a child fills out a school book order
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School Book Orders are Full of Junk, Lies and Deceit — And Some Books

Apr 17, 2019

When I was 11, my cousins, some neighbourhood kids and I discovered a dog-eared Spiderman comic in the sleep-camp of our family cottage.

Many pages were sun-bleached to a crisp, but the colours were vivid and the pages packed with spectacularly improbable adventures. But what really captured our interest was a little advertisement in the back pages — an ad for a “Polaris Nuclear Submarine” which boasted some pretty enticing features. It claimed the sub was big enough for two kids, that it really fired torpedoes and that it would cost less than the pocket money we were able to pool amongst ourselves. We must have spent the entire week debating whether the sub would be seaworthy, whether the supplier would still be in business and, less often, whether the ad was just too good to be true.

I’m sure just about every parent my age has a story of being duped or nearly duped in this way by cheesy ads for X-ray specs and sea monkeys. At their worst, they were a shameless celebration of the gullibility of youth… and possibly a crime. At their best, they taught us everything we needed to know about advertising. 


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But something strange has happened between that summer when I was 11 years old and now. Somehow those cheesy ads, which promise big and deliver small, have punched free of the sun-bleached comic book pages and begun to creep into the pages of another institution of childhood: the school book order. That’s right, those gaudily coloured, newsprint fliers, complete with checkbox order forms that come home in your child’s backpack.

The book order song and dance always starts the same way: “But all my friends are getting one,” they'll cajole.

When we give in to this nagging (rarely), we get to feel good because we are buying books (a good thing) and supporting publishers (also good). Plus, our school library gets a modest cut from each sale, so it's a real smorgasbord of literary promotion!

And no, this isn't our first school-book-order rodeo. Our kids have plead their cases for many pieces of junk.

The trouble, however, is what my nine-year-old really, really, really wants from his school book order is not a book at all, but a practical joke kit called Pranx! Pranx! is a compendium of classics and not the literary kind. It features the rubber cockroach, the whoopee cushion and a packet of gum that squirts water (water I'll urge, because I wouldn’t want to give him any other ideas).

And no, this isn't our first school-book-order rodeo. Our kids have plead their cases for many pieces of junk.

Last year, my daughter really, really needed a flip-sequin pen. The year before that, my middle son longed for an activity kit complete with a cheap plastic dinosaur and a “genuine fossil” which may be genuine but is awfully hard to distinguish from an ordinary rock.

Meanwhile, my nine-year-old — the budding prankster — has completely forgotten the hot-pink pencil case which looked exactly like an iPhone, but functioned like a hot-pink pencil case. And yet, he really, really wanted it then.


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Needless to say, we don’t indulge their impulses for these forgettable items. 

And to be clear, I usually toss the book order straight into the recycling bin and snuff the nagging before it starts. But, as a compromise, we do let our three kids buy one another Christmas gifts from it once a year.

Because we all have to learn the truth about advertising somewhere, right? And if that's through a school book order? Why not.

Article Author Rob Thomas
Rob Thomas

Read more from Rob here.

Rob Thomas is a writer, editor and a work-at-home dad. Brood, a book of poems inspired by his experiences of fatherhood, was launched at the Ottawa International Writers Festival in 2014. His journalism has appeared in places such as Ottawa Magazine, the United Church Observer, Canadian Running and on CBC radio and television. He is also a founding member of an Ottawa social club for dads called The Ugly Mothers.

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