As an adult, eating pizza is something you can do anytime, anywhere—the world is your, well, pizza. As a kid, for most of us, anyway, pizza was a treat, reserved for special occasions like birthdays or Friday night family rituals. Pizza was a meal to be treasured, not to be taken for granted. Each slice was to be savored, perhaps paired with a root beer or an electric-yellow Mountain Dew. So, when Pizza Hut’s BOOK IT! Program began offering kids a way to get more pizza—and in such a way that Mom and Dad not only approved of, but encouraged, it seemed revolutionary.
In 1984, Pizza Hut’s BOOK IT! program started offering kids a way to earn free pizza—and in such a way that Mom and Dad not only approved of, but encouraged. For kids, it seemed revolutionary. Pizza Hut’s BOOK IT! program was founded by Art Gunther, the former president of Pizza Hut. At the time, Gunther’s son was struggling with reading. As an incentive to get his son to read more, Gunther promised his son that they’d go to Pizza Hut, just the two of them, if Gunther’s son promised to practice reading.
This October, Pizza Hut’s BOOK IT! Program is celebrating its 30th anniversary, and while the response from most people I talked to about the program was, “That still exists?” one thing is clear—BOOK IT! has had a profound impact on thousands of readers.
In an attempt to quickly reach his free, personalized pizza, one pizza-lover I spoke with admitted to faking his reading minutes and the amount of books he read in order to rack up stickers on his BOOK IT! pin. There’s no way he was the only one doing this, so I wasn’t terribly surprised. A recent post on Reddit indicated that many kids had similar experiences with the program—reading as fast as they could just to score that tiny, personal-sized pizza, counting down until their families took the trip to the restaurant.
When the program first began, Pizza Hut offered participants large buttons with designated spaces for stickers. For each book read, one sticker would be awarded. A full button earned a coupon for a personal-pan pizza.
While some schools stuck to the one-book-per-sticker guideline, some schools and classrooms did pages or minutes read. To learn more about how some teachers use it in their classes, I spoke to a teacher in Florida, Anthony Ateek, who used the program in his classroom. “I actively used it for a solid nine years or so,” he said.
About two-thirds of his class used the program, and Ateek tied it into the school’s curriculum, noting that the school had a program called Battle of the Books, wherein students would read books from a list, then take quizzes for prizes. Ateek said, “The program itself was the incentive. My goal for the kids was for them to read at least 10 ‘Battle Books.’ If they passed the tests for each of the 10 books, they’d receive a voucher for a free pizza.”
The adaptability of Pizza Hut’s BOOK IT! Program (rewarding students for minutes read or whole books read) has likely been instrumental in its decades-long success. As for whether the kids liked it, Ateek pointed out matter-of-factly, “Who doesn’t like free pizza?”
One woman I interviewed, Martha Ciurla, detailed how the program helped her in a unique way—one not dissimilar from the way it was intended to help the president of Pizza Hut’s son. Growing up, English was Ciurla’s second language growing up.
“I hated reading, mostly because it took me twice as long as the other kids to read anything. What was nice about BOOK IT! was that I could read at my own pace and still get rewarded for it. My dad always took us out for dinner on Friday nights, so we always ended up going to Pizza Hut to get my BOOK IT! stickers. I just wanted to fill that pin up as fast as I could,” she recalled.
“Other kids probably finished theirs way before me, but I didn’t know that. It made me start to like reading because I was finding books that I found interesting, and my vocabulary increased through all the books I was reading.”
Building your vocabulary and strengthening your comprehension skills are just some of the many benefits of reading and, when reading is accompanied by pizza as a reward, it’s no surprise that this program is three decades old. In fact, it’s kind of a shame that Pizza Hut’s BOOK IT! Program isn’t offered for adults.
Of course, like with anything, there have been naysayers—in 2007, a press release from the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) stated that a personal pan pizza was too high-fat a reward for reading:
“BOOK IT! rewards students with certificates for a free Pizza Hut personal pizza when they reach certain reading goals. A Pizza Hut six-inch personal pan pizza has 630 calories and 27 grams of fat. With a topping, it can have as many as 770 calories and 39 grams of fat. For children ages 3-5, a Pizza Hut personal pizza can contain more than half of their daily caloric requirement, as well as their entire fat requirement.”
Of course, everyone knows that occasionally indulging in a tiny pizza isn’t going to kill anyone, and if it can get a reluctant or unwilling kid to read, do the calories really matter?
In 2014, Pizza Hut’s BOOK IT! Program remains popular, and the nostalgia factor for the BOOK IT! Program, primarily from alumni in their twenties and thirties, is just as strong as the program itself. To capitalize off the program’s nostalgic appeal, Pizza Hut has even began offering throwback BOOK IT! merchandise and apparel.
Pizza Hut’s BOOK IT! Program is open to kids ages 5-12 and is offered to public, private, and parochial schools, as well as home-schooled children. If a child under the age of 5 wants to participate, an older child who falls within the program’s age parameters can read to that child.
Today, teachers can create specific, personalized goals for each student in their class. Goals vary depending on a student’s reading level, reading speed, and other factors that teachers see fit. Just as when the program first started, parents are encouraged to get involved with their children.
If you’re a teacher or parent that wants to get involved, the deadline for the 2014-2015 program is September 1st. Pizza Hut’s BOOK IT! Program officially celebrates its birthday on October 1st, 2014—which just so happens to be the first day of National Pizza Month.