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Pizza for Reading: Pizza Hut's Book It!

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Pizza Hut

I remember Book It! as a clever way to get kids and parents into Pizza Hut franchises—with some reading thrown in. When the program launched in my elementary school in 1984, the deal was simple: read ten books (a goal set by my teacher), get a coupon for a free one-topping Personal Pan Pizza. To a young nerd, this was exciting stuff; I was going to read the ten books anyway, so the pizza was just a nice bonus. In addition to individual rewards, there was the lure of a class-wide pizza party if everyone met their reading goals...but there were always holdouts in my class who didn't manage to read their fair share. The promised pizza party finally happened in fifth grade, and my class of twenty descended on our local Pizza Hut like a pack of starving wolves. (We had just read Julie of the Wolves, if I recall correctly.) This qualifies me as a member of the Book It! Alumni, oddly enough.

When I was a kid, the Book It! goals were concrete and simple—measured in my class by a simple "number of books" count, and involving the student handing in a brief summary of the books read. Because the goals were so simple, they were highly exploitable. I did two naughty things to game the system: I counted collections of Garfield cartoons as "books," and on occasion I threw in a few books I'd read in prior years in order to hit the magic ten-book number required for another pizza. We were limited to one pizza a month, but when "pizza day" came around, I was always ready.

Today, while it's still possible for a teacher to set by-the-book goals, the program is more focused on time spent reading, as well as time spent reading aloud. For example, for a fifth-grader, Book It! recommends spending 300 minutes per month reading. For first-graders, the program recommends 20 minutes, 5 nights a week—which, assuming a four-week month, is 400 minutes, thus 33% more than the amount suggested for fifth-graders.

Book It! was so popular that in 1989, Barbara Bush hosted a "Reading is Fundamental" pizza party at the White House...featuring Pizza Hut pizza. The program is also available to homeschoolers (author's note—thanks to commenters for pointing this out!).

Studies and Controversy

The Book It! program was the subject of a 1999 study and scholarly paper. Titled "Effects of extrinsic reinforcement for reading during childhood on reported reading habits of college students" (Psychological Record, 1999, by Flora, S. R., & Flora, D. B.; full text), the paper characterized pizza as an "extrinsic reward" for reading, and analyzed survey data collected from college students, trying to determine how the pizza rewards (and other extrinsic rewards like cash payments) affected students' reading behavior. Here's a snippet from the paper (emphasis added):

The answers to the direct questions about Book It! and being paid to read suggested strong beneficial effects of these procedures. Specifically, of the people who reported being in the Book It! program none indicated that it decreased reading. Conversely, 27 responded that it had no effect, and 80 (74.8% of those answering the item) indicated that the Book It! program increased reading amount.

Eight people did report that participating in Book It! decreased their enjoyment of reading. However, 30 people (28%) reported that Book It! increased their enjoyment of reading and 68 (64%) reported Book It! had no effect on enjoyment.

Fifty three people (49.5%) reported that the Book It! program helped them learn how to read. Fifty three people reported that Book It! had no effect on their learning to read. Only one person reported that Book It! slowed them in learning to read. ...

Discussion

The current study found no reliable effect of either participating in the Book It! reading program or of being rewarded with money for reading as children on either intrinsic motivation for reading, or on the self-reported amount of reading per week of college students. Direct questions about the effects of Book It! and/or of being paid to read found the procedures to be beneficial or at worst benign. Indeed, the results suggest that when a child participates in Book It! or is rewarded for reading with money the child will increase the amount read, enjoyment of reading may increase, and if they do not read fluently, then the programs may help the child to learn to read.

The study was performed on college students, so it may not be indicative of the broader reading population (for example, what would happen if non-college students were polled?). But still, the study is an interesting read, including the line: "Three responses indicated cheating in the Book It! program." Thank you, scholars, for proving I wasn't the only one.

Book It! has been criticized for combining marketing, high-fat food, and literacy. The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) issued a press release in 2007, including the following:

Reaching 22 million school children in 900,000 classrooms each year, BOOK IT! is one of corporate America’s most insidious school-based brand promotions. The annual BOOK IT! Beginners program – which allows Pizza Hut to target preschools – begins next week

“BOOK IT! epitomizes everything that’s wrong with corporate-sponsored programs in school,” said Dr. [Susan] Linn, author of Consuming Kids. “In the name of education, it promotes junk food consumption to a captive audience of children; turns teachers into Pizza Hut promoters; and undermines parents by positioning family visits to Pizza Hut as an integral component of raising literate children.”

BOOK IT! rewards students with certificates for a free Pizza Hut personal pizza when they reach certain reading goals. A Pizza Hut six-inch personal pan pizza has 630 calories and 27 grams of fat. With a topping, it can have as many as 770 calories and 39 grams of fat. For children ages 3-5, a Pizza Hut personal pizza can contain more than half of their daily caloric requirement, as well as their entire fat requirement.

Despite the CCFC's campaign, the Book It! program endures, and even has fans including poets and guys who wear shirts, not to mention nearly 15,000 people on Facebook. Although the published numbers are all over the place, the program currently reaches at least 10 million students annually, and is over 25 years old. That's a lotta free pizza, folks.

A Video History

Book It! is now more than 30 years old. Here's a refresher:

Did You Participate in Book It!?

What do you think about the Book It! program? Do you love it, hate it, or have mixed feelings? Share your thoughts and memories in the comments. For the record, I have no affiliation with Book It! or Pizza Hut, aside from participating in the program in grade school.

(Note: A version of this story first ran on September 28, 2012.)

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Ernest Hemingway’s Guide to Life, In 20 Quotes
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Though he made his living as a writer, Ernest Hemingway was just as famous for his lust for adventure. Whether he was running with the bulls in Pamplona, fishing for marlin in Bimini, throwing back rum cocktails in Havana, or hanging out with his six-toed cats in Key West, the Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning author never did anything halfway. And he used his adventures as fodder for the unparalleled collection of novels, short stories, and nonfiction books he left behind, The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, Death in the Afternoon, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and The Old Man and the Sea among them.

On what would be his 118th birthday—he was born in Oak Park, Illinois on July 21, 1899—here are 20 memorable quotes that offer a keen perspective into Hemingway’s way of life.

ON THE IMPORTANCE OF LISTENING

"I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen."

ON TRUST

"The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them."

ON DECIDING WHAT TO WRITE ABOUT

"I never had to choose a subject—my subject rather chose me."

ON TRAVEL

"Never go on trips with anyone you do not love."

Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston. [1], Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

ON THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN INTELLIGENCE AND HAPPINESS

"Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know."

ON TRUTH

"There's no one thing that is true. They're all true."

ON THE DOWNSIDE OF PEOPLE

"The only thing that could spoil a day was people. People were always the limiters of happiness, except for the very few that were as good as spring itself."

ON SUFFERING FOR YOUR ART

"There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed."

ON TAKING ACTION

"Never mistake motion for action."

ON GETTING WORDS OUT

"I wake up in the morning and my mind starts making sentences, and I have to get rid of them fast—talk them or write them down."

Photograph by Mary Hemingway, in the Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston., Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

ON THE BENEFITS OF SLEEP

"I love sleep. My life has the tendency to fall apart when I'm awake, you know?"

ON FINDING STRENGTH 

"The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places."

ON THE TRUE NATURE OF WICKEDNESS

"All things truly wicked start from innocence."

ON WRITING WHAT YOU KNOW

"If a writer knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one ninth of it being above water."

ON THE DEFINITION OF COURAGE

"Courage is grace under pressure."

ON THE PAINFULNESS OF BEING FUNNY

"A man's got to take a lot of punishment to write a really funny book."

By Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston. - JFK Library, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

ON KEEPING PROMISES

"Always do sober what you said you'd do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut."

ON GOOD VS. EVIL

"About morals, I know only that what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after."

ON REACHING FOR THE UNATTAINABLE

"For a true writer, each book should be a new beginning where he tries again for something that is beyond attainment. He should always try for something that has never been done or that others have tried and failed. Then sometimes, with great luck, he will succeed."

ON HAPPY ENDINGS

"There is no lonelier man in death, except the suicide, than that man who has lived many years with a good wife and then outlived her. If two people love each other there can be no happy end to it."

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12 Fantastic Facts About A Wrinkle in Time
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istock (blank book) / Taeeun Yoo (cover art)

Madeleine L’Engle’s acclaimed science fantasy novel A Wrinkle in Time has been delighting readers since its 1962 release. Whether you’ve never had the chance to read this timeless tale or haven’t picked it up in a while, here are some facts that are sure to get you in the mood for a literary journey through the universe—not to mention its upcoming big-screen adaptation.

1. THE AUTHOR’S PERSISTENCE PAID OFF.

She’s a revered writer today, but Madeleine L’Engle’s early literary career was rocky. She nearly gave up on writing on her 40th birthday. L’Engle stuck with it, though, and on a 10-week cross-country camping trip she found herself inspired to begin writing A Wrinkle in Time.

2. EINSTEIN SPARKED L'ENGLE'S INTEREST IN QUANTUM PHYSICS AND TESSERACTS.

L’Engle was never a strong math student, but as an adult she found herself drawn to concepts of cosmology and non-linear time after picking up a book about Albert Einstein. L’Engle adamantly believed that any theory of writing is also a theory of cosmology because “one cannot discuss structure in writing without discussing structure in all life." The idea that religion, science, and magic are different aspects of a single reality and should not be thought of as conflicting is a recurring theme in her work.

3. L’ENGLE BASED THE PROTAGONIST ON HERSELF.

L’Engle often compared her young heroine, Meg Murry, to her childhood self—gangly, awkward, and a poor student. Like many young girls, both Meg and L’Engle were dissatisfied with their looks and felt their appearances were homely, unkempt, and in a constant state of disarray.

4. IT WAS REJECTED BY MORE THAN TWO DOZEN PUBLISHERS.

L’Engle weathered 26 rejections before Farrar, Straus & Giroux finally took a chance on A Wrinkle in Time. Many publishers were nervous about acquiring the novel because it was too difficult to categorize. Was it written for children or adults? Was the genre science fiction or fantasy?

5. L’ENGLE DIDN'T KNOW HOW TO CATEGORIZE THE BOOK, EITHER.

To compound publishers’ worries, L’Engle famously rejected these arbitrary categories and insisted that her writing was for anyone, regardless of age. She believed that children could often understand concepts that would baffle adults, due to their childlike ability to use their imaginations with the unknown.

6. MEG MURRY WAS ONE OF SCIENCE FICTION'S FIRST GREAT FEMALE PROTAGONISTS ...

… and that scared publishers even more. L’Engle believed that the relatively uncommon choice of a young heroine contributed to her struggles getting the book in stores since men and boys dominated science fiction.

Nevertheless, the author stood by her heroine and consistently promoted acceptance of one’s unique traits and personality. When A Wrinkle in Time won the 1963 Newbury Award, L’Engle used her acceptance speech to decry forces working for the standardization of mankind, or, as she so eloquently put it, “making muffins of us, muffins like every other muffin in the muffin tin.” L’Engle’s commitment to individualism contributed to the very future of science fiction. Without her we may never have met The Hunger Games’s Katniss Everdeen or Divergent’s Tris Prior.

7. THE MURKY GENRE HELPED MAKE THE BOOK A SUCCESS.

Once A Wrinkle in Time hit bookstores, its slippery categorization stopped being a drawback. The book was smart enough for adults without losing sight of the storytelling elements kids love. A glowing 1963 review in The Milwaukee Sentinel captured this sentiment: “A sort of space age Alice in Wonderland, Miss L’Engle’s book combines a warm story of family life with science fiction and a most convincing case for nonconformity. Adults who still enjoy Alice will find it delightful reading along with their youngsters.”

8. THE BOOK IS ACTUALLY THE FIRST OF A SERIES.

Although the other four novels are not as well known as A Wrinkle in Time, the “Time Quintet” is a favorite of science fiction fans. The series, written over a period of nearly 30 years, follows the Murry family’s continuing battle over evil forces.

9. IT IS ONE OF THE MOST FREQUENTLY BANNED BOOKS OF ALL TIME.

Oddly enough, A Wrinkle in Time has been accused of being both too religious and anti-Christian. L’Engle’s particular brand of liberal Christianity was deeply rooted in universal salvation, a view that some critics have claimed “denigrates organized Christianity and promotes an occultic world view.” There have also been objections to the use of Jesus Christ’s name alongside figures like Buddha, Shakespeare, and Gandhi. Detractors feel that grouping these names together trivializes Christ’s divine nature.

10. L’ENGLE LEARNED TO SEE THE UPSIDE OF THIS CONTROVERSY.

The author revealed how she felt about all this sniping in a 2001 interview with The New York Times. She brushed it aside, saying, “It seems people are willing to damn the book without reading it. Nonsense about witchcraft and fantasy. First I felt horror, then anger, and finally I said, 'Ah, the hell with it.' It's great publicity, really.''

11. THE SCIENCE FICTION HAS INSPIRED SCIENCE FACTS.

American astronaut Janice Voss once told L’Engle that A Wrinkle in Time inspired her career path. When Voss asked if she could bring a copy of the novel into space, L’Engle jokingly asked why she couldn’t go, too.

Inspiring astronauts wasn’t L’Engle’s only out-of-this-world achievement. In 2013 the International Astronomical Union (IAU) honored the writer’s memory by naming a crater on Mercury’s south pole “L’Engle.”

12. A STAR-STUDDED MOVIE ADAPTATION WILL HIT THEATERS IN 2018.

Although L’Engle was famously skeptical of film adaptations of the novel, Oscar-nominated filmmaker Ava DuVernay (13th; Selma) is bringing a star-filled version of the book to the big screen next year. Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Chris Pine, Mindy Kaling, and Zach Galifianakis are among the film's stars. It's due in theaters on March 9, 2018.

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