Pat Clark believes in school bookselling… honestly.
My children’s new school term always brings `Dates for your Diary’ and a groan from me. Yes, there it is – the Bookfair. Why do I groan? I examine my conscience. It’s not that I don’t want my children to own books, it’s simply that I resent being told that by buying books I can increase the school’s income. Given a choice, I’d prefer to send a donation and avoid the emotional blackmail. I also resent the feeling of guilt as I throw the advertising leaflet into the bin, and most of all I resent having to strengthen my children’s resolve as they face the implicit criticism of their teachers when asked why they stillhave not brought back the order form.
Before anyone thinks I’ve lost all sense of proportion, perhaps I ought to explain.
First, let me make it clear that I fully appreciate the educational reasons for selling books in schools. It’s not my intention to condemn the entire practice. What bothers me are some of the selling methods.
There are now several companies which offer schools a very comprehensive service and attractive commission. This service includes advice for teachers, leaflets and order forms for pupils, delivery and collection of books, and commission in cash or kind. For the hard-pressed teacher this can appear as the answer to a prayer but… there are sometimes less attractive features.
- No company staff are left in the school, so all the selling, collecting of money, etc. has to be done by teachers, ancillaries or parents. Often children are tempted to spend their money on peripherals – posters, notebooks, etc. – which means they then have less to spend on books. Also the receipts from these items are not included in the calculation of the school’s commission. It’s easy to understand how children are seduced into these purchases, especially if the books on sale aren’t very appealing.
- Often books from well-established, highly-respected children’s authors and publishers are outnumbered by TV spin-offs, American pulp serials (e.g. `Sweet Valley High’) and novelty books. There’s little information about the reading or interest age of the books and, frequently, the name of the author isn’t listed. How is a parent supposed to help a child choose wisely?
- Many parents also complain that there’s little turnover of stock, so when they’ve had one Book Sale the children cannot find another book to buy. The parent then faces the prospect of sending back an empty form and appearing not to support the school’s attempt to raise money.
- This restricted choice also becomes a problem for schools which choose to take their commission in books. Usually they’re only able to choose from the existing stock – so the children are being presented yet again with the same uninspiring titles in the library or classroom!
Now, I’ll admit I’m very much in favour of schools using local booksellers for practical as well as philosophical reasons. To take the latter first. Bookfairs are by their nature occasional and will not be around when children want to buy books at other times of the year. This is when they need a local bookshop. However, if the bookshop doesn’t get regular business throughout the year it may not survive and therefore won’t be there when you need it.
Of course, there may be some disadvantages in using a local bookseller. The school will not get an enormous commission: 10% is the norm and perhaps 12% for a very big event. Rarely will the bookseller provide attractively produced publicity leaflets. On the other hand, the school can have a say in which books are brought for sale, it won’t be expected to provide sales staff or handle all the money and it will have freedom to buy whichever books it wants with its commission. A good bookseller will also assist in contacting children’s publishers and may be able to get posters, authors’ photographs, free bookmarks, etc. to help advertise the venture. They may also be able to offer help in arranging an author visit. Some have children’s book experts in the shop who will be able to suggest authors and titles suitable for particular pupils.
There’s more to books than selling them
Now is the time to reveal my guilty secret… I’m not just a mother who dislikes some Book Events, I’m an English teacher with a passionate interest in children’s literature, who’s been responsible for a whole range of book-related activities for pupils aged 5 to 16. Underlying all that I’ve done has been my firm conviction that books should be sold in schools for their own sake, not to raise money. Consequently, anxiety over which option gives the highest rate of commission to the school is, in my opinion, the wrong priority.
The guiding principle should be how we can persuade children to read for pleasure. Ignoring all the debate on how and why children learn to read, it’s incontrovertible that if children develop the habit of reading they have a hobby and means of relaxation which they can pursue, no matter what their academic achievements and future employment. Selling books should, therefore, be just one of many strategies schools adopt to encourage children to become readers. The pleasure of owning a book to which you can return at any time, which you can lend to others and which is yours, not the school’s or the library’s, is one which should be experienced by all children, irrespective of any financial benefit to the school.
If you agree with me, as a parent or a teacher, and want to encourage children to read and own books for pleasure, do not despair. It can be done.
What to do
One of the best ways to convey the pleasure of books to children who are not natural readers is to adopt some of the techniques of advertisers. We all know the psychology which makes us associate a particular product with a pleasurable experience – so why not do the same with books? Go all out for a Book Week/Month/Event or whatever and involve as many people as possible in fun events.
- Make your Book Event a community event. Invite parents, grandparents, neighbours, dinner ladies, `lollipop’ men and women, caretakers, governors, etc. to come to the school and share books with children. Perhaps you’ll discover a talented local storyteller or be able to take advantage of an ethnically mixed catchment area to introduce children to stories from different cultures.
- Make sure you publicise everything widely – through the local press, noticeboards in local shops, as well as letters home to parents.
- If you’re going to have books on sale, arrange a time at the beginning or end of the day so parents can browse when delivering or collecting their children. If possible, have an evening session when working parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and others can call in.
- Make sure that all classes have a scheduled time when they can visit the bookshop to browse and choose books. They should be able to put them to one side and buy them later after discussion with their parents.
- Involve as many staff as possible by asking their advice about which books to offer for sale and what to spend the commission on afterwards.
There are lots of fun things which can be done: fancy-dress parades of book characters (this is even more enjoyable if all the staff take part, too), book quizzes, drama presentations. based on books and so on. There’s also a great deal of valuable work which can be developed from a Book Event. Mathematical work can be based on the construction of books – calculating area of words to pictures; computing the 16-page format in which all books are produced, to give a couple of obvious examples. There is, of course, vast scope for Art and Design and some basic technology, as well as the usual English tasks involved in pupils producing their own books.
Conscious of the demands of the National Curriculum, teachers can arrange oral activities ranging from discussion of the books’ suitability for age-groups and examination of the language, to organised visits to other schools/playgroups so that pupils can `test out’ their books on real audiences. The scope for developing work across the curriculum is immense.
There is one other activity which is worth mentioning – Author Visits. It’s difficult to over-estimate the impact a visit from an author or illustrator can have on children of all ages. At the most superficial level the children feel special because someone who has her/his name on a book has been to visit their class. More importantly, they gain an insight into a very substantial industry – they realise that books are manufactured and that writing or illustrating them is a real job. Many of the authors and illustrators who visit schools are very talented at working with children and can often enthuse young readers in a way which isn’t possible for the normal class teacher with whom they work every day.
Organising such a visit may seem daunting, but it’s well worth the effort and, if teachers follow a few basic guidelines, is quite manageable. If you have a local branch of the Federation of Children’s Book Groups, contact them and enlist their help and practical advice. Many book groups do this sort of thing regularly and have a good idea of which authors and illustrators do or do not like visiting schools. The Children’s Book Foundation’s Bookfax or Author Directory gives similar information and your local branch of the Arts Council will also be able to help.
For children to get the most out of contact with a writer they must be well prepared in advance. It’s the teacher’s responsibility to find out how much the writer expects the children to have read. Some authors like children to know their books, others prefer to present their work to an unprepared audience and receive a spontaneous reaction. Do canvass pupils and staff for their preferences and see if you can get their favourites. However, don’t be afraid to be adventurous and go for the less well-known, but clearly talented, newcomers to writing and illustrating.
In spite of all the reservations I have, I do think it’s worthwhile selling books in schools. The teachers organising the event must be very clear about their objectives and be ruthless in keeping control. Below I’ve isolated and pinpointed a few things to consider:
Commission: Rate – Cash or books – Freedom to spend – Restrictions
Stock: Wide selection of titles – Good range of publishers – Can specific requirements be catered for?
Publicity: Pupils – Staff – Parents – Others
Preparation: : Staff – Pupils
Follow-up Work: Staff – Pupils
Author Visits: Fee – Number and time of sessions – Size of groups
Above all remember that your over-riding priority should be the children’s access to a wide variety of good-quality literature if they are to become the book-buying and book-reading adults of the future.
Your school’s Book Event should be about books not fundraising. That’s the only way to make it fair.
Pat Clark is the current Chair of the Federation of Children’s Book Groups as well as being a mother and English teacher.
Illustrations here are by Frank Rodgers from B is for Book! published earlier this year by Viking (0 670 84099 8, £8.50) and by Shirley Hughes from Charlie Moon and the Big Bonanza Bust-Up (Bodley Head, 0 370 30918 9, £5.50; Young Lions, 0 00 672160 5, £2.25 pbk).