Getting children to read is one of the primary goals of schools, community education organizations, and parent groups, and one of the most popular ways of doing that is the book fair. Though schools do raise money through book fairs, most event coordinators and booksellers agree that the main goal is literacy. “Putting books into kids’ hands—not fundraising—is still the primary motivation for book fairs. There’s a lot of focus on making sure that children are reading,” says Alan Boyko, vice president of product development for Scholastic Inc., which provides book fairs to about 50,000 schools nationwide.

But running a book fair that will get kids excited about reading takes more than setting a date and contacting your local or national bookseller. According to the experts, you need to organize, publicize, merchandise—and don’t forget to make it fun.

The first step to book fair success is planning ahead and marshalling enough volunteers. “Start early and have a plan,” says Diane Trovato, who runs book fairs in the Boston area under the name Books, Books, Books. She recommends working with teachers, librarians, or reading specialists to coordinate book selections to curriculum and a chosen theme, as well as to student interests and reading levels.

Deborah Roberts Kaiser, field services manager for Scholastic, recommends that book fair coordinators correlate book selections with the school system’s core curriculum for literacy. To plan and organize the fair, Kaiser urges book fair chairs to make use of the materials Scholastic provides (posters, planning calendars, patterns for making bookmarks and banners, and an instructional video) and to participate in one of the many workshops the company holds in locations across the country. “The workshops are interactive, not like a lecture in a classroom,” says Kaiser. School coordinators get tips from the pros and share ideas with others on merchandising, organization, and how to expand on the book fair theme, which this year is “Dive Into Reading.”

Any Volunteers?

The most important factor in planning and organizing your book fair, Kaiser says, is getting enough volunteers. “The more volunteers, the more successful the fair will be,” she says. With plenty of volunteers to help children select books, the transition from classroom to book fair and back goes swiftly and smoothly. Adequate help also means that children (and parents) are more likely to be happy with their selections. For a school to keep accurate accounts, it needs enough volunteers to handle money and reorders. And with lots of volunteers in costume, making displays, and being guest readers, everyone has more fun. Kaiser suggests groups have at least 12-15 volunteers to help run a large book fair. They needn’t all be parents—older students and members of the community can be enlisted to read to younger children or give away prizes.

Kim Phillips, PTO president at Fairfield Elementary in Pickering, Ohio, runs her school’s book fairs like military operations. But the six-year book fair veteran doesn’t have to draft her troops—Fairfield always has more eager volunteers than time slots to fill. The school holds two book fairs each year, one with Scholastic and one with a local vendor. Phillips says she takes advantage of the materials Scholastic provides to help plan and organize the book fair and then tailors it to her school’s particular needs.

Phillips attributes part of parents’ eagerness to help out to the “reading culture” of her community. But she and her committee also offer flexible time slots to volunteers. Based on teachers’ schedules, the cochair in charge of scheduling (another cochair handles orders and money) develops a grid made up of 30-minute slots. The schedule is publicized in a newsletter, and parents sign up for as little or as much time as they can give. “We try to place parents when their child will be at the fair,” says Phillips, noting that they always need more help with the kindergartners. If a volunteer doesn’t make it onto the schedule, “We tell them, ‘If we don’t call you in the fall, we’ll call you in the spring,’” she adds.

Spreading the Word

After the planning and volunteer scheduling, the next step to a successful book fair is to publicize. The school newsletter, website, and sign, as well as flyers to be sent home, are obvious outlets for letting parents know the book fair is coming. Schools also can spread the word to the community through local newspapers, which often print news of upcoming school events. A theme or event tie-in can help make your fair newsworthy.

Trovato, who works mostly with small private and parochial schools, tries to time book fairs to coincide with National Book Week in the fall and National Library Week in the spring. Read Across America, sponsored in March by the National Education Association, is another appropriate book fair tie-in. And many schools hold their fairs just before the winter holidays to encourage families to buy books as gifts.

Inside the school, parent groups can pique students’ interest in the fair with posters, bulletin boards, and eye-catching displays in the halls or library.

Trovato usually holds a teacher workshop before the fair and then puts together book packages that go with their curriculum. She also displays books in the school ahead of time and asks the teachers to discuss them so children will be more apt to come to the fair and look for them.

Smooth Operations

If Phillips plans her book fairs like a general, she laughingly admits to running the fairs “like a dictatorship.” Though the parent volunteers are scheduled in 30-minute shifts, Phillips recently shortened the students’ shopping time from 30 to 20 minutes. The tighter schedule helps the kids stick to the business at hand and helps the teachers fit the book fair into the day, she says. The extra 10 minutes gives the volunteers time to straighten up the merchandise and do some money management before the next group comes in.

Before the children are allowed to select books, they have to listen to Phillips’ “commercial.” “We don’t just say, ‘It’s a book fair—charge!’ We prepare them,” she explains.

Holiday shop how-to! Choosing a vendor, getting organized, and lots of promotional tools

As each group of children comes in, Phillips points out that some books are on displays with tablecloths and decorations and grouped by reading level, holiday theme, or author, while other books are arranged on tables or shelves. She also reminds the kids of the book fair rule: They have to pick two books from their reading level before they go to another part of the room.

The briefing takes only two to three minutes, Phillips says, and “by fourth grade they blow us off, but it really helps the younger ones pick out books.”

The best book fair plans also include detailed check-out plans. To ensure books are properly paid for and tallied, set ground rules with the students, explaining that these books are for buying, not borrowing. Be sure backpacks are left outside the selling area. Have volunteers guide small groups through the selection and purchasing process. Put smaller items near the cashier’s counter. Stamp books that have been paid for, and bag them as kids are going out the door.

Fair’s Fair

The final step to book fair success is to remember that it’s a fair. “You want to create an atmosphere of fun, like a carnival midway,” says Scholastic’s Boyko.

To create visual interest and draw students to different areas of the fair, make colorful displays that coordinate with the fair theme (such as books on undersea life for the “Dive Into Reading” theme) or celebrate an upcoming holiday. Many schools bring in local authors to read and sign books. Others raffle off prizes or sell reading- and writing-related merchandise such as notebooks, pencils, bookmarks, and character dolls. Often volunteers dress up like literary characters or go incognito in Clifford and Arthur costumes.

One of the best ways to make a book fair fun for kids is to make it a family affair. Many schools encourage parents to participate by holding it during parent conferences or open house in the evening. Others make it a special occasion with a spaghetti dinner, ice cream social, or before-work “books over breakfast” event.

Frequently, schools use the family book fair as a way to create community at the school or to hold workshops giving parents tips on how to get their kids to read more. Kaiser adds that in many schools, “Family book fairs create a nonthreatening atmosphere for parents to get involved” in their child’s school.

After all is read and done, Phillips says her PTO uses the profits from the book fairs to give discounts to teachers and literacy staff who wish to order books. She echoes many book fair chairs when she says, “The book fair is primarily a service project. The money earned is an added bonus—and it goes right back into children’s programs.

Beyond Book Fairs

Rand Road Elementary School in Garner, North Carolina, holds two Scholastic book fairs each year, but parent group member Pam Begley wanted to create more opportunities for kids to be exposed to books, especially kids who don’t have much money to spend. So she started a reading club that in turn spawned a weekly book swap program.

For the book club, she wrote to children’s book authors asking them for prizes to give away to champion readers. They sent back autographed books and bookmarks, which she displayed in a trophy case at the school.

Then she devoted a bulletin board to keeping track of the reading progress, with a different theme each month. For example, in September the theme was apples, and for every five books each child read (verified by a parent signature), Begley put up a paper apple bearing the child’s name. At the end of the month, she drew a name from the apples, and that child won a prize. Begley also kept track of each class’s cumulative reading progress and rewarded the top class with a tricycle race with the principal. To keep the momentum going, the principal agreed to kiss a pig if the student body had read 10,000 books by the end of the year. They did, so she did.

As a reward to everyone at the end of the year, Begley gave each student his or her own book from a supply donated by parents. She received far more books than she needed, so she decided to create a book swap. Now, once a week from 8:15 to 8:40 a.m., kids can bring in books they have read and swap them for an equal number of books other kids have brought in. Begley seeds the supply with donations of used books from the public library and checks in each student’s books to make sure they’re appropriate and in good shape.

These projects are a lot of work, but Begley is devoted to the cause. “Anything to get them to read.”

Reading Resources

Celebrating reading at your school? Here are a few links to help you in the process:

American Library Association

Reading Is Fundamental

Read Across America