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Commercial side of school book fairs prompts concerns


Charlie Breitrose

Natick Bulletin and Tab

May 15, 2008

Natick - A school book sale sounds as pure and innocent as mother and apple pie, but the organizers of the Johnson Elementary School book fair went with a new bookseller because they believed the one they had used previously had become too commercialized.

For many years, Johnson used the Scholastic Inc. book publisher for the annual book sale, but this year they decided to change, said parent and book fair co-coordinator Melissa Kenny Probst.

"There are a lot of good things about having a book fair: it promotes literacy, it is a way of raising money for the library, but at the same time it introduced this commercial element to the school,'' Probst said.

More and more, the books provided for the fairs included those featuring characters from television and movies, such as Sponge Bob, said Kathy Branagan, a parent and co-coordinator of the book fair.

"Those books are popular with younger children, because they recognize the characters,'' Branagan said. "The problem is the books are not as lasting as other books. When they buy them, children don't want to read them over and over.''

At some schools the sales include items not expected to be seen at a book fair, such as Bratz dolls, Probst said. She has also been inspired by the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, which is trying to be a counter to the large amount of marketing aimed at children.

"With what's happening in larger society, how are we going to protect our children?'' Probst said. "There are issues form childhood obesity, or child trying to grow up too fast, and being vulnerable. It's all tied in together.''

The Johnson book fair, Probst said, provided an opportunity for the school to make a difference.

"Our independent book fair is a small effort to try to change that,'' Probst said.

The school is not alone in pushing back against commercialization. This year, state Rep. Peter Koutoujian, D-Waltham, sponsored a bill that would study the affects of advertising and commercialism on children and prevent advertising for products or consumer services on school property. The bill is still pending.

Finding an alternative book provider became a bit of a challenge, Branagan said.

"My Google search was not turning up anything,'' Branagan said. "Luckily, Wellesley Booksmith told me about Book Fairs by Book Ends.''

The Winchester-based group provided a wide variety of books from several publishers.

"They have a series of books that children like and new ones that (the children) haven't seen before,'' Branagan said. "It was like having Wellesley Booksmith come into our school.''

The difference was noticeable, she said.

"It was not just parents, but I was surprised by number of kids that came up to me and said `I really like the selection,''' Branagan said.

Johnson Principal Barb Brown said generally the book fair was a big success.

"I definitely think it was a higher caliber of children's literature,'' Brown said. "The only drawback was the books were a little bit more expensive. We want to make sure everyone can afford the books.''


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