By Tim Bean
*If anyone from Pizza Hut U.S. happens to enjoy this article, we wouldn’t say no to a complimentary personal pan pizza. Pepperoni, please.*
Three and a half decades have passed since 1985. I don’t have my BOOK IT! button anymore. I don’t even have the faded Polaroid of the 8-year-old me at my hometown Pizza Hut, grinning under my bowl-cut. That’s okay. I don’t need them to remember BOOK IT! in all its tasty glory.
BOOK IT! was…well, it was awesome. There’s no need to be anymore articulate than that. Reading had always been my drug of choice, and the thought of getting a prize for doing something I enjoyed blew my mind. And what a prize.
Inspired by his son, Pizza Hut’s former president Art Gunther created the program in 1985 around a simple premise: read books, get pizza. This initiative sprung directly from our nation’s 40th Commander-in-Chief, President Ronald Reagan, who wanted America’s businesses to creatively invest in the country’s education. After all, this would be the workforce of the future.
“The ‘BOOK IT!’ program is the most rewarding thing I have ever done in my life, and I am convinced it is the most important thing I have ever done in my working life.”
~Former Pizza Hut President Art Gunther
BOOK IT! became a sensation in education. Since 1985, over 20% of America’s students have participated. We didn’t do it to improve our academic chops, or gain better employment options, or to expand our imaginations.
We did it for the pizza. Oh, the pizza.
Circles of crispy pepperoni, curled perfectly at its edges, and neatly quartered. Gobs of cheese browned to perfection. The sweet, cheesy pizza sauce…never too much and never too runny. The buttery, crunchy edges of the Pizza Hut pan pizza…
Like most families in Middle America, personal pan pizzas were not too common. The family ordered big pizzas and you shared, lifting slices onto your plate and trying to catch the delicious tentacles of cheese with your fork. Arguments and compromises over toppings took on the weight of a UN summit. Treaties were forged and broken. Half pepperoni, half sausage. Extra cheese? Pineapple? Yuck. Green peppers, olives, onions..? Double yuck. That’s an old person’s pizza.
BOOK IT! ended the constant familial compromise. That personal pan pizza was all yours. After turning in the voucher, the server snapped a quick photo of you by the BOOK IT! wall, then the cooks would assemble your pizza with their practiced precision. If you had a few extra minutes, you’d the Pac-Man console table’s game demo through glass always hazy with pizza grease. Ten minutes later the pizza would roll out of the oven’s glowing mouth, as hot as a nuclear furnace. Crispy, cheesy, and buttery in all the right spots.
No one cooked pizza as well as Pizza Hut. I always suspected the pan itself made the pizza so good. 8-year-old me thought the serving pan was made of iron, and the servers must be superhero strong. In reality, it’s probably composed of a proprietary miracle material as secret as Stalin’s shoe size.
Then the server would swoop it over to you, with the obligatory “Careful, it’s hot!” And there it was, poised next to the red glass of Diet Pepsi (I grew up on Diet Pepsi) and crushed ice. It didn’t matter that the pizza was small, or that you’d inhale it in a matter of five delicious minutes. It. Was. Yours. A monumental moment for any kid. I think that was the best part. That weightless moment between getting the pizza and eating it. A perfect pizza moment.
Not everyone subscribed to the “books = pizza” strategy. BOOK IT! has plenty of critics, including a scathing critique from progressive education pundit Alfie Kahn, who called it a “cheesy gimmick for developing brand loyalty in children while also increasing sales in the short-term.” Psychologist Dr. John Tauer wondered if rewarding children for an enjoyable activity might have a converse effect: “It seems possible that [BOOK IT!] undermined intrinsic motivation for those who were already interested in reading.”
Let me draw a quick line in the sand here. As a writer, habitual reader, parent, and English teacher, my thrice-professional response is this: Lighten up. Judging the program’s long-term effectiveness is not easy, since researchers hope to see the adult readers this program produces. Traversing a decade between cause and effect is logistically messy.
One reputable 1999 study on BOOK IT! and its use of extrinsic (outside) motivation for improving literacy came up with an elegantly simple conclusion.
Question: Did BOOK IT! get students to read more?
Personally, I think Pizza Hut’s BOOK IT! program is both altruistic AND a business tactic. A business is a business is a business, and this 35-year-old program wasn’t cheap. In the first year alone it reached 7 million kids at a cost of over $50 million in free pizzas. That was the first year.
Pizza Hut no longer advertises the full cost of the program (might not hurt though), but the company’s PR people claimed 14 million students participate every year. A big but believable number. Multiple that times 35 years, and you come up with one expensive business tactic. I see nothing wrong in trying to offset some of that.
Pizza Hut didn’t rest on its freshly-baked laurels with only BOOK IT!. In 2016, it launched the Pizza Hut Literacy Project, a charity with the ambitious goal of bringing books and educational resources to 100 million students and teachers. It also provides free books for low income families and schools through its First Book program. That’s comprehensive charity.
For me and for the middle-aged masses out there, BOOK IT! is a fond artifact of a time before social media, state educational standards, and our obesity obsession. Saturday morning cartoons and Nick at Night. Drive-in speakers that hung on your parents’ car door. The idea that the world was better then is nostalgic nonsense (in almost every empirical way, it’s better now), but it was a less cynical time. We didn’t have the burden of carrying the entirety of human knowledge at our fingertips in the form of an iPhone or Android. We could still simply wonder. Ignorance gives your imagination a lot of breathing room.
I am comfortable believing in Pizza Hut’s program. It is perfectly fine to believe BOOK IT! was designed solely as an effective educational program, NOT a greasy vehicle for injecting trans fats in American kids. Most of us have the same delicious memories of getting star stickers on the big blue BOOK IT! button and being handed our own piping hot pizza. When millions share a lovely memory like that, it’s okay to leave questions unanswered. It’s okay to remain a little naive.
The same goes for our own children, who don’t deserve to have their wonder watered down in the name of intrinsic reinforcement and literacy tracking. The issues of the world will weigh them down soon enough. For now, maybe book = pizza is all the strategy they need. Otherwise, where’s the fun in being a kid?