Founded in 1920, Scholastic has grown to become the largest publisher of children’s books in the world. Although it holds exclusive U.S. publishing rights to the Harry Potter books, the company is probably best known for publishing and selling books and educational materials through mail order programs in schools and book fairs. But more recently it has expanded into other media including animated shows and videogames, changes that the CCFC feels are inappropriate for a company that markets to children.
The organization has begun an effort to convince Scholastic to halt the sale of non-book materials to children. “Scholastic’s book clubs have become a Trojan horse for marketing toys, trinkets, and electronic media – many of which promote popular brands,” the CCFC website says. “A review by CCFC of Scholastic’s elementary and middle school book clubs found that one-third of the items for sale are either not books or are books packaged with other items such as jewelry and toys. Items sold by Scholastic in 2008 included the M&M’s Kart Racing Wii videogame, the Princess Room Alarm, Monopoly SpongeBob SquarePants Edition computer game, lip gloss and a Hannah Montana bracelet.”
As part of the campaign, parents are being encouraged to send a pre-generated email to Scholastic CEO Richard Robinson and Scholastic Book Clubs President Judy Newman. The email reads in part, “The opportunity to sell directly to children in schools is a privilege, not a right. Schools grant Scholastic unique commercial access to children because of its reputation as an educational publisher. But Scholastic is abusing that privilege by flooding classrooms across the country with ads for products and brands that have little educational value and compete with books for children’s attention and families’ limited resources. There’s no justification for marketing an M&M videogame or lip gloss in elementary schools.”
But Newman countered by asserting that the program had to change in order to stay relevant to children, and that while she respects the CCFC, she is “more attentive” to teachers, who are largely supportive of the program. “We’re losing kids’ interest. We have to keep them engaged,” she told Washington D.C. radio station WTOP. “This [book club] model is 60 years old, and it has to stay relevant to do the work it does. To the extent we put in a few carefully selected non-book items, it’s to keep up the interest.”
The CCFC has earned a reputation for overreacting to any perceived threat to children, but in all fairness I think they have a valid point this time around. Kotaku notes that only 14 percent of the items Scholastic sells aren’t books and that includes supplies like pencils, erasers and notebooks, but it’s not a bad idea to have someone tap the company on the shoulder every now and then to remind it what it’s actually here for. Newman is absolutely correct when she says Scholastic has to stay relevant, but its unique role in schools also gives it an obligation to stay true to its mandate: Teaching kids to read.