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TRUE Book Fairs Equal Free Books for All

By Stuart Phillips, CHCCS Communications Specialist

NES TRUE book fair

During the week of May 8, Northside Elementary and Ephesus Elementary Schools held “TRUE Book Fairs” to ensure that every student could choose two books apiece for their personal libraries. Two free, high-interest books for all students = Social Justice Action, an equitable and celebratory paradigm shift from the familiar model of fundraising book fairs, when some students bought stacks of glossy picture books and others counted coins, or if they were lucky, coupons, to choose one or two sticker or coloring books. If you were a lucky visitor to the Navigator and Roadrunner libraries last week, you could watch students linger over tables of books, picking up one after another,  without once asking, “How much is this one?” 

EES TRUE book fair

Book fairs have been around for a long time. But there’s a newly embraced model for the school book fair now taking hold in Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools. A TRUE Book Fair is not connected to a national brand for fundraising, does not rely on an army of parent volunteers, and most importantly, does not involve the exchange of money. At all!

Librarian Kathryn Cole developed Northside’s first TRUE Book Fair last year, and she could barely wait to offer the second one this spring. “The TRUE Book Fair is an equitable shift in how we have chosen to conduct book fairs at Northside, where money and for-profit companies are not part of the equation," she said. "We foreground authors and characters from marginalized identities...  No sorting along economic lines, no book giving framed in charity -- it's simply how we celebrate spreading book joy -- all free all the time."

First year EES librarian, Bailey Normann, interned with Cole last year, so she witnessed a TRUE Book Fair in action. This year, she wasted no time laying the groundwork for a similar fair at her school. Cole said of her former intern, “She has worked tirelessly in her first year to push for this shift, working with her PTA to help them envision a better way. It's been beautiful to watch.” 

Not many people know that North Carolina is a leader in “TRUE Book Fairs” thanks in large part to the practice and research of Wake County Public School librarian, and 2023 National School Librarian of the Year, Julie Stivers, a significant influence and a friend of Cole and other CHCCS librarians. Her often quoted definition? “Self-selection + ownership + reflective, inclusive, diverse books = literacy magic. MONEY SHOULD HAVE NO PART IN THIS EQUATION FOR OUR STUDENTS."  The origin story of the name, as told by Stivers, is priceless, “Eight years ago a student said, ‘All other school book fairs have been book UNfairs– you are having a real book FAIR.”

EES TRUE Book fair

CHCCS is served by a complement of incredibly talented librarians (just in case you haven’t had the opportunity to familiarize yourself with these important folks!) One of the hallmarks of their excellence is the degree to which they come to know ALL of their students across grade levels, and in so doing, come to know their interests and reading preferences. Cole speaks of “lovingly curating” the selection of books in hopes of providing authentic choices for every student. She said, “We learn through our reading relationships with them throughout the year. It’s simply how we celebrate spreading book joy.”

And how do our schools pay for such a diverse collection of choices to offer students? Cole said, “At Northside, we have huge support after seeing the impact last year and this year our PTA put $1,000 toward this effort. Using that alongside Public School Foundation funds, community partnerships + donations + a library hustle for good book deals all year long, we have been able to hold another successful TRUE book fair for a second year in a row that is no cost to students.”

At EES, Normann applied for a PSF grant, as well as one from Bright Ideas, and she also enlisted support from the Ephesus PTA. Instructional Technology Facilitator  Sara Cottrell said, “Each student got two books, a bookmark, and a pencil of their choice for free! We witnessed so much joy and excitement for reading!” 

“There is a better way,” Cole said. “It is possible. School libraries certainly need support and funding, but we shouldn't have to rely on book fairs in our schools for this purpose. I'm so fortunate to have the support of my school administration, teaching staff, fifth grade teacher Tequila Powell who helped bring in fundraising from UNC, and a parent community to keep this model running.”  EES True book fair

Glenwood Elementary School’s librarian, Janine Barr, said, “Inspired by Kat Cole's fair from last year and the research I have been doing on reading trauma and what equity looks like in school libraries by librarian Julie Stivers, we hope to launch our first one next spring (2024). I have received a grant and am working with some parents to ensure the True book fair model is sustainable at Glenwood for years to come.” 

CHCCS District Headlines stories are written on a regular basis by the CHCCS Division of Communications, with assistance from a network of school-based “storytellers” who share tips and ideas throughout the school year. The goal is to share real-world examples of the CHCCS Strategic Plan in action. Know about a story worth telling from your school? Contact the CHCCS Communications team at  

Bailey N at EES