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Pizza for Reading: Pizza Hut's Book It!

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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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Dan Bell
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Design
A Cartographer Is Mapping All of the UK’s National Parks, J.R.R. Tolkien-Style
Peak District National Park
Peak District National Park
Dan Bell

Cartographer Dan Bell makes national parks into fantasy lands. Bell, who lives near Lake District National Park in England, is currently on a mission to draw every national park in the UK in the style of the maps in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Kottke.org reports.

The project began in September 2017, when Bell posted his own hand-drawn version of a Middle Earth map online. He received such a positive response that he decided to apply the fantasy style to real world locations. He has completed 11 out of the UK’s 15 parks so far. Once he finishes, he hopes to tackle the U.S. National Park system, too. (He already has Yellowstone National Park down.)

Bell has done various other maps in the same style, including ones for London and Game of Thrones’s Westeros, and he commissions, in case you have your own special locale that could use the Tolkien treatment. Check out a few of his park maps below.

A close-up of a map for Peak District National Park
Peak District National Park in central England
Dan Bell

A black-and-white illustration of Cairngorms National Park in the style of a 'Lord of the Rings' map.
Cairngorms National Park in Scotland
Dan Bell

A black-and-white illustration of Lake District National Park in the style of a 'Lord of the Rings' map.
Lake District National Park in England
Dan Bell

You can buy prints of the maps here.

[h/t Kottke.org]

All images by Dan Bell

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Internet Archive, Flickr // Public Domain
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History
How a Shoemaker Became America’s Most Controversial Mystic—and Inspired Edgar Allan Poe
Internet Archive, Flickr // Public Domain
Internet Archive, Flickr // Public Domain

Andrew Jackson Davis may not be a prominent figure now, but in the 19th century, he amassed a dedicated following that helped give rise to Spiritualism, a once-popular religion that believed in communicating with the dead. Davis used the teachings of a German doctor named Anton Mesmer to enter trance states that he claimed allowed him to see into space, the afterlife, other worlds, and even the human body. His metaphysical exploits earned him the nickname the “Poughkeepsie Seer,” and while frequently derided by his contemporaries, he inspired at least one well-known American writer: Edgar Allan Poe.

A HUMBLE SHOEMAKER

By all accounts, Davis had a fairly unremarkable childhood. He was born in Blooming Grove, New York, in 1826. His father, a shoemaker, was prone to drink, so Davis and his sister picked up odd jobs to support the family. Most of his schooling came from a then-popular program where teachers taught advanced students, who then taught one another. Ira Armstrong, a shoemaker/merchant he apprenticed under, later recalled that Davis's education “barely amounted to a knowledge of reading, writing and the rudiments of arithmetic.”

In the 1830s, Anton Mesmer’s teachings became popular in America thanks to several impassioned lecturers in New York and New England. Mesmer, who had found fame in Europe in the late 18th century, believed he could use magnets and his own touch to move “magnetic fluids” through the body, healing his patients of everything from the common cold to blindness. Though his theory of animal magnetism, as he called the existence of such fluids, was discredited by the French Academy of Sciences in 1784, medical professionals later became curious about Mesmer’s ability to manipulate his patients into altered mental states. Doctors—conventional or otherwise—studied the phenomenon of mesmerism, traveling across the country to demonstrate their findings.

It’s this mesmerist renaissance that first brought Davis into the public eye. In 1843, a Dr. James Stanley Grimes traveled to Poughkeepsie, New York, advertising his ability to induce trance states. Many Poughkeepsie residents attended the production—including Davis, although he wasn't entranced as advertised. The visit excited the community, especially a tailor and acquaintance of Davis's named William Levingston, who began dabbling in mesmerism himself. One day in early December, Levingston asked if he could mesmerize Davis, and he succeeded where Grimes had failed: Davis, while blindfolded, was able to read a newspaper placed on his forehead, and listed the various diseases of a group of witnesses.

Rumors soon swirled about Davis’s abilities. After that first session, Levingston mesmerized him nearly every day, and hundreds crowded into Levingston’s home to gawk at the spectacle. The sessions followed a pattern: Davis would enter a trance state and diagnose visitors with maladies, and then Levingston would sell remedies. The pair eventually began to travel, taking their show to Connecticut.

Some of Davis’s advice was unorthodox. For deafness, as Davis wrote in his autobiography, The Magic Staff, he once recommended a patient “catch thirty-two weasels ... take off their hind legs at the middle joint, and boil that oil which Nature has deposited in the feet and the parts adjacent thereto.” This preparation, he went on, “must be dropped (one drop at a time) in each ear, twice a day, till the whole is gone—when you will be nearly cured!”

Sketch of Andrew Jackson Davis on a yellow background
Internet Archive, Flickr // Public Domain

However, Davis swore off parlor tricks in 1844 after he claimed to have teleported 40 miles in his sleep. During the episode, he purportedly spoke with the ghosts of the Greek physician Galen and the Swedish scientist and philosopher Emmanuel Swedenborg, who hinted that Davis had a higher purpose. Galen gifted him with a magic staff, although he was not allowed to keep it. The tale mirrored that of Joseph Smith, who around 1827 had claimed a holy messenger guided him to golden plates on which the Book of Mormon was written. The year after the teleportation episode, Davis decided to part ways with Levingston, and moved to New York City in the company of Silas Smith Lyon, a doctor, and two Universalist ministers, William Fishbough and Samuel Byron Britton.

There, Lyon placed Davis into trance states several times a day, during which time he would lecture on science and philosophy while also diagnosing patients. Fishbough, meanwhile, would transcribe Davis’s transmissions, which were published as his first book, The Principles of Nature, Her Divine Revelation, and a Voice to Mankind in 1847. Davis combined Spiritualism with utopianism, describing a heaven-like space where all would be welcomed by a Mother and a Father God. Academics of the time soon noticed Davis’s insights were nearly identical to writings that Swedenborg had published years before: Both Davis and Swedenborg claimed to see a spiritual world beyond our own, where all humans could be welcomed into heaven, regardless of religion.

Christian leaders called Davis’s text heretical, while newspapers referred to the book as “ridiculous” and “incomprehensible.” One professor of Greek and Latin at the University of New York said the book was “a work of the devil,” and displayed an “absurd and ridiculous attempt at reasoning.” Joseph McCabe, in his 1920 book Spiritualism: A Popular History from 1847, declared that there was “no need to examine the book seriously” since it contained so many scientific errors. Notably, The Church of New Jerusalem, founded on Swedenborgian ideas, never publicly endorsed Davis’s theories.

Despite this criticism, Davis attracted passionate defenders. George Bush, a Swedenborgian scholar and distant relative of George W. Bush, was among his champions. He insisted that a simple youth like Davis had no access to Swedenborg’s texts and must have been communing with spirits. In 1846, when the French mathematician Urbain-Jean-Joseph Le Verrier postulated the existence of the planet Neptune, supporters were quick to write the New York Tribune claiming Davis had already discovered the eighth planet. “As to the asserted fact that this announcement by Mr. Davis was made in March last,” Bush declared, “I can testify that I heard it read at the time; and numerous gentlemen in this city are ready to bear witness that I informed them of the circumstance several months before the intelligence reached us of Le Verrier’s discovery.”

Detractors were just as vocal. When Fishbough admitted to extensively editing Davis's words, a reviewer at the London Athenaeum couldn’t contain his derision: “That a seer ‘commercing’ with the Mysteries of Nature should have needed an editor in this technical sense is remarkable enough," he wrote. "It might have been supposed that the Revelations which brought to an uneducated man the secrets of Science might have brought him grammar, too, to express them in.” Fishbough countered that it would have simply been too much work for Davis to pay attention to such tiny details.

"MARTIN VAN BUREN MAVIS"

Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

One of the more prominent people occasionally making fun of Davis was Edgar Allan Poe. In the satirical “Mellonta Tauta,” Poe wrote in a preface that “Martin Van Buren Mavis (sometimes called the ‘Toughkeepsie Seer’)” had translated the story—thus poking fun at Davis and his acolytes. Poe also included Davis in his “50 Suggestions,” brief witticisms published in 1849 that took aim at popular beliefs and theorists of the time: “There surely cannot be ‘more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of’ (oh, Andrew Jackson Davis!) ‘in your philosophy,’” Poe wrote.

Yet Davis’s The Principles of Nature may also have inspired the prose poem “Eureka,” in which Poe proposed his theory of the universe. The work has puzzled critics since its inception: Poe’s use of humorous nicknames in the text (he refers to Aristotle as “Aries Tottle”) point to “Eureka” being a satire, but historians have pointed out that several of Poe’s intuitive concepts actually anticipated the study of scientific phenomenon like black holes and the expanding universe.

Several historians have also remarked on the way Davis’s demonstrations in New York influenced Poe’s short story “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” which follows a mesmerist who puts an old man into a trance on his deathbed and watches his body float between life and death. Davis had claimed his trances put him in a state near death, freeing his mind to travel to spiritual realms. In his book Occult America, writer Mitch Horowitz notes that Poe completed the story in New York the year he met Davis. Dawn B. Sova also mentions in Edgar Allan Poe A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Work that Poe used his observations of Davis’s trance sessions to complete the story.

For his part, Davis himself seemed somewhat taken with Poe. Of meeting him in 1846, he wrote in Memoranda of Persons, Places and Events, “My sympathies are strangely excited. There are conflicting breathings of commanding power in his mind. But … I saw a perfect shadow of himself in the air in front of him, as though the sun was constantly shining behind and casting shadows before him, causing the singular appearance of one walking into a dark fog produced by himself.”

Charlatan or not, it was an eerie observation to make of a writer who would meet his end three years later.

Davis himself would live a long and rich life. He continued to lecture and write books until the 1880s, doing away with his scribe for later publications. He then earned a traditional medical license and moved to Boston, serving as a physician until his death in 1910. Though he sought to distance himself from the spectacle of spiritualism later on in life, Davis’s humble background and curious rise to fame made the “Poughkeepsie Seer” one of the movement’s most notable figures—and one who still maintains a strange resonance today.

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