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Universal Pictures

The Little Known Story Behind Do the Right Thing

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Universal Pictures

Spike Lee and his cinematographer Ernest Dickerson huddled on a plane. It was 1987, and they were headed to Los Angeles to do postproduction work on Lee’s second feature film, School Daze, a raucous musical comedy about life at an all-black college in the South.

At the moment, the 30-year-old Lee was everywhere: from Knicks games to Nike commercials. With just one film in release—the previous year’s She’s Gotta Have It—his brash, sexy, unapologetically political sensibility had made him one of America’s most recognizable auteurs. But on that flight, the tireless director was already plotting out a new project, furiously scribbling on a yellow legal pad. The script would be his most ambitious yet—a multiracial, intergenerational ensemble set in his home borough of Brooklyn on one hot summer day. He was calling it Heat Wave.

The project wouldn’t be an easy sell. In fact, it would cost every ounce of creative and cultural capital Lee had amassed in his short career. If it failed, he risked becoming just another young filmmaker chewed up and spit out by the Hollywood machine. Lee wanted to make his name, but he wanted to do more than that: He wanted to make a film that would make America look in the mirror.

Two days after Christmas the previous year, more than a thousand people had taken to the streets of the Italian-American enclave of Howard Beach, Queens, outraged by the death of a young black man named Michael Griffith. A few weeks prior, Griffith and some friends had been beaten up and chased from a local pizza parlor by a group of white men. Escaping from his pursuers, Griffith had run into the street and was killed by a car. The tragic event was just the latest in a long string of racially charged incidents that polarized New York’s neighborhoods.

At the same time, the five boroughs were undergoing an artistic renaissance. Rap, then still fighting for air time on radio and MTV, was rumbling out from block parties. By the mid-1980s, artists like Run-DMC and Public Enemy were bringing a distinctly urban sound to the airwaves. Writers like Greg Tate and Lisa Jones were breaking new stylistic ground; jazz masters such as Branford and Wynton Marsalis revitalized an older musical style; and a comedian named Chris Rock started performing jokes honed on the still-mean streets of brownstone Brooklyn.

It was out of this milieu that a young film student named Spike Lee rocketed to fame. The son of an arts and literature teacher and a jazz musician, Lee was born in Atlanta, but his family moved to Brooklyn three years later. As a kid, Lee handed out fliers for his dad’s shows, learning early the importance of wooing a crowd. It was all well and good to make art—his dad’s career effectively drove that lesson home—but Lee understood at a young age that it took money for the show to go on.

While attending college in the South, Lee made his first film, Last Hustle in Brooklyn. After graduating, he followed his passion to New York University’s film school, and in 1985, he raised $175,000 to make his first feature film. Over two weeks, he and Dickerson, with whom he’d ultimately collaborate on seven films, shot, in stark black-and-white, a hip, sensual romantic-comedy called She’s Gotta Have It. The film went on to win an Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature, and another directing award at Cannes. It also grossed more than $7 million at the U.S. box office—an astounding feat for an indie.

Two years later, Lee was ready to go bigger. His new film, which he discussed with Dickerson on that flight to Los Angeles, would focus on some of the hottest hot buttons around, including racism, immigration, gentrification, and police brutality. At the center of Lee’s new story, which would become Do the Right Thing, was Mookie, a pizza delivery guy who tries his best to move between worlds while keeping his eyes on what he cares about most: getting paid. On a blistering summer day in Bedford-Stuyvesant, with the heat reaching into the triple digits, fissures within the community— among African-American and Latino residents, Italian-American and Korean business owners, and the police—threaten to break open a series of escalating conflicts. By the end of the day, after one final confrontation, a neighborhood fixture would be dead, a beloved business would be destroyed, and the city would never be the same.

Early drafts of his script veered toward the polemical. Inspired in part by Michael Griffith’s story, Lee wanted to open with a Malcolm X quote and Mookie (played by Lee himself) shouting “Howard Beach!” as he threw a garbage can through the window of Sal’s Famous Pizzeria. But convincing a major studio that a film founded on race politics should be made—and could be successful—was another matter. Though they wouldn’t admit it, studio executives were looking for She’s Gotta Have It II—a light, sexy, silly romp. And that wasn’t the movie Lee wanted to make.

In 1988, after a long and frustrating gestation period, Paramount decided not to fund the project. The main issue, according to Lee’s published diary, was the ending: “How would audiences feel leaving the theater? Will blacks want to go on a rampage? Will whites feel uncomfortable?” Their hesitancy made Lee more committed than ever. “Am I advocating violence?” Lee wrote. “No, but goddamn, the days of 25,000,000 blacks being silent while our fellow brothers and sisters are exploited, oppressed, and murdered have to come to an end.” Lee continued shopping for funding, and eventually, Universal signed on to the project for a modest budget of $6.5 million. Lee was ready to begin filming.

Do the Right Thing was shot on Stuyvesant Avenue in Bed-Stuy over eight weeks in the summer of 1988. Lee, Dickerson, production designer Wynn Thomas, and their crew worked hard to create a vibrant universe where the action popped off the screen. Working on location, they shut down crack houses, painted exterior walls, hung a billboard of Mike Tyson, and sprayed some artfully conceived agitprop graffiti.

Lee wanted every shot to heighten the story’s tension; to that end, the color palette was limited to the hotter end of the spectrum. Out went blues and greens; in went bright reds and yellows. The crew even burned Sterno cans next to the camera to create the illusion of heat waves. Anything to agitate viewers’ eyes and make their necks sweat. Lee and Dickerson also used Dutch angles to destabilize viewers—positioning the camera at 45 degrees to give the movie an off-its-axis feel. “We’d looked at The Third Man and saw the use of Dutch angles, how it created tension,” Dickerson says of the 1949 Orson Welles noir. “It’s kind of a world going out of balance. We had it more tilted as things got rougher, especially before the riot.”

That riot took place at Sal’s Famous Pizzeria. To create the parlor’s handmade feel, Thomas traveled all over the outer boroughs looking for inspiration—a mission not entirely without fraught moments given the freshness of the Howard Beach assault. In the end, he built a fully functioning restaurant with a working oven and kitchen, its walls lined with gas pipes, ready to burst into flames at the strike of a match.

But ultimately, Lee’s climactic scene worked not because of the set, but because of the richness of his characters. Bill Nunn, who played boom-box-toting B-boy Radio Raheem, understood his character intuitively. “I was trying to be like this guy who reminded me of myself at that time,” Nunn says. “A guy so in love with his music and culture that he wants to impose it on others.” Joie Lee, who played Mookie’s sister Jade, recalled on the commentary track how three-dimensional Lee’s characters were. “These are not stereotypical black characters,” she said. “Now, we may not think that so much because it’s not so out of the ordinary anymore—but then, my god!”

Another complex character was Smiley, a developmentally delayed man with a severe speech impediment who memorably attempts to explain racism. Roger Guenveur Smith, an accomplished stage actor, conceived and played Smiley. He remembers Lee being no-nonsense—and in a hurry to make history. When Lee showed the actor the script, he told him, “Read it tonight; come back to me tomorrow with an idea.” The character Smith came up with was so realistic that locals thought he was actually disabled.

Politics aside, Do the Right Thing was still a hard sell. It struck a complicated tone that whipsawed from comedy to melodrama to advocacy. In a single film, Lee portrayed street corner provocateurs that bordered on parody, tender scenes of family and community, and exuberant moments of fun with open fire hydrants, featuring a then unknown comedian named Martin Lawrence. Not to mention: that powder-keg ending.

The film builds around a single relentlessly thumping song, Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” and yet for all its politics, the director never tells the viewer what to think or how to feel. We hear each point of view (sometimes spoken directly to the camera in long streams of racial epithets), but Lee refuses to define his film’s heroes or villains. Instead of spelling it out, Lee ends Do the Right Thing with two competing quotes. One, from Martin Luther King Jr., denounces violence. The other, from Malcolm X, advocates for self-defense. In the end, the director leaves it to the viewer to decide what doing the right thing means.

When Do the Right Thing debuted in May 1989 at the Cannes International Film Festival, Lee was dressed in a Malcolm X T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan no sellout. “This film is not about just New York City,” Lee said at the press conference. “It’s about the world. Racism is all over the world.”

Some critics fretted that in portraying an explosive situation, the movie might spark real unrest. David Denby, then a writer with New York, called Lee “a commercial opportunist” and worried that “the response to the movie could get away from him.” In the same issue, Joe Klein wrote that the director was “a classic art-school dilettante” and criticized the “dangerous stupidity of Spike Lee’s message.” But for every negative review, there was an effusive one. Roger Ebert left the Cannes screening with tears in his eyes. “I have been given only a few filmgoing experiences in my life to equal the first time I saw Do the Right Thing,” the critic wrote years later. “Most movies remain up there on the screen. Only a few penetrate your soul.”

In the end, the top prize at Cannes that year went to Steven Soderbergh, for sex, lies, and videotape, but Do the Right Thing ignited a nationwide debate about race. Both The New York Times and The Village Voice devoted page after page to essays about the film; Nightline and Oprah brought the conversation into Americans’ living rooms. Many observers even say it influenced politics: That fall New York City elected David Dinkins, its first (and still only) African-American mayor. Was it a coincidence that one of the last lines in the film comes from Samuel L. Jackson, playing the DJ Mister Señor Love Daddy, reminding listeners to register to vote in the November election? New York still had a rough few years ahead of it, with the Central Park jogger rape case, riots in Crown Heights, and other racially charged incidents, but the conversation around race was being had openly—facilitated, in part, by Lee’s art.

Today, the film is a snapshot of an era—but it’s also an undisputed milestone, not just in Lee’s career, but in the evolution of African-American film and art. With it, Lee joined the ranks of luminaries like Melvin Van Peebles, Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, and Bill Cosby—actors and directors who fought to make the movies a place where black performers could portray more than just maids and thugs.

But Lee did more than that. His style opened the floodgates for a new generation of African-American directors, most notably John Singleton, whose 1991 film Boyz n the Hood made him, at 23, the first black filmmaker to nab a Best Director Oscar nomination. “Spike opened the door to make more serious pictures,” Singleton once said. Earning more than $40 million worldwide, Do the Right Thing showed studios that black directors could do more than just provoke dialogue: They could secure box office returns. And for Lee, it proved that making a living didn’t have to conflict with making a statement.

Perhaps the biggest testament to Do the Right Thing’s legacy is that after a quarter-century, it feels fresh and relevant even to people who don’t remember the world it depicts. Nunn, whose character speaks few words on screen, today finds himself talking to people all the time who approach him and say, “Yo, Radio Raheem!” “What amazes me is the age of the people who say that,” Nunn says. “They’re kids. And they’re still watching this movie.”

This story originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. Subscribe to our print edition here, and our iPad edition here.

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46 Mouthwatering Facts About Pizza
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If you live in the United States, it’s statistically likely you’ll eat around 6000 slices of pizza over the course of your life. But how much do you actually know about that delicious combo of dough, cheese, and sauce? Where did pizza come from? What makes a great slice?

Whether you’re a fan of thin crust, deep dish, or the New York slice, here are 46 facts that’ll tell you everything you need to know about pizza, in honor of National Cheese Pizza Day:

1. The word “pizza” dates back over a thousand years—it was first mentioned in a Latin text written in southern Italy in 997 CE.

2. In 1835, Alexandre Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers, traveled to Naples, where he observed that the Neapolitan poor ate nothing but watermelon during the summer and pizza during the winter.

3. The first pizza place in America was Lombardi’s in New York City—originally a grocery store, Lombardi’s started selling pizza in 1905.

4. During the first few decades of the 20th century, pizza was predominantly eaten and sold by working class Italian immigrants...

5. … But after World War II, American GIs came home from Italy with a craving for pizza, bringing the food to a broader consumer base for the first time.

6. The first American cities to start selling pizza were New York, Boston, New Haven, Conn., and Trenton, N.J. All four of these cities had an influx of Southern Italian immigrants around the turn of the century.

7. At first, pizzas were sold exclusively by the pie. But in 1933, Patsy Lancieri (of Patsy's Pizzeria in New York City) started selling pizza by the slice—a trend that was quickly picked up by other pizzerias.

8. Humans aren’t the only ones who love the taste of pizza: There’s even a mini pizza for dogs called the “Heaven Scent Pizza” made of flour, carrots, celery, and parmesan cheese.

9. The first-known Chicago deep dish pizzas were created in 1943 by the restaurant that later became the Pizzeria Uno chain.

10. Domino’s was founded in 1960. The restaurant chain’s founder, Tom Monaghan, is one of three people in the world who hold an advanced degree in "Pizza-ology” from the “Domino’s College of Pizza-ology”—a business management program he founded in the ‘80s.

11. Domino’s dropped its “30 minutes or less” guarantee in 1993 after a series of lawsuits accused the company of promoting unsafe driving.

12. The Domino's delivery offer is still good in some places around the world. The guarantee has been great for business in Turkey, for instance. 

13. The first frozen pizza hit the market in 1962. It mostly tasted like cardboard until the genius food inventor Rose Totino got her hands on it. 

14. The Hawaiian pizza was invented in 1962 by Sam Panopoulos, a native of Greece who ran a pizza place in Canada. 

15. In the late ‘60s, the U.S. Army’s 113th Military Intelligence Unit spied on reporters and politicians using fake pizza deliveries.

16. Pizza may have originated in Italy, but countries around the world have developed their own regional spins on the classic food. In Brazil chefs top their pizzas with green peas, the French love fried eggs on their slices, and in China a crust made of mini-hot dogs is surprisingly popular.

17. The first pizza ordered by computer happened in 1974: The Artificial Language Laboratory at Michigan State needed to test out its new “speaking computer,” so they used it to order a pepperoni, mushroom, ham, and sausage pizza from a local pizza joint. 

18. In the 1980s, the Pizza Connection trial became the longest running criminal jury trial in American history, running from 1985 to 1987. It prosecuted a group of mafia members who were using pizza restaurants as a front for drug trafficking.

19. Chuck E. Cheese's was founded by Nolan Bushnell, the co-founder of Atari, as a way to make more money off of the game consoles.

20. Chuck E. Cheese may be the most famous animatronic pizza-selling animal in the world, but in the '80s, ShowBiz Pizza Place’s “Rock-A-Fire Explosion” gave the rat a run for his money. ShowBiz's animatronic band played hit pop songs and original tunes at locations across America, and were the creation of Aaron Fechter (who also invented Whac-a-Mole).

21. When pizza chefs around the world need help with their recipes, they turn to “Dough Doctor” Tom Lehmann. Lehmann, who lives in Manhattan, Kansas, is a pizza expert who’s been working with the American Institute of Baking since 1967. One of the biggest challenges he's faced? Low-carb dough requests during the height of the Atkins diet craze.

22. Plenty of famous people got their start making and delivering pizzas. Stephen Baldwin and Bill Murray both worked at pizza restaurants, and Jean Claude Van Damme used to deliver pizzas. 

23. The only pizza-themed superhero movie made to date is called Pizza Man—released in 2011, the film stars Frankie Muniz as a pizza delivery guy who acquires super powers from eating a genetically modified tomato.

24. In 2013, former child star Macaulay Culkin formed a pizza-themed Velvet Underground cover band called Pizza Underground. The band performs hits like “I’m Waiting for the Delivery Man” and “All the Pizza Parties.”

25. Pizza played a role in helping police catch an alleged serial killer known as the “Grim Sleeper” in 2010 when an undercover officer took a DNA sample from a slice of pizza the killer had been snacking on at a family birthday party. 

26. Pizza has also helped prevent several crimes: In 2008 when a pizza delivery man in Florida was confronted by robbers, he threw the hot pizza he was delivering at them and escaped harm.

27. In 2014, a woman called 911 to report a burglary and sexual assault, but because the burglar was still in her home, she came up with a novel way to get the attention of police: she pretended to order a pizza. Fortunately, the police figured out that something was not quite right with the pizza order, and instantly responded to the call.

28. In 2001, Pizza Hut delivered a six-inch salami pizza to the International Space Station—the first pizza delivered to outer space

29. A little over a decade later, in 2013, a group of NASA-funded scientists invented a 3D printer that could cook pizza in just 70 seconds, literally spraying on flavor, smell, and micronutrients.

30. The U.S. Military Lab recently invented a ready-to-eat pizza that can last for up to three years. The pizza is intended for soldiers abroad who are craving a slice… and also presumably for anyone preparing for a zombie apocalypse.

31. Pizza is such an iconic food, it even inspired an art show. In 2013, the Marlborough Broome Street Gallery in New York curated a show called “Pizza Time!” featuring more than 25 pizza-inspired works of art. The works ranged from paintings like “Caveman on Pizza,” which featured a sunglasses-wearing caveman surfing a giant slice of pizza, to works of art made of actual pizza, like John Riepenhoff’s “Physical Pizza Networking Theory.”

32. Pizza chefs use a wide variety of pizza lingo to show they’re in the know. For example, a ball of dough that’s been stretched and is ready for toppings is called a “skin,” mushrooms are often referred to as “screamers,” and slices of pepperoni are called “flyers,” for the way they’re thrown around the pizza kitchen like Frisbees.

33. Pizza chefs call the internal cell structure of pizza dough “the crumb”—most pizza makers try to achieve a crumb that’s airy with large holes.

34. The four primary kinds of mozzarella used to make pizza are mozzarella di bufala (made from the milk of water buffalo in Italy, and used on Neapolitan-style pizzas), fior di latte (similar to mozzarella di bufala, but made from cow’s milk), burrata (a fresh Italian cheese known for its creamy filling), and “pizza cheese" (the less perishable whole-milk or part-skim mozzarella used by the majority of American pizzerias).

35. In 2014, food scientists studied the baking properties of different cheeses, and found scientific evidence for a commonly known fact—mozzarella makes the best pizza cheese.

36. Ever eat a soggy slice of pizza that seemed to have a gross gooey layer between the base and the toppings? There’s a term for that. It’s called the “Gum Line,” and it's dreaded by pizza chefs. It’s caused when dough is undercooked, has too little yeast, or is topped with sauce or cheese that’s recently been pulled from the refrigerator and hasn’t had a chance to reach room temperature.

37. Think spinning pizza dough sounds simple? Think again. Dough-spinning has its own professional-level sporting event where pizza teams compete in acrobatic dough-spinning competitions at the World Pizza Championships.

38. But spinning pizza dough isn’t just for show: It’s the best way to evenly spread dough, create a uniform crust, and even helps the dough retain moisture.

39. There’s an association called the Associazione Verace Pizza Nepoletana (“True Neapolitan Pizza Association”) that sets specific rules about what qualifies as a true Neapolitan pizza and certifies pizza restaurants accordingly.

40. According to legend, the “Pizza Margherita” takes its name from Queen Margherita of Savoy who, in 1889, sampled three pizza flavors made by master pizza chef Raffaele Esposito and expressed a preference for the version topped with tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil, and designed to resemble the Italian flag. Nice story—and while the Queen did eat Esposito's pizza, there's no evidence of what was on the menu, and a lot of skepticism that this was mostly a marketing scheme concocted (complete with forged historical documents!) to boost business. 

41. Over the years a number of strange pizza-flavored products have been released, including potato chips, condoms, ice cream, beer, and e-cigarettes.

42. There’s a pizza museum in Philadelphia called Pizza Brain that is home to the world’s largest collection of pizza memorabilia.

43. Pizzerias sell the most pizzas on Halloween, the night before Thanksgiving, New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day, and Super Bowl Sunday.

44. The largest pizza in the world was 131 feet in diameter, and weighed 51,257 pounds.

45. The inventors of Bagel Bites got the inspiration for their first recipe off the back of a Lender's Bagel bag.

46. Research firm Technomic estimated in 2013 that Americans eat 350 slices of pizza each second, and that 40 percent of us eat pizza at least once a week.

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Pizza Hut
12 Cheesy Facts About Pizza Hut's BOOK IT! Program
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Pizza Hut

If you went to school in the U.S. in the past three decades, you were probably exposed to BOOK IT!, the reading reward program by Pizza Hut that has kids devouring books by the dozen in order to earn free pizza and other rewards. According to Pizza Hut, more than 14 million students across 620,000 classrooms (or roughly 1 in 5 Americans over the past three decades) have participated in BOOK IT! Here's what you need to know about the delicious—and educational—program.


Inside a Pizza Hut restaurant, a woman pins a blue Book It button on a boy's shirt. Based on the hairstyles and clothing, the photo dates from the mid 1980s.
Pizza Hut

Pizza Hut's BOOK IT! program was created in Pizza Hut's Wichita, Kansas, offices in 1984. According to a video created by Pizza Hut, the program was created after President Ronald Reagan put out a call to America's businesses, encouraging them to get involved in education. Arthur Gunther, then-president of Pizza Hut, thought of his son, Michael, who had had trouble with reading due to eye problems when he was growing up. Gunther—who later told the Los Angeles Times that he was "truly motivated by my son and my love for him"—met with educators in the Kansas area with the goal of coming up with a program that would encourage kids to read and help them develop reading skills; what was developed became Pizza Hut's BOOK IT! program.

The idea behind BOOK IT! was simple: Reward students with certificates, stickers, buttons, and a single-topping Personal Pan Pizza for reading books. It was tested in Kansas schools before it—and its signature blue button—was rolled out nationwide in 1985.

Just over a month later, more than 7 million grade school students had participated across 233,080 classrooms. Gunther reported that three-quarters of students in the program exceeded their regular reading level. It also cost the chain an estimated $50 million in free pizza, plus $2.7 million in printed materials.


On June 2, 1987, Reagan sent a message to BOOK IT! organizers, reading, in part:

"During this 'Year of the Reader,' we can all reflect that reading is essential to the vitality of the mind and to the success and accomplishment of almost every endeavor. As the Book-It Program prepares for yet another tremendous year of bringing the gift of reading to youngsters, I want to commend all those associated with the program for the outstanding work you do. Your efforts give help and inspiration to many and strengthen our Nation. I salute you."


In a 1988 episode of Small Wonder, Vicki's class participated in BOOK IT! In the episode, two students have to finish their reading assignments. This being late-'80s primetime TV, one of the students creates a hip-hop book report comparing Robin Hood to Mr. T. They earned that pizza.


October 3, 1988 was a very special day. Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton issued an official proclamation declaring it "BOOK IT! Day," stating that the program was "an effective tool in motivating elementary students to read." He further noted that across Arkansas that year, 5711 classrooms with 142,775 students participated in the program.


Pizza Hut extended BOOK IT! in 1989 with a week-long reading event that brought "celebrity" role models into schools to demonstrate the importance of reading to kids. ("Celebrities" are often local figures like school principals, though can include pop stars—see item 11 below!) Dubbed National Young Readers Week, the event was created alongside the Library of Congress Center for the Book. Pizza Hut proceeded to issue a challenge to school principals "to become shining examples for literacy by choosing one day to read their heart out all day long, from first bell to the last during National Young Readers Week." The event runs during the second week of November each year.


Principal John Rizzo of Jonestown Elementary in Jonestown, Pennsylvania, won the National Young Readers Week principal challenge in 2016. He dressed up as Batman and visited classrooms in his school, promoting reading. Rizzo then went on the roof of the school to read to students. "We try to develop lifelong learners, especially lifelong learners of books and reading," the Bat-Principal told ABC27 News.


While many students are exposed to BOOK IT! in public schools, it's available to homeschoolers too. The program runs from October 1 through March 31 each year, and students ages 5 to 12 (grades K to 6) are eligible to participate. BOOK IT! prohibits clubs and other such non-school groups from participating, suggesting that this could dilute the value of the rewards. The program is also available to virtual and online schools, with the proper paperwork.

In its first few decades, BOOK IT! kids recorded their reading with paper logbooks—and that's still an option. But there's an app for that, too. The app syncs student progress with a teacher dashboard, allowing teachers to keep track of ongoing participation.


The BOOK IT! FAQ explicitly prohibits "group redemptions and parties," including class pizza parties. The guidelines say:

"An important part of the BOOK IT! Program is individual recognition of your students for meeting their reading goals and our team members are trained to provide individual recognition."


A vintage BOOK-IT pin from 1985.
The 1985 BOOK-IT! pin.

Vintage BOOK IT! promo items appear to be slightly collectible, especially the logo button which debuted in 1985. eBay has dozens of pins dating from the '80s and '90s—you can even see how the logo design changed over the years.


For a brand based on reading and pizza, the official BOOK IT! store takes the merchandise to a slightly odd place. With USB car chargers, magnetic fridge clips, and squeezable dart rockets, you'd be forgiven for thinking BOOK IT! was aimed at grownups.

On the other hand, they also carry the "retro" t-shirt design and reader awards, which are great for kids.


In 1999, a paper studying BOOK IT! was published. Entitled "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. [PDF]), the paper examined how pizza functioned as an extrinsic reward for reading. In other words, although reading carries intrinsic rewards like enjoying the story, the addition of extrinsic motivators like pizza or money (not part of the BOOK IT! program) can affect students' reading behavior. The study sought to determine whether those extrinsic rewards negatively affected later reading behavior—the concern being that perhaps without pizza or cash, students might stop reading.

From the paper's abstract (emphasis added):

Neither being reinforced with money or pizzas increased or decreased the amount college students read nor influenced their intrinsic motivation for reading. Answers to direct questions about BOOK IT! and parental pay for reading suggest that when a child is extrinsically reinforced for reading the child will increase the amount read, enjoyment of reading may increase, and if they do not yet know how to read fluently, the programs may help the child to learn to read. These results provide no support for the myth that extrinsic rewards for reading undermine intrinsic interest in reading. Rather, extrinsic rewards for reading set the conditions where intrinsic motivation for reading may develop.


In 2011, BOOK IT!'s "America's Biggest Bedtime Story" program presented Justin Bieber reading The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss. The program exists to encourage parents to read bedtime stories to their kids. Bieber read the story to benefit the Pencils of Promise charity. The next year, BOOK IT! recruited Tim Tebow to read Green Eggs and Ham. (Back in 2007, John Lithgow kicked off the trend, reading his own kids' book, The Remarkable Farkle McBride.)


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