Marlene Perez's "Dead Is the New Black" is a young adult novel with a noirish pink and black cover and a supernatural plot. If it ever becomes the next sensation, give some credit to middle-schoolers such as Geneva Lish.
"It really caught my eye," says Lish, a seventh grader. "It has an unusual plot and a unique power. And the title is intriguing."
Lish didn't buy the book online or at a store. She was among the students at J.H.S. 167 in Manhattan who recently visited the Scholastic Book fair, shopping on the stage of the school's auditorium as they looked through graphic novels, fantasy, children's cookbooks and a Life Magazine volume about President Obama.
They purchased Stephenie Meyer's "Twilight" novels, the latest "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" and Linda Gerber's "Death by Latte," a mystery set in part at a Seattle coffee shop. Ashley Zhang, another seventh grader, bought Mari Mancusi's "Gamer Girl," featuring a lonely high-schooler who becomes a star when playing online games.
"I borrowed it from a friend and thought it was fascinating. I like that it's about a girl who really wants to fit into the world," Zhang says.
During a hard time for publishing, and for education, the fairs remain a relatively stable source of income. According to a recent report from the Scholastic Corporation, revenues from fairs for the nine months ending Feb. 28 was $261.2 million, virtually unchanged from the same ninth-month period a year earlier.
"I've never met one parent who said, `My kid has too many books.' ... You might cut a lot of things out. You might cut out a toy. You're not going to cut out a book," says Scholastic's president of book fairs, Alan Boyko.
The fairs not only reaffirm what's popular, but anticipate the hits. Before "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" was a million seller with the general public, it was catching on at fairs. Gordon Korman's "Swindle" sold half a million copies at fairs, far more than at stores, according to Scholastic. "Captain Underpants" and "The Chronicles of Vladimir Todd" are other series that were discovered early at fairs.
"We felt that the fair exposure to the books ... probably helped to get it (`Wimpy Kid') to No. 1 in retail. They see it and go to the bookstore," says Michael Jacobs, CEO and president of "Wimpy Kid" publisher Harry N. Abrams Inc.
"`Dead Is the New Black' was my first book at the school fairs and I can tell you when it hit the fairs, my e-mails from readers really spiked," says Perez, whose other books include "The Comeback" and "Love in the Corner Pocket."
Book fairs have been around for decades, although the field now is largely controlled by Scholastic. The publisher says its business has grown from around 8,000 annual fairs in the early 1980s, with sales of around $5.5 million, to around 120,000 fairs expected this year.
The field is enticing enough that Barnes & Noble, Inc., has steadily increased its own fairs by double digits over the past few years, to over 10,000 in 2008, according to the superstore chain's vice president of speciality marketing, Kim Brown.
"As the school budgets are tightened up, the parents - the PTA - are looking for different ways to fund-raise," Brown says. "Luckily, people save their discretionary income for their children."
Educators and parents welcome the money, with 25 percent or more of the take going back to the schools, but, as with the Scholastic book clubs, they worry about what's being sold. Scholastic fairs, like the clubs, often feature books that are tied to TV shows such as "Hannah Montana" or non-book products such as pencils, markers, toy banks and electronic games.
Susan Linn, director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, a national coalition of educators, health care professionals and parents, likens Scholastic's stature as a trusted educator to that of public television.
"Because of that, they're allowed a lot of leeway that other companies might not be allowed," says Linn, whose organization is based at the Judge Baker Children's Center in Boston. "And I think that Scholastic has been taking advantage of their privileged position."
Scholastic's Alan Boyko defends the inclusion of "Hannah Montana" books and other products, saying they are available along with such classics as "Charlotte's Web" and "A Wrinkle in Time" to make book fairs more fun and help attract reluctant readers. He says that selections are made with the input of educators and are tailored to individual schools, noting that some schools elect not to receive fantasy titles.
The book clubs and book fairs operate differently. Book club fliers include non-book items right along with the books. For fairs, schools can choose not to display, sell or promote any book or product shipped.
Linn acknowledges that school fair committees control what's sold, and raises an issue that parents and educators also debate: Schools may not want to stock some of the materials, but the materials they object to often are as popular, or more popular, than the items.
"The schools can make decisions, but there's also pressure to put everything out because they make money for the schools," Linn says. "But the products are likely to be distracting from the books. The kids are going to want to buy them."
Libby Jordan, the co-president of J.H.S. 167's parents association, said that for this year the school withheld more than half of the more commercial materials until the fair's last day, allowing time for students to shop for books only and enabling the school to raise money from the non-book products.
"Scholastic recognizes that this is our book fair, so they're happy to have us sell whatever sells for us," Jordan says.
Connie Freitas, a librarian at the Edwin Markham Middle School in Placerville, Calif., says that she has asked Scholastic not to send the non-book products, but receives them anyway. She will sell pencils and erasers, but keeps other products in a back room where the students can't see them.
"I really don't need that stuff and when I did put it out, a lot of it got stolen," she says. "Sometimes, the kids say to me, `Where's all the goodies, like they have at the other schools?' And I say, `Well, I only want you to buy books."'
By Hillel Italie
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