest of Stories, Reading Is So Delicious, and Splash into Reading have been some of my best-loved over the years. This year’s theme, Reading Colors Your World was borrowed from iRead’s 2021 Reading Program. This seemed to me an appropriate motif for our return to an in-person Book Fair, as we could all use a little color in our lives after two challenging years. Drew Daywalt’s, The Day the Crayons Quit, Hervé Tullet’s, Press Here, and YuYi Morales’, The Dreamers were the inspiration for our Book Fair decor and the art for our summer reading lists. All visuals were purchased last year via iRead’s website.
7. Finally, you can’t go wrong with a raffle. I set up an estimation station, where children can guess the correct number of objects in a jar. Keeping with the theme of the Book Fair, this year it was crayons. The prize is a $25 gift certificate to be used at the following year’s Fair.
Book Fairs are a lot of work. There are a seemingly endless number of details to attend to, and the event itself is a two day marathon I often call the Olympics of Readers Advisory. Every year, however, the smiling faces of my students leading up to, during, and even a week after the Fair make it all worthwhile. Many thanks to my amazing colleague Lilian Kysar, Library Assistant, who deserves much of the credit for all that goes into making a successful Book Fair.
St. Hilda’s & St. Hugh’s
C.V. Starr Library