This is How We ‘Book Fair’!

School book fairs…do you remember yours from when you were a kid? I bet you do. Mine were held in my school’s gymnasium and accompanied by colorful Scholastic flyers that would get sent home in advance to whet my appetite (the very same ones they send home today). My class would visit for a brief time, during which I remember being mesmerized by table after table of books on display. As much as I loved the library as a kid, there was nothing quite like buying a book for keeps. It was special, and still is for me.

Maybe this feeling is what prompted me to co-run my sons’ elementary school book fair this year. I don’t know—I’ve been writing kidlit for a few years now, and maybe I’ve just completely lost my marbles, but I find this stuff incredibly fun. It’s fun in an it’s-Christmas-morning-and-I’m-watching-my-kids-open-their-presents kind of a way.

The youngest kids’ excitement is completely unconcealed—they come bounding in (I’m convinced they would run if allowed), excited to explore and shop on their own, making one of their first purchases without a parent or caregiver. A couple of kiddos even came in brandishing mom and dad’s credit card in a carefully sealed plastic bag—eek, my blood pressure!

Older kids try to play it cool but make no mistake about it—they are just as giddy and eager to be at the hottest event in school that week. Often, they come with a favorite kind of book in mind, be it a particular series or topic of interest, and once they find it, they must quickly find their classmates and show them. It is both a contest and a race, you know.

During the week of my fair, I witnessed kids of just about every age, demographic, and physical and developmental ability level hold books in their hands (some with more assistance than others) and spend quiet moments relishing them. They also chattered to one another excitedly, and their joy was palpable. They thanked me and sweetly waved goodbye as they left. I wish all of you writers and illustrators reading this could have been flies on the wall, because it was very beautiful and validating. At the end of the day, it is why we do what we do.

Before I get carried away here with the beauty of writing for children and start crying into my laptop (as I am prone to do if left to my own devices), I am going to transition here to some tips and advice of a more practical nature. If you are looking to hold a book fair at your own school, or are simply curious to hear about how they work, here are some important points to consider:

Choose a vendor that meets your needs. There are a bunch out there, and honestly, I have heard nice things about so many of them. But they are different from one another. There are larger vendors that operate on a regional or even national level (such as Scholastic) that have done a lot of work to streamline the process of running a book fair. Marketing materials, automated transaction processing, and reps that are ready to assist are just some of what they can offer you.

Certainly, the selection of books provided is also very important. Are you looking for fun books with the sorts of add-on toys that kids love? Big vendors usually excel at this. Or maybe you are more interested in high caliber, award-winning titles, and ones that are more specific to your region of the country. In this case, a local indie bookstore could be your best fit, and you also get the added benefit of supporting a worthy pillar of your community.

In our case, we went with a middle-of-the-road approach between a big, automated vendor and a local indie bookstore. We used a regional, family-owned business that exclusively handles school book fairs. They were the best fit for us because they provided automated and streamlined information processing during the fair (restocks are important, don’t forget), while offering the Massachusetts Children’s Book Award (MCBA) titles that our school librarian wished to have included.

And don’t forget another important aspect of vendor selection: your organization’s cut of the book fair’s profits. Usually, this is around 20%, but can depend upon the level of total sales that you make. The vendor we selected offered us 20% in cash profits for our parent-teacher nonprofit organization, but 50% if we took that money in the form of books. Um, yes please?? We were able to significantly upgrade the school library and classrooms with several thousand dollars in new books. That was a WIN, and our school librarian was the most excited I have ever seen her. Like, about to pass out from excitement…she didn’t, thankfully.

Schedule the event and sign a contract. Once you know who you’re going with, it’s time to plan and lock in the logistics. When are you looking to have the event? We had ours in November, which pre-empted any winter weather concerns (you do not want to be lugging books around in the snow if you can avoid it), and also dovetailed the holiday gift buying season.

I would recommend making the event span several days, as you want everyone in the school community to have a chance to visit. Ours was an entire week, with a family shopping day sprinkled in on parent-teacher conference day. We also had extended evening hours for working parents.

Something additional to mention when you are drawing up the contract with your vendor is any tax-exempt status you can claim as a 501(c) school-related organization. Our kiddos, their caregivers, and the entire staff of our school got to buy their books tax-free. Teacher discounts were offered, as well. These are all things that book fair vendors should be familiar with, so ask about them!

Choose your books and have fun doing it. This is probably the most fun part, but it can be harder than you think. We enlisted the help of our school librarian, whose input was valued immensely, and we also chatted a lot with our vendor who lives and breathes book fairs. You want your books to cover every age group within your school, with some veering slightly younger and slightly older than that, as well. Our fair was divided up into sections for picture books, beginning readers, middle elementary, upper elementary, advanced readers, non-fiction, and activity books. It was a huge selection! The advanced readers are considered “crossover” books. Does this mean Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover? Yes, but it also means many other titles—anything written for middle schoolers that is deemed appropriate for elementary-aged kids who can read and understand at that level.

Think of the hot book series that everyone wants. You will want to stock PLENTY of copies, with plans for a restock during the week (or maybe several). Choosing books that span different interests is also a good idea—be it science, sports, art, etc. Graphic novels are a big hit right now with kids, and we even included some with no words at all. Everyone’s tastes are a little different, and your goal is for every kid to be able to find at least one book that appeals to them.

Solicit adult/parent volunteers. You will probably need more than you think. Not an insane amount, but several at any given time, at the fair with the kids. And enough that you will probably want to email out a signup list to parents several weeks beforehand. In Massachusetts public schools, all volunteers need to be background checked first, so we stipulated this on our signup form, and we also tried to really reach out to groups of volunteers within the school that were already approved in this way (room parents, library volunteers, etc.).

Your volunteers will, quite simply, make the book fair “run”. They will be on the floor with the kids, helping them find, reach for, and carry books, and in many cases helping kids figure out how many books they can afford to buy with the wad of crumpled up money they are holding in their hands. This happens at every age level, regardless of math ability, simply because everyone is so excited and eager to buy the books they really want! Also, doesn’t every kid love to see their special adult at their book fair? Lots of hugs were had.

Publicize the event like your life depends on it. That was a little hyperbole to test if you were still with me at this point. I’m getting to the best part, I promise! When you get down to the final two weeks or so before the event, you will want to start advertising it around the school community.

We made a slick two-sided flyer (or I should say my co-chair did, who is a wiz with Canva design software), which we then sent home in backpacks, posted to social media, and shared in weekly school emails. Mention the proceeds to benefit the school, any discounts, and most importantly, mention when the different classes are visiting, so moms and dads know to send money in with their kids that day. This is a key part of the whole equation, and the kids will thank you for it!

If you have the means within your budget, it is also a wonderful idea to offer financial assistance to teachers with students in their classes who might need it. We reached out to all the teachers in advance and made sure they knew this. This way, everyone gets to buy a book during their visit to the fair, and everyone gets to enjoy the event in the way that they should.

Lastly, if the traditional book fair is not what you are going for (for whatever reason) there are some good alternatives, including but not limited to:

  • A virtual/online book fair with a book vendor or bookstore (Scholastic, Barnes & Noble, the local indie bookshop, etc.)
  • An onsite book fair at a local bookstore, where the school community can shop at a discount for a specific period of time
  • A used “book swap”, where everyone brings in a book, and gets to bring one home

Perhaps you want to do a few of these at different points during the year. Or combine them!

And that, folks, is how you ‘book fair’…now go out into the world and spread the knowledge far and wide amongst the lands! You have been anointed (more hyperbole). Thank you for reading. If you have any questions on book fairs or insights on them that you want to share, please comment below!

13 comments

  1. I can relate to those excited children. I would have felt the same way, way back when I was in primary school in Australia. The closest thing to it was a fund raising event that offered donated goods, including books. Let others buy the home made jams and cakes, I’d be honing in on the books.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hilary, your post brings back many happy memories! I volunteered many times to help with the Book Fairs but never ran one. Kudos to you!!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great tips here! My son’s school held book fairs to buy books for the school library (and for families to buy books for themselves, too). The librarian and the library committee created a wish list. The bookstore ordered them. And when families bought the books for the library (and books for themselves at a discount), the bookstore used the profits from those book sales (and other book sales from all shoppers during the event) to buy any remaining books from the list for the library and any additional profits went to the library, that could then be spent on more books at a later time. It was great fun!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hillary, this is a fantastic primer! For those who are planning one, how do you find the range of vendors that you mentioned? (Showing my ignorance of the topic!) Not only have you written a terrific article, you also helped organize a wonderful book experience for so many kids. Bravo!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Joyce! It really was a wonderful experience and I’ve signed up to do it again next year 🙂 As for finding potential vendors, there really wasn’t any centralized place resource providing that info, but much of it is based upon geography and involves asking around the school and kidlit community, doing online research, etc. There are national vendors, like I mentioned, then there are some regional ones. Literati is a well-known one (they just acquired Follett Book Fairs), but they do not operate in our region of the country. Then, there are local vendors, including indie book stores.

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