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The Scholastic Book Fair

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I ran across a tweet someone had screenshotted and shared on Facebook recently, and is often my practice, I looked it up so I could give proper attribution to the original author. It turns out the tweet was from 2019, but it’s one of those tweets that only improves as it ages, proving its worthiness by how true it remains.

Now, I don’t actually believe in magic, per se. There are unexplainable things, amazing illusionists, and unimaginable technology that we just haven’t invented yet. But actual magic? In a practical sense, no. But there are a few things which come surprisingly close.

Music, and its ability to tie mathematical formulas to human emotion is about as close to magic as I can fathom. Part of it is how truly brilliant, beautiful music is defined by its perfect imperfections. And part of it is how something so mathematically definable is also pure art.

Speaking of art, it’s not just music, but all forms of art that I find absolutely baffling. Like how the human condition can be somehow quantified and expressed in a medium other than life itself. Whether it’s Mona Lisa’s smile, or Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” (often credited to Van Gogh, but that’s another story altogether) — art somehow defines the part of humanity that is more than flesh and bone.

And books. Books are basically the distilled bits of an author’s soul, inked into paper, as an indelible snapshot of that author in the moment. And books, possibly more than other artforms (for me at least), have the uncanny ability to transport the reader to another place. Another time. Another life. And I don’t just mean fiction or literature — even non-fiction, or technical books can let the reader live inside another human’s mind, even if only for a single train of thought. And that is why this Tweet resonated with me so deeply.

Like I referenced in my re-tweet, I grew up a poor kid. We survived on welfare, living in inner-city Detroit. Somehow, my mom not only got me accepted into a private school in Dearborn, but also managed to drive me there every day. There’s no way she could afford the tuition, and I don’t really know how she managed the gas money to drive the 30 minutes every morning and afternoon. But she did, and I’ll be forever grateful for the sacrifices she had to make in order to make it happen.

But we certainly did not have money for the Scholastic Book Fair books when those colorful flyers were sent home. I’ve seen them as an adult, and for a nerdy little kid who escaped into books; there just couldn’t be much more powerful marketing. But it didn’t matter, because buying books for entertainment just wasn’t feasible. That was OK, because I’d often walk myself to the library and check out books (which is how I got the love for them in the first place). Still, it didn’t make the lack of book on Scholastic Book Fair day any less painful.

I also mentioned in the tweet that due to a head injury, a car accident in 1999 specifically, I don’t remember my childhood. I don’t remember much of anything before March of ’99, to be completely honest, except for a few faint flashes of memory that my brain may or may not have recreated as a memory based on something someone told me. (Memory is a funny thing) But there are some things that managed to stick in my Swiss cheese brain, and my 2nd grade book fair experience is one of them.

Ms. Sanzo, whose first name I likely never knew, was my teacher. Somehow she knew I was a big Smurfs fan, and managed to quietly purchase some Smurf-themed book that was in the flyer that year. I don’t remember the book. I don’t actually remember Ms. Sanzo, apart from a vague mental image of an older woman who took surprisingly little crap from unruly youngsters. But I remember that she gave me the book, somehow relaying that it was really mine, and that she’d taken care of the payment. And the part I remember most is that she did it quietly. I was a poor kid in a private school. That was partially masked thanks to school uniforms, but the vast majority of students in my class were from wealthy families. Being outed as the “welfare case” would have been painful, and somehow she stopped that from happening.

Ms. Sanzo: If you’re still with us, it’s very unlikely you remember the poor, nerdy, bespectacled 2nd grader for whom you purchased a Smurf book. But your kindness, not only in deed, but in method, impacted my life so deeply that it’s one of the few memories I have of my childhood. Your act of love resonated in my life for decades, and forever changed who I became. And continues to play a role in who I strive to be.

Books are one of the closest things to magic that I can imagine. And much like a magic wand is little more than a conduit for magic itself — a book can be a conduit for kindness and generosity, assuming it’s wielded by a strong enough magician.

If you can help a child get a book, I encourage you to do so. You might just change the whole world. Or, just one small life. Either would be magical.

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