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 non-educational items ranging from video games to 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 which 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 non-book 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 a 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 non-book 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 non-book 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.
Among the parents joining the protest was Leslie Jones of Charlottesville, Va., an environmental lawyer who said three of her four children have encountered Scholastic book club promotions.
“I knew Scholastic was perceived to be an educational leader,” Jones said. “But as I became a parent, my view changed. I wasn’t thinking it was so scholastically oriented once I began to receive their literature.”
She specifically objected to the many Scholastic promotions linked to commercial films and TV shows.
“It’s not about the authors anymore — it’s about the licensed characters,” said Jones, who expressed interest in promoting alternative school book fairs.
Scholastic operates in 15 countries, with annual revenue of $2.2 billion. Its latest annual report describes the school-based book clubs and book fairs as “core businesses” and cited the importance to developing new promotional strategies to ensure they remain lucrative.
“We know the parents and children who buy our books are facing difficult economic times with rising costs and tight family budgets,” the report said. “We are still the low cost provider of quality children’s books through our clubs, fairs and school channels and will remain so even after raising prices selectively to match cost increases.”
The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood has confronted Scholastic previously, protesting its promotion of books and products based on the pouty-lipped Bratz dolls. The books were withdrawn from Scholastic book clubs and fairs last year — though Scholastic said the move was based largely on sluggish sales.
Linn, the campaign’s director, said the company takes advantage of its stature among parents.
“They think Scholastic is like the public television of publishing, but it isn’t,” Linn said. “Scholastic exploits their reputation so they’re engaging in behavior other companies couldn’t get away with. Toys ’R’ Us wouldn’t be able to get away with what Scholastic does.”
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