New York Scholastic Corp., the U.S. publisher of the Harry Potter books, has come under criticism from a children’s advocacy group for using its vast, venerable network of school-based book clubs to market toys and other noneducational items such as video games and lip gloss.
The world’s largest publisher and distributor of children’s books, Scholastic earned nearly $337 million last year from the book clubs, which it inaugurated in 1948. The company estimates that three-quarters of U.S. elementary school teachers — and more than 2.2 million children — participate annually in the clubs.
Over the decades, the program has won praise for encouraging children to read by offering discounted books that they order through their teacher, who in turn can qualify for further deals on books and other classroom materials.
However, the Boston-based Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood — a national coalition of educators, health care professionals and parents — launched a protest campaign Monday asserting that Scholastic has exploited its unique access to schools by marketing an array of nonbook products in its monthly book club fliers.
Items pitched to elementary school students in the last 14 months include M&M;’s Kart Racing Wii video game, an American Idol event planner, the SpongeBob SquarePants Monopoly computer game, lip gloss rings, Nintendo’s Baby Pals video game, Hannah Montana posters and the Spy Master Voice Disguiser.
The campaign said about one-third of the items for sale in Scholastic’s elementary and middle school book clubs were either not books or were books packaged with other items such as jewelry, toys and makeup. The group is running an e-mail campaign to urge Scholastic officials to make changes.
“The opportunity to sell directly to children in schools is a privilege, not a right,” said the campaign’s director, psychologist Susan Linn. “But Scholastic is abusing that privilege by flooding classrooms across the country with ads for toys, trinkets, and electronic media with little or no educational value.”
The campaign is the latest fight over exposing children to advertising and commercial products at school. Other criticism has been leveled against schools that offer students sodas or fast food, an in-school news channel that includes advertising and a company that provides radio programming with commercials in school buses.
Judy Newman, a Scholastic executive vice president who oversees the book clubs, defended the program and indicated it would not be changed in response to the protest. The toys and other nonbook items were included in the fliers primarily to help spark student interest in the books, she said.
“We’re losing kids’ interest (in reading). We have to keep them engaged,” Newman said in a telephone interview. “This (book club) model is 60 years old, and it has to stay relevant to do the work it does. To the extent we put in a few carefully selected nonbook items, it’s to keep up the interest.”
Regarding the M&M;’s Kart Racing Wii and other video games, Newman said, “some kids learn through video games.”
She said Scholastic respects the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, but is more attentive to concerns from classroom teachers — and depicted them as generally enthusiastic about the book clubs.