As a kid splitting her time between urban Canada and rural Iowa, “I read a lot,” Sasha Quinton ’01 says. “My best friend and I would go to the library with a little wagon and come home with a stack of 10 to 20 books. We’d sit together for hours and just pass books back and forth between us.” Last year, that same friend sent her a meme of a billboard that read, I spent my entire adult life chasing the high of a Scholastic Book Fair.
Now Quinton is executive vice president at Scholastic—and president of Scholastic Book Fairs. She leads a team of 3,500 employees who orchestrate book fairs in some 60,000 U.S. schools each year, selling 100 million books to young readers while helping raise more than $200 million in cash and free books for schools.
But Quinton started the job this winter, not long before COVID-19 shut down the nation’s schools. “There really haven’t been many ‘normal’ days during my tenure,” she says. Publishers Weekly reports that, in the final quarter of the fiscal year (March through May 2020), Scholastic’s children’s book publishing and distribution group saw its sales drop by nearly half, with book fair revenue falling 79 percent. Some of the company’s distribution centers were closed and employees were furloughed to cut costs.
Sasha Quinton ’01
Majors: English and philosophy
Scholastic is the publishing house behind Clifford the Big Red Dog, The Baby-Sitters Club, Harry Potter and The Hunger Games.
“And COVID-19 offers another significant issue for childhood literacy,” Quinton says: With children out of school for months, many fell behind in reading. It’s a matter of long-term consequences—she cites a 27-nation study published in Research in Social Stratification and Mobility. That study shows that growing up surrounded by many books at home increases children’s likelihood of going on to college.
The Scholastic corporation, which marks its 100th anniversary this year, pivoted to offering educational ideas and resources through an online portal and presenting virtual book fairs. “We also have a quick-setup fair, fairs for smaller spaces or outdoors—even a drive-through option,” Quinton says. Some educators have been including books with the school lunches they distribute, “or even personally delivering books right to their students’ front porches.”
In an exception to the sales slump, Publishers Weekly notes that “the company’s Klutz line of book and activity kits also performed well in the quarter, as parents searched for activities to help their children practice STEAM [Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics] skills.”
Quinton’s career in book distribution started in college, with a marketing company called Books Are Fun in her hometown of Fairfield, Iowa. “I just called their CEO and asked for a job, which I didn’t realize you weren’t really supposed to do,” she says. “I landed the internship, and when I graduated from Amherst, they offered me a job.”
After that came nine years at ReaderLink Distribution Services, then one year as vice president and general merchandise manager at Barnes & Noble before being hired by Scholastic.
Throughout those years, since well before the pandemic, changes have been afoot in children’s literacy and media habits. Today’s toddlers use electronic devices, Quinton points out (she has a 5-year-old son of her own), and their attention spans are shorter than previous generations’.
Scholastic—whose hit series have included Clifford the Big Red Dog, Harry Potter and The Hunger Games—is keeping up with kids’ evolving tastes by, for example, publishing lots of graphic novels. “These are glossy, highly illustrated books that kids are flocking to because they have high comedic value, like Dav Pilkey’s new Dog Man series, or because they address serious topics like mental illness in a visually engrossing way that kids can understand,” Quinton says.
Another Scholastic franchise that has kept up with the times is The Baby-Sitters Club: a new take on Ann M. Martin’s novels debuted on Netflix this summer, to rave reviews. “The BSC books, most recently the graphic novel adaptations, are current national best-sellers,” says Quinton—“an amazing feat, considering the series launched more than 30 years ago!”
Indeed, long before nostalgically binge-watching the Netflix show to pass the time during quarantine, many of us grown-ups remember passing those books around among our friends when we were young.
Photograph by Jessica Moon