Friday, February 13, 2009

Publisher under fire for pushing toys

National Post: 2009 February 13

The largest distributor of books to children’s schools is under attack from parents and teachers, who are pushing to drop the company from their schools for selling too many video games and toys to their captive market.

Scholastic sells to parents in Canada and the United States through book fairs and book club order forms sent home monthly in children’s backpacks at thousands of schools. The company, which also sells materials to teachers, has been allowed to market its products within schools because of its reputation for offering educational, inexpensive books and by giving back a portion of the revenue to help classrooms and libraries.

Last year, the company was forced to drop the Bratz line from its booklets and book fairs because of the dolls’ overly sexualized image, and now is under increasing scrutiny for what its critics say is a proliferation of commercial products at the expense of books.

“Scholastic no longer deserves to be in the schools. Scholastic deserves to be treated like a vending machine half-full of junk food and pop; it should be removed from the schools,” said Mark Matchen, who teaches English at Stephen Lewis Secondary School in Thornhill and is the father of three elementary school children.

“When I was a kid in school, Scholastic was one thing my parents always found money for. I want to do the same for my children. I hate it when we go through the Scholastic brochure and every page has cheap toys instead of books … Why should we permit Scholastic privileged access to our schools and children? The answer used to be that they were delivering high quality reading material and a good price. Now, that is not really the case — by virtue of pushing low-grade trinkets instead of books, glorifying TV over reading, and bombarding children with branded advertising.”

He has joined the lobbying effort started by The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, a Boston-based group that found 14% of the items advertised in Scholastic’s U.S. school flyers last year were not books, but were products such as M&M’s Kart Racing Wii videogame, an American Idol event planner, a Princess Room Alarm, a wireless controller for the PS2 gaming system and a makeyour-own flip-flops kit. An additional 19% of the items were books sold with other bonus commercialized items — the book Get Rich Quick was sold with a dollar-shaped money clip “to hold all your new cash!” and a Friends 4 Ever Style Pack consisted of a book and two lip-gloss rings.

The lobby group, which is affiliated with Harvard University and has about 600 Canadian members, is calling on the company to drop non-book products and has launched a letter-writing campaign.

“Schools grant Scholastic unique commercial access to children because of its reputation as an educational publisher,” said Dr. Susan Linn, director of the group. “But Scholastic is abusing that privilege by flooding classrooms ... with ads for toys, trinkets, and electronic media with little or no educational value.”

Although the group did not do a Canadian tally of commercial products versus books, the company also sells many non-book products in this country, like paint-your-own hockey mask kits and computer games, and books bundled with commercial products.

In Canada, Scholastic has already received enough complaints about selling video games that it now puts all computer and software products on separate sales sheets so teachers can choose whether to put it into backpacks, said Nancy Pearson, Scholastic Canada’s director of marketing.

She said the Canadian division of Scholastic has had complaints about other products and is “reviewing daily” all of its items for sale in schools but has no immediate plan to drop anything. She said the toys bundled with some of the books are meant to entice reluctant readers. “We are really trying to motivate them,” she said.

She added that the company is also trying to remain relevant in an era where children use cellphones, play computer games and use a lot of electronic gadgets, which is why it offers electronic organizers and video software as part of its book sales.

Celine Gummer, a Grade 1 teacher at Valley View Elementary school in Courtenay, B.C., and mother of girls aged 12, 10 and nine, is “increasingly uncomfortable” sending home the Scholastic forms with her students.

“On the one hand we want to nurture a love of books and reading, with the added bonus or accruing more books for our libraries; on the other hand, we are becoming increasingly aware that this happens at an unexpected cost,” she said.

“Our children have been bombarded by the marketing of merchandise enticing them to buy everything from books to jewellery ... to lip gloss. The last book fair that was held at one of our local schools included Wii accessories. Aren’t we already in an uphill battle to encourage our children to read? I think Scholastic, holding such a unique position in our schools, has a moral obligation to sell books and to do it without the gimmicks.”

Joanne Service, who has boys in Grades 3 and 5 at Ecole Margaret Jenkins School in Victoria, B.C., said the schoolbased sellers pose an added challenge for parents because children come home already having read them and lobbying to buy things. “There is always a lot of excitement when the new book flyers come out each month, but I’ve noticed more and more non-book items appearing in the flyers,” she said. “I’m forever having to stipulate to my kids that I’ll only consider book purchases, not toys or software. Additionally, they are marketing video games that are borderline inappropriate for young children.”

Martha Hogan, the mother of a nine-year-old boy in a Toronto public school, agrees: “It’s always hard to say no to your child when he’s been given an enticing catalogue by someone he trusts — his teacher — and encouraged to think that he can have whatever he wants from it,” she said. “On top of that, the kids are told that they’ll earn ‘points’ for books for their classroom if they order, so they sometimes end up feeling that they’re letting their teacher or their class down if they don’t … It’s increasingly difficult to find “just a book” to order; many of the items are just cheap, junky plastic toys, or are books packaged with cheap, junky plastic toys.”