Serving Larchmont Village, Hancock Park, and the Greater Wilshire neighborhoods of Los Angeles since 2011.

What’s So Great About a School Book Fair?

Setup for the author’s 33rd school book fair (as an adult).


“This is heaven!  I’m in heaven!”
—  Neighborhood second grader visiting her school book fair in April.


Almost everyone, everywhere in the U.S., seems to have fond memories of school book fairs, sometimes not only from elementary school but even stretching into both middle and high school.  The memories are so indelible that I even see social media posts every now and then suggesting we find a way to extend the beloved tradition into adulthood, perhaps with a combined book fair/happy hour at a local pub. (I’d be all in for that, by the way.)

So what is it that makes school book fairs so special, and makes them such happy, memorable parts of our collective childhood?

As a child, and a lifelong book lover, I adored book fairs like everyone else did at that age.  I even still have most of the books I bought at my elementary school book fairs, including this one, possibly my first-ever book fair purchase, which I’d fallen in love with while reading it several times in my first and second grade classrooms:



But in addition to my childhood book fair memories, I now have even more book fair experience as an adult – between 2008 and the last week in April this year, I have now chaired, co-chaired or volunteered at 33 elementary school book fairs (at two different schools), and I’ve watched probably more than a thousand different students get just as excited about their school book fairs as I used to.  Obviously, having done this so often and for so long now, I, too, still love book fairs as much as I did as a kid…but experiencing them in this new way for so many years has also given me some interesting new perspectives on the tradition. And I think I’ve learned why they’re so valuable (and not just in a school fundraising sense).

First of all, of course, is the books.  Shiny new books.  Which always represent to book lovers, and to small humans who may be about to become lifelong book lovers, a world of imagination and possibility.  Which one will you choose?  How many will your parents let you take home?  The book fair explodes with the promise of literary fulfillment.

For some of us, that would be enough.  But it turns out there’s a lot more going on here.  And much of it is only tangentially related to books, and yet universal to our experiences of childhood, whether or not books are your thing.

The first of these is independence, the development of which is critical in childhood, but which in many ways has been curtailed, especially for city kids, over the last few decades.

For example, I’m old enough to remember when kids got to go to the store by themselves, whether at a parent’s request to pick up a loaf of bread for dinner, or just to trade in a couple of glass soda bottles for a dime each and then spend that money on a vast array of penny, nickel and dime candy (yes, I’m that old).

I still remember the very first time I was allowed to go to our closest corner store alone, with a penny to buy a piece of candy to eat after my lunch that day.  I was five years old.  At the store, I scanned the big candy case to evaluate my choices, handed the store owner my penny, and asked for a red gummy bear.  So far, so good. But then I was completely flummoxed when the store owner said the gummy bears were actually two for a penny.  My mom had told me I could by just one piece of candy, so I didn’t know what to do.  I was afraid she’d be angry if I came home with two pieces, so I argued with the store owner for what seemed like forever, saying I only wanted one, even though he kept assuring me that my penny would buy two.  In the end, I gave in and guiltily took home the two red gummy bears.  And I was shocked when my mom wasn’t angry at all, let me eat both pieces of candy after lunch that day, and continued to allow me to go to the store by myself from then on.

(And just in case you’re wondering, no, this wasn’t in some pristine suburb.  We didn’t live in Los Angeles, but we definitely lived in an inner city urban neighborhood.  I don’t have a picture of the store from the gummy bear incident, but here’s one of the store just two blocks further from home, which was my and my friends’ favorite neighborhood candy stop for many years afterward – at the same time that it was also a target of some of the mid-’60s civil unrest also present in our neighborhood at the time.)



Now going back to the gummy bears…just think about everything I learned that day – from real-world practice crossing a street alone to carrying my money safely to the store, learning what the money I had would buy, dealing with a store clerk on questions regarding my purchase, and making a final purchase decision based on the available information.  All on my own, at the ripe old age of 5.  And every single one of those things was a necessary life skill, which I continue to use every day almost 60 years later…all embodied in the simple exercise of using a penny to buy a red gummy bear.

But most kids, especially kids in today’s version of urban Los Angeles, don’t have the opportunity for that kind of empowering, maturing experience, or anything close to it.  Except at school book fairs.

Think about it.  The book fair is a store…specifically set up for kids (and their parents, though designed mostly to appeal to the students, who will then lobby their parents for money to spend and specific purchases)…where kids are safe, welcome, and encouraged to shop both with their parents and independently.

A book fair provides kids experience with the responsibilities of bringing money to school and keeping it safe before and after their purchases, figuring out just which items, and how many of them, their money will buy, deciding among various purchase options, interacting with a cashier to make their purchases, learning what change is if their purchase turns out to be less than the amount of money they brought, and taking their purchases home for parental oversight and approval.  All accomplished in a safe, child-centered, and child-friendly space.  The red gummy bears are now red gummy bear erasers, in book fair inventory, but everything else is the same.  And kids absolutely revel in the whole empowering experience.  To the point that they often return again and again during the book fair week, each time just as eager to spend more money, make more decisions and more purchases, and feel more grown up than they get to feel in almost any other part of their lives.

And then there’s math.

I often tell parents that school book fairs are actually as much or more about math (specifically money math) as they are about books.  At first that may sound strange, but it’s absolutely true.  When there’s a school book fair, children usually have to negotiate with their parents for money to spend at the book fair, or for permission to use money they’ve saved up from birthdays, allowances or other gifts.  How much money they will get or get permission to spend?

Then they come to the book fair and learn that every item in the book fair is for sale, but every item is priced individually (can you read the prices?), and you have to figure out how much money you have (just how much does that fistful of coins and bills add up to – can you count it?), what the items you want cost (can you add up the cost of two or more individually priced items?), and how many of those items you can buy with your fistful of money.  Does the money equal the cost of your purchase(s)?  If yes, your purchase will be simple. But if you have more than enough money for your purchase(s), why do you get some money back after your purchase?  (It’s called “change,” and it’s the difference between what you paid and what the item cost.)  And if you don’t have enough money to buy the item(s) you want, what do you do then – put back one or more items of a multi-item purchase? Give up on the item you originally wanted and select something else that fits your budget/allowance?  Or take your money home without buying anything and ask your parents for more money so you can buy the thing you really want?  And what is sales tax and why does it screw up all those other calculations?  It’s all about the math, and the lessons are often tough…but, again, life-changing and life-serving.

So I think this is why almost all kids love their school book fairs so much.  And why we have such fond memories of them from our childhoods.  We don’t ever remember how much money any given book fair raised for our schools (though that is definitely valuable and how book fairs are sold to schools and parents).  In fact, we may have had little or no awareness that they were fundraisers.  But we do remember how they made us feel – independent, empowered, and like we were getting a taste of what it would be like to be truly grown up and in charge of our own money and our own decisions.  And that is priceless.

It’s also what keeps me coming back to running book fairs every year.  Both the kid and the adult in me still agree wholeheartedly with my recent second grade customer, quoted above:  “This is heaven…I’m in heaven!”

And, of course, this heaven also has books.  So it’s my happy place.


My most recent book fair purchases. (Yes, I still love and read children’s books!)


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Elizabeth Fuller
Elizabeth Fuller
Elizabeth Fuller was born and raised in Minneapolis, MN but has lived in LA since 1991 - with deep roots in both the Sycamore Square and West Adams Heights-Sugar Hill neighborhoods. She spent 10 years with the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council, volunteers at Wilshire Crest Elementary School, and has been writing for the Buzz since 2015.

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  1. Super article! I loved the book fairs as a kid — and I remember walking alone to the store to buy cigarettes for my folks. All I needed was money and a note from my mom. Different times, all right. I still have that exact copy of “Runaway Slave” that you shared. Some of those book fair books I later tried to find for my own kids, but alas! They were out of print and I was looking for them just before the internet became the answer to every question. They’re easy enough to find now!


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