Ah, August. Back-to-school sales are in full swing and parents are counting the days until classes begin. So the start of this year’s Pizza Hut Book It! program can’t be far behind.
Book It! began in 1985, when a Pizza Hut executive was looking for a way to encourage his son to read. Here’s how it works: Elementary-school teachers set reading goals for their students – maybe they have to read a certain number of books of their own choice, or maybe they have to read for a certain number of minutes. The kids keep track of their progress on materials furnished by Pizza Hut and emblazoned with the restaurant’s logo. At the end of the month, every student who met his or her goal gets a coupon for a free personal pizza. The program continues all year, and if the class meets its annual goal, then all the students get a pizza party.
The program even has free materials available for homeschool families.
Book It! seems to work as advertised. This Mental Floss article cites a 1999 study on the long-term effects of extrinsic rewards (free pizza!) on reading habits. About 75 percent of the college students surveyed in the study said the program encouraged them to read more; about half said it helped them learn to read; and 92 percent said they enjoyed reading as much or more as they did before they participated.
Sounds great, right? I mean, what’s not to like about encouraging kids to read?
Plenty, according to the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. In 2007, this group complained that Book It! tied literacy to the consumption of junk food and put teachers in the position of promoting the corporation’s products.
I can personally attest that Book It! does more for Pizza Hut than it ever has for literacy. Both of my daughters participated in the program at one time or another. As I recall, the certificates were good for dining-in only, and what parent is going to take the kid to Pizza Hut for a free pizza and not get pizza for the rest of the family? When you add up the cost of the family’s pizza, sodas, and the tip, you have to assume Pizza Hut is making a killing from the program. And it gets brownie points for encouraging literacy, to boot.
As writers, we should probably be thrilled with programs that encourage kids to read; after all, they’re our future fans. But I’m not persuaded that programs like Book It! are the best venue for promoting literacy. For one thing, I can see the CCFC’s point, particularly when you consider that obesity is on the rise in America and children have not been spared – although one could argue that one free pizza per month isn’t going to make anybody fat, if they eat sensibly the rest of the time. (Oh, who am I kidding? “Eat sensibly”? This is America! We don’t need no stinkin’ vegetables!)
But could we put a distinctly indie spin on literacy efforts? Few of us have the deep pockets of a corporation, but we’ve got an infinite number of copies of our e-books. Maybe we need a partnership deal. Kids in our program could get an e-reader (or maybe one of those super-cheap laptops) and all the age-appropriate e-books they can download. I mean, what better way to reward reading than with more books?