An Ode to the Scholastic Book Fairs Held at Western Pennsylvania Elementary Schools in the Early 1990s

It’s important to remember and pay homage to the true glory days.

Scott Muska


I never came lightly to the elementary school Scholastic Book Fair.

This isn’t something I say in jest. It’s usually reserved for when I’m talking about very serious passions of mine, like open bars or Chinese buffets — especially the ones that have tray after tray of stuffed mushrooms on offer. Those things are so good they can make you see god. And they’re usually not even the psychedelic kind.

It was like a sacred holiday for me. I’d approach it with so much anticipation — the unbridledly excited kind, a rarity for me even in those days — and you bet your ass when the occasion finally came I was more than ready. I’d have done my diligent research, spending plenty of time with the thin catalog that came as a preview of some of the stuff that was gonna be stocked on the shelves, circling and circling and circling, knowing I’d have to narrow it down from there.

This research regimen came from experience. A rube my first-grade year, basically a red shirt book fair attendee, I was understandably overwhelmed by the magnificence of what we now call a pop-up activation in advertising and marketing. Even at such a young age, I came out of it knowing I could have put forward a more solid performance. Had gone about it in too much of a disorganized way, making impulsive instead of calculated decisions. I vowed that the next year, I would amply prepare by making a take-along list, a playbook of sorts, with the clear winners and their costs.

Culling the list was tough, but obviously necessary. One had to be realistic. Allowance didn’t grow on trees and I knew I could only cajole my mom into parting with a certain maximum amount of cash, even if she was always supportive and encouraging of (financially and otherwise) the love for reading she’d helped instill in me by forcing me into a daily regimen of Hooked on Phonics. She taught me to read well out of my age range before most kids even gave so much as a thought to reading on their own. I was so proud of being able to read that I got my parents to bust out a recorder to commemorate, via cassette, one of the first times I read a book from start to finish. I’m unclear to this day why they had a recorder in the first place. They weren’t journalists. At that point in my life, the only other time I’d been featured on a recording was when I went to a few therapy sessions to try and figure out why I had a tendency to cry so often.

(Looking back on this, I wonder if I was being recorded by Dr. Bro — her actual name — to be part of some sort of class for budding psychologists. I don’t recall having consented to this, if so. I know now from robust experience that most therapy sessions are not recorded. Unless you’re a “special” case your paid confidant is using as a case study to help them get some sort of advanced education certification, in which case I have it on very good authority that he must ask your permission. But will not give you a discount on every recorded hour. He’ll gently refuse in a kind and comforting way you wish you could emulate.)

Once what I felt was an acceptable list had been laboriously assembled and written out on one of my mom’s trusty index cards on which she would plan our her entire week, I felt amply prepared. I always accepted that this list was more a guiding light than gospel. I reserved the right to edit it on the fly based on the euphoric results of, for example, window shopping for new R.L. Stine and getting gobsmacked by the discovery that he’d just started doing this whole “choose your own adventure” series, which is innovative as heck, and you gotta scoop at least one of those. Those rascals at Scholastic always came with a few surprises — would go off-catalog like the true rogues of publishing that they were.

I’d also feel compelled to keep a modest slush fund for tertiary purchases that came after planned books and surprise book finds. You might get to the checkout table and clock a holographic bookmark showcasing a wolf howling at the moon and be like, “Reading can also be badass.” You either have enough scratch to get it or you don’t. And I made sure to never come up a quarter short.

My several years darkening the doorstep of various book fairs have been some of the only times in my life that i have actually conscientiously applied myself to putting to use my rudimentary understanding of basic addition and subtraction. (I once got called out on a date when I used my phone’s calculator to figure out how to tip 20 percent. I’m not proud of this. It’s not that I don’t know how to figure that out, it’s that I don’t trust myself.) Those cats at Scholastic were fostering growth of both sides of the brain in impressionable youths. Sometimes sales tax would throw me off somethin’ fierce, though. Still does.

First day, I’d do plenty of damage. Max out the funds. Try to do the dream in my heart some justice. (That dream was just hanging out in my room reading, preferably on a rainy day, one of the only things that took my mind off the things that made me cry so often. Goosebumps were a crucial element in my introduction to therapeutic escapism. I could have been a ghostwriter for Morrissey, though I don’t think we’d get along.)

Then I’d return to my metaphorical corner to regroup for the next day. A book fair is a marathon, not a sprint. A delightfully grueling, three-day gauntlet that challenges you to your very core, but in a stimulating and fun way, albeit one that leaves you exhausted by its end if you really do it right. Sort of like a bachelor party in Vegas, but with a vast selection of The Boxcar Children series instead of mountains of blow. A high’s a high.

I’d start gathering myself during math class instead of paying any type of attention, and I have the SAT scores to prove it. I’d cross out the books I’d secured and write potential further purchases down, even though I knew I wouldn’t forget a single title I had my eye on. Before long, the index card would look like the scribblings of a mad man, and it wasn’t helped by the fact that one of my coveted titles that year was called Hatchet and was underlined several times. I’d make note to craft a revised version on a clean card that evening as I finalized my plotting.

Homeward bound at the end of the day, I’d skip off the bus with beauty and grace, invigorated with my haul and the fact that I’d get to return to the scene again soon to collect more goods, if I played my cards right. Much as a serial killer might if they’d had to make a quick escape and couldn’t rest until they’d gone back for a customary commemorative trophy. But for me the trophy was something like a multi-colored pack of gel pens as opposed to a chain locket or lock of human hair.

I’d require a second round of funding if I wanted to take this journey to its full potential.

First, I’d take stock of my assets. Even if I was mostly cash poor, there was some hope. If I was creative and put some schemes into play.

Using my recently flexed math muscles, I’d try to con my little brother or sister into trading me a crisp twenty in exchange for two well-worn fives. No dice. Dad walked past my room when I was making my pitch to them and put the kibosh on that real quick.

This could not have worked out better for me, in the long run. I’d like to say it was part of my plan, but it was more serendipity or whatever you want to call it. He’d born witness to my desperation for that sweet sweet Scholastic money. He saw I wanted it to the point I’d nefariously and methodically attempt to manipulate people I loved, just so I could add one more mass-market paperback to the collection.

To leave no stone unturned, I’d go to my older brother, a tougher nut to crack. I woulda had the young ones if pops hadn’t intervened, for sure. Tried to trade him a New Dimension Comics gift certificate for cash of equal value, provoking him with the assertion that if he picked up some new Magic: The Gathering cards he might finally be able to beat me every now and then. He pointed out that this proposal made no sense whatsoever, as he could just spend $20 in greenbacks at New Dimension, rendering a gift certificate insignificant. And that he regularly beat my ass swiftly and mercilessly when we matched up in our favorite trading card game.

Can’t win ’em all. And twist my arm into getting more Magic cards or a few X-Men comics. The horror!

Next, I’d bust out one of the poems I’d written and bring it to my mom, tell her it was on sale for five bones. Eager to support a budding young artist, she’s shell out and put that shit on the refrigerator posthaste. That’s right: I’ve been a paid poet for longer than I’ve been trusted to choose my own outfits for the next school day.

Once you weasel your way into some modest wealth (turns out my poetry sold for about the same amount you could get a copy of the latest Animorphs for, and I wondered if I could really take off if I had some way to capture the same kind of reach and audience as K.A. Applegate), it’s easy to keep chasing that dragon, seeing how far you can take it with or without completely going off the rails.

We went to meet the whole side of my mom’s family at the aptly named King’s Family Restaurant and I made a point of reading a book while I waited for my chicken tenders to arrive. I wanted to show my dedication to consuming the written word — and knew nobody was likely to discourage me from being a bookworm. That’d be uncouth. Hoped maybe they’d go more with the narrative that I might be some sort of budding genius whose proficiencies and interests should be nurtured, and that I should be left alone to read at the dinner table, even if it was impolite. It’s not exactly like I had the most engaging yarns to spin at age 8.

Pretty sure nobody really noticed or cared either way. Big brother stole the show by performing some pretty rad yo-yo tricks. I wanted to be disgruntled about it, but he really threw down. He was gonna have no trouble filling his coffers with enough to mail-order one of those new iterations taking over the yo-yo discourse that could “sleep” automatically once you extended it full-rope. He deserved it. Game recognizes game.

Before settling in for a long night of reading under the covers with a flashlight on, I made one last move. I found my dad working on a car in the garage and asked him if I could borrow his hammer for a few minutes before bedtime.

“What, uh, what do you need a hammer for?”

“Breaking my piggy bank.”

“Why would you do that?”

“To get more money for things I still want at the book fair.” (I wish so much that I had responded, “Unfinished business” in a menacing way. Probably woulda blown his mind.)

“I thought you were saving that money for college, so you can be a policeman.”

(They let me keep on believing a college degree was always necessary to become a man of the law for, like, years.)

“FBI agent in the X-Files department, actually.”

(I would need at least a bachelor’s for that gig, and probably more. Mulder went to Oxford and they were still always trying to kick him out.)

“Right. That.”

I walked over to his tool bench to retrieve the hammer and he stopped me, handed me another $5.

“Don’t break your piggybank,” he said. “Save it for a rainy day.”

I thought rainy days were for reading in self-imposed solitude as a substitute for bursting out into random weeping bouts for no reason you could properly articulate, but figured I could accommodate a few minutes to smash the shit out of a porcelain pig next time a storm came ‘round.

“Also,” he added, “you don’t have to break it. It has a plug at the bottom where you can shake the cash and change out.”

Well shit. The more you know, I guess. Seemed like this plug situation took away from the whole piggy bank experience, conceptually, though. Ceremoniously shattering it at some point was supposed to be what it was all about.

The next day, I had another pretty solid showing, coming out with the cream that had risen to the top of my wish list while remaining within budget — as I did not have the option to go over. Not like I could bust out my Diner’s Club card. This was the end of the line unless I could pick up some quick income ghostwriting a love note or something, which would probably mean working through recess, and that’s never ideal. I’d exhausted every other option I could think of, unless I hit up the grandparents, and they were already too generous to me in general, so I refrained. I guess I hadn’t yet devolved to the shark-like mindset of a power investor or used car salesman, and felt that was commendable.

I’d go back the third and final day, mostly to advise any of my friends who still had some dough to blow. Even if I could only look slightly longingly at the selections that hadn’t made my cut, I reasoned all the research I’d put in and my near-encyclopedic knowledge of many popular series, including Encyclopedia Brown, should be shared.

Once I came down from the enduring high of book fair week, like when you need a vacation from your vacation, I got to the serious business of plowing through each and every book that I’d stuffed into my Ghostbusters backpack. I didn’t buy ’em to look at ’em. Well, I guess reading is technically a really intense and long version of looking at something, but you know what I mean. They weren’t for decoration. I did this in about a week and change. If Goodreads had existed back then, I might have single-handedly made it explode by way of my frequent updates to the “Read” pile. (To be fair, Goodreads still explodes with regularity in current times, so this wouldn’t have been too tough to achieve back in the halcyon days of dial-up connections that were always cut off because someone had to use the phone, goddamnit.)

When you’re on a roll, you’re on a roll. And while my parents were proud I was crushing content at such a rapid clip, they had to kindly check me when I soon came clamoring for a Barnes n’ Noble trip. Even if they were supporting a healthy habit, they couldn’t just shell out bi-weekly for me to re-stock, unless they wanted to dip into my college fund — and they weren’t about to do that. What good would all that fancy book-learnin’ do me if it wasn’t bolstered by a serviceable education and ultimately a degree. (Turns out, a lot. I sure didn’t get my education on the streets, but the classroom didn’t always do much for me either. Had a tough time getting into stuff that didn’t really blow my hair back. I was stubborn about it. There was a point where I’d read mostly whatever I could get my hands on, but balked at picking up the actual assigned reading that was part of an allegedly well-planned state curriculum. Though it probably precipitate a hit to my GPA, I still harbor no regrets that I skipped Jane Eyre in favor of a collection of Hunter S. Thompson’s finer works.)

While I could continue to opt for bookstore gift certificates to celebrate special occasions, and spend the money my Grandpap would randomly slide to me on whatever I wanted, I’d have to work more to achieve entry into a higher allowance bracket. This tracked and was more than reasonable, obviously, though it was a tough pill to swallow for someone who is generally lazy about things he does not have a passion for and has a high propensity for chore- and errand-fatigue.

“You can also always go to the library, too,” Mom cogently pointed out. “At school, or in town.”

This I could get down with. Sure, neither one hardly ever had the latest and greatest coming in, and when they did they’d be consistently checked out before I could get my grubby little paws on them, but there was still plenty of a selection. To my parents credit, they’d almost always be down for a trip (I’d get in the woody station wagon and be like, “To the library, and step on it”) if I had read all the books I’d checked out and had to return them by the due date. I liked a due date. It was an early introduction to the concept of deadlines — something that has been a constant in my life to a slightly alarming degree. If I hadn’t read what I’d chosen in an allotted span, I’d either have to renew (embarrassing, a sign of defeat and inadequacy) or part ways with them for the time being, wondering what might have been. I had to get my pages in, or else. So I would.

And I never left the library empty-handed. Each visit served a dual purpose. A return and pick-up. A swap. I carried that library card along in my velcro Power Rangers wallet (I acknowledge this accessory clashed with the Ghostbusters backpack and my Pittsburgh Penguins Starter jacket, but I guess I wasn’t afraid of crossing the streams) like it was on the same level importance as the FBI badge I would almost certainly one day possess as verification that I was indeed not fucking around when it came to investigating paranormal phenomena. (Spoiler alert: I don’t have that badge. Yet.)

It took a while to get fully on board with peppering library books into my repertoire, as I enjoyed keeping the books I had read on a shelf, like they were collectors items and a reminder of all I had achieved on the reading front that I could return to if ever I felt a desire to indulge in a re-read. (Now, due to the number of small apartments I have lived in as an adult with a lack of room for the quantity of books I acquire on an annual basis, I have transitioned to collecting my books mostly in digital format through the Kindle app. Time passes and you adapt in the ways you have to, even if it pains you on some nostalgic level.)

But I reasoned that sometimes it’d better to have something for a rather short while in the grand scheme of things, and fully experience it, than to hold onto it forever as it loses its luster.

This is of course not always true, but an idea I fiercely cling to nonetheless. For comfort.



Scott Muska

I write books (for fun, and you can find them on Amazon), ads (for a living) and some other stuff (that seems to magically show up on the internet).