Chris Higgins of Mental Floss gave his remembrances Thursday on Pizza Hut's Book It! program. Launched in 1984, it's lasted so long that it now sells retro shirts at the program's online store. Higgins gets into a lot more detail than we will here about the history of the program- but in short...
For those unaware, the Book It! program involves working with classrooms to give kids a tangible incentive to read. Over the course of a month, kids are tasked with reading books for a certain amount of minutes, tracked by their teacher or their parents or whatever adult feels up to it. Once they've done the required reading, they get a coupon which gets them a personal pan pizza. Some places might have an incentive to read a larger amount of total minutes for some sort of bigger prize. (No group prizes. People need to do their own reading.) While there have been concerns about tying reading to fast food, Book It! helps a lot more than it hurts.
Needless to say, I like books. Equally needless to say, I like pizza. And so it was that, back in elementary school, I had my own run-in with Book It!
I forget what year it was exactly. I think it was several years, actually. But free pizza was something not only I was down with, but also my parents. It got me reading, and hey, it got them out of wondering what to do for lunch once a month if I was going to get fed for free. I ended up banging out months and wolfing down pizzas.
Then came the year with the larger incentive.
One year, if my memory is correct, every time you read 100 minutes, you'd get a pan pizza and a little star on this button they gave you. There was room for six stars on the button, and if you filled the button, you'd get tickets to Six Flags Great America in Gurnee, Illinois. Now, none of us had been to Six Flags, but damned if it didn't sound like a good idea for a summer vacation spot.
The kicker was, enough tickets were offered in one go to cover the whole house.
My parents- or really, my mom- also noticed that while the task was to read the minutes, nobody was really checking to make sure the minutes were tallied up properly. It was on the parents to do the counting on the honor system.
Our family made a group decision that we all wanted to go to Six Flags.
We were not above chicanery to get to Six Flags. So we cheated. I did read- I read quite a lot- but after I was done, my mom would adjust the numbers upward while still making them halfway plausible. 10 minutes became 15. 15 became 20. And so on, until we reached 600 minutes. Would I have gotten there on my own. legitimately? I know I did most of the reading, so it's quite possible I would have. But we'll never know for sure, because we left nothing to chance. We were all in on it.
It worked. We got the tickets.
Now, usually back in those days, we'd visit Noah's Ark in Wisconsin Dells. We knew our way around it, to the point where Erik and I, little kids, would go to the complete opposite end of the park- a large park- as our parents, and as long as we told them what general region of the park we were in, they were fine because it's not like they were going anywhere and all we had to do was go back to them.
This is one thing when you know the lay of the land. Everyone does their thing, everyone has fun. Six Flags Great America is a park we had never been to before, so that was out.
The other thing is that Noah's Ark is a waterpark. Six Flags Great America is not a waterpark. Great America's backbone is in its roller coasters.
Roller coasters are not, for one, my thing. Nor were they my parents' thing. (Erik took a mild interest, but not enough to actually get on any.) I have ridden one single solitary roller coaster in my life, and it is not a Six Flags coaster. It is a coaster from Little A-Merrick-A in Marshall, Wisconsin. I believe it was the Wild & Wooly Toboggan.
Here are photos of the Wild & Wooly Toboggan.
So when you go to a roller coaster park and you don't want to do the roller coasters, that cuts down a little bit on what you can do while you're there. But don't fret. Before Six Flags had an old man dance like nuts, it turns out they had a tie-in with the Looney Tunes folks. Looney Tunes are fine and all, but on your terms, not crammed down your throat all day long.
"Hey, what are you complaining about! The tickets were free!"
The tickets were free, yes.
You cannot eat tickets. Well, you can, but they're not very filling. To this day my parents' first memory of Six Flags is how expensive everything was- food, gift shop stuff, etc., to the point where by the end of the day, we didn't even take into account the non-cost of the tickets. We had a miserable time and never went again.
Looking back on it, it is hard to call it anything other than karma crawling up and biting us. Not that Pizza Hut is all that interested in karma; these days larger rewards are discouraged, presumably because of things like what we did. Again, it's the honor system at the end of the day. Handing out pizzas are not going to get anyone to go overboard. For a small reward, they'll go ahead and read. For amusement park tickets, the honor system starts breaking down a bit. I'm not saying what we did was right- it wasn't- but it can't have been only us.
I guess what I'm saying is, read books honestly or you too will have a bad time at an amusement park. We can use that as a moral, right?