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The nostalgic joys of the Scholastic Book Fair, explained

Scholastic Book Fair Scholastic Book Fair
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Few school-sponsored enrichment programs lend themselves to genuine nostalgia. The Presidential Fitness Test? Most people compartmentalize the memories of that one, lest they lead to traumatic flashbacks. DARE? In retrospect, a pretty hilarious failure, but not exactly the stuff of back-to-school daydreams.

But the Scholastic Book Fair? That week where your elementary school was packed full of books and pens and erasers and you could just wade right on in and go wild? Oh, man, that’s the good stuff.

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Scholastic Book Fair nostalgia suffuses social media, from Twitter to Tumblr to Instagram to Facebook. “not to sound dramatic but the scholastic book fair in elementary school is the most pure and genuinely happy place i’ve ever experienced in my life,” says one Tumblr post. “Marry someone who makes you feel the way you felt during scholastic book fair week in grade school,” says a tweet.

Here’s why the annual event creates such strong, sentimental memories.

The Scholastic Book Fair inspires authentic analog nostalgia that goes back for decades

Every year, Scholastic holds 120,000 book fairs at schools across the US, and more internationally. The company has been putting on regional fairs since the 1970s and nationwide fairs since the ’80s, so Gen Xers, millennials, and Gen Zers alike grew up with the tradition of filing into the school library — or gym or cafeteria or auditorium or wherever your school could fit book tables — and finding pile after pile of riches, as if the perfect independent bookstore had come to your school and set up shop, just for a week, just for you. (After the fair is over, either a percentage of the revenue or some of the remaining stock goes to the school, in exchange for hosting the event.)

At my elementary school, the book fair was held in the library, during parent-teacher conferences. The idea was that parents could pick up their children’s report cards, and then they could take their kids to the book fair as a reward for good grades or an impetus to improve during the next term — so for me, Scholastic Book Fair nostalgia is inextricably associated with smart-kid smugness, parental approval, and the weird milk-and-sweat-and-paper smell of my school library, which was crammed into a corner of the basement next to the cafeteria/gym.

The smell of the book fair is a recurring theme in book fair nostalgia, in part because it speaks to the appealingly old-school nature of the whole thing. Though the Scholastic Book Fair has certainly evolved since it started in the ’70s — today’s fairs are bigger than they used to be, Scholastic is trying to offer a more diverse selection of titles, and there’s an official app now — at its heart, it’s is still a bunch of tables stacked with books. That’s what it’s always been, and barring some major and unexpected demographic changes in our use of e-books, that’s what it always will be. Which means it smells the same now as it did when it started in the ’70s as it did in my childhood as it did in 2007: like new books and possibility. That’s a powerfully nostalgic idea.

The book fair is also indelibly linked with the books you fell in love with there, the way only kids can quite fall in love with books; the books you read over and over until their covers fell off. Scholastic tends to crowd the fair selection with recent releases and frontlist titles (which translates to about 80 percent of the offerings having been released within the past year), so for me that was Walk Two Moons and Harry Potter and Ella Enchanted. For a kid attending the Scholastic Book Fair today, it might be Clayton Byrd Goes Underground or Wishtree.

“One of the things we do best at Scholastic Book Fairs is help kids discover those breakthrough books — books like Harry Potter, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Because of Winn-Dixie, Captain Underpants, and Wonder,” says Alan Boyko, president of Scholastic Book Fairs. “Books like these create an insatiable appetite for reading.”

Part of the mission of the fair, Boyko says, is to create that insatiable appetite: “The difference between a dormant reader and an engaged, enthusiastic reader is access to great books and a lot of time spent reading self-chosen books,” he told me. The book fair provides kids with a wide selection of books that they don’t have to read for school and that they can select for themselves, and books that they can keep forever and dog-ear and scribble in and otherwise mark up — which means that for a lot of kids, it represents the moment that the act of reading transitions from an obligation to a choice.

And in some cases, the book fair provides that option for communities that can’t offer it year-round. ”Scholastic Book Fairs are really a lifeline to book ownership,” says Boyko. “I remember visiting a school located in Manhattan, the heart of New York City. The principal said how wonderful it was to have a book fair because they didn’t have a bookstore within walking distance. I thought, ‘In Manhattan?!’ I was astonished. So we bring the store to schools, big and small, across the country. At the same time, we deliver book fairs to remote locations. We’ve even delivered book fairs by bush plane and ferry.”

So the tradition of the annual Scholastic Book Fair means an introduction to the immense, immersive pleasures of reading as a child; it means a greedy and childish sense of ownership over crisp and beautiful new books (I use greedy and childish here as positive terms, not pejorative ones; a child’s greed for books is a wonderful thing); and it means participating in a tradition that stretches back for decades and remains largely unchanged. You can imagine going to a Scholastic Book Fair in 1977 and experiencing basically the same thing that you would experience in 2017, and that’s a profoundly nostalgic idea.

“Having been in this business for such a long time, there is great nostalgia around book fairs,” says Boyko. “Everyone remembers the book fair.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article said that Scholastic does book fairs at 120,000 US schools a year. They actually do 120,000 fairs at US schools every year, with some schools holding multiple fairs.