Reading for Pizza (and Grades)

October 29, 2012 § Leave a comment

Karen Russell, from the New Yorker’s Science Fiction issue (June 4 & 11; subscription only):

In the early nineties, Pizza Hut sponsors Book It!, to promote reading. For every ten books you read, you get a certificate for a free, one-topping pizza. At the end of each month, you come home from Mrs. Sicius’s fifth-grade class and slam down the Book It! certificate in front of your parents like a hunter dropping a deer carcass on the kitchen table. Book that, Family! We are eating tonight!

It turns out that there is no greater pleasure than reading for pizza. No longer do you feel guilty about eschewing the “real” world for these fantasy zones. Now you have an unassailable, American motivation; you’re a breadwinner. Literally. It’s November. Since September, you’ve earned forty dollars’ worth of garlic bread for the family.

At Pizza Hut, your younger siblings drink fountain soda from red cups, bite into cartoon-yellow mozzarella. Sit back with your arms folded. “Get a refill, Dad!” you encourage, like some magnanimous king. Everything is going aces until the waitress, who, like a raccoon, combines indifference and nosiness, flips through the Book It! certificate.

  1. “The Sword of Shanarra.”
  2. “The Wishsong of Shanarra.”
  3. “The Elfstones of Shanarra.”

“Last month, she read ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ you mom says, then hustles you toward the car.

So it’s at the U.S. 1 Pizza Hut, in Kendall, Florida, under the neon-pink sconces, that you first encounter the adults’ distinction between “literature” and “genre.”

I don’t think I ever got free pizza for reading, but I did often have to read x number of books within a certain period (and, of course, write reports: Title, Author, Summary, Opinion), and instead of reading serial genre novels, my strategy was to read from my stash of reliables multiple years in a row and hope the teachers wouldn’t confer and find out I was double-dipping. Titles off the top of my head: Aldo Applesauce; the ubiquitous Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing (and its sequel, Superfudge); Alvin Fernald, TV Anchorman. And Short Season, about a kid on a Little League team who is left to his own devices when his brother walks off the team. The goofy National Lampoon’s Vacation-inspired Hooples on the Highway. And I remember coming across a weird library-bound edition of something called Sheriff Stonehead and the Teenage Termites, but that was probably over my head and I was never really able to get what it was about. Plus a lot of Hardy Boys (the original editions with actual detective work; not the later rehash where they killed off Chet’s girlfriend in a terrorist car bombing–I mean, Jesus Christ, I’m eleven) and Bobbsey Twins crap.

Russell’s delightful sidebar is one of several notes of nostalgia in the issue, along with Colson Whitehead’s remembrance of spending his after-school hours watching bad horror movies on Betamax with his brother (no subscription required).

P.S.: GalleyCat’s Jason Boog notes that “Pizza Hut still hosts the reading contest with some new media twists.”

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