Pizza Hut For Dinner: An Ode to the “Book It” Program
Deborah Liu on the Programs That Inspire a Life of Learning
I always loved Book It, a program from Pizza Hut that inspired me to read when I was in elementary school. I remember my excitement when I would hit my monthly reading goal. My teacher would sign these long, bookmark-shaped certificates and hand them out to people who had read enough for the month. I would anxiously put mine away in my pencil case, terrified that I would lose it before I could use it to convince my parents to take me to Pizza Hut. That red-roofed building held a lot of memories for me, especially as the child of immigrants.
As a family that struggled to make ends meet, we didn’t get to eat out very often unless it was at one of the restaurants where my mother worked. Going out for pizza was a completely foreign thing for my parents, especially my father, who didn’t believe that it was a real meal without rice on the table. My sister and I, being American kids, would beg them to take us out for pizza.
The Book It program was what tipped the scales in our favor. I loved walking into the busy restaurant, hearing the music playing and seeing families milling about. The four of us would scoot into one of the plush red booths with their red-and-white-checked plastic tablecloths. My parents always held the certificates for us, but they would hand them back so we could proudly turn them in to the waiter when she handed us our menus. The waitstaff clearly recognized the Book It families.
My parents always ordered a medium pizza for them to share, knowing there would be enough for one more meal the next day. We were never allowed to order drinks because they were beyond our budget, but for some reason, the ice water in the giant translucent tumblers always tasted perfect with the salty pizza. Even to this day, we maintain that small habit with our kids as well.My sister and I, being American kids, would beg them to take us out for pizza. The Book It program was what tipped the scales in our favor.
Created in 1984, the Book It program was designed to inspire young people to read. At our elementary school in Hanahan, South Carolina, our teachers shared it with us as a special treat: if we read books, we could earn our own pizza! Already a voracious reader, I thought to myself, “This is easy. I can get a reward for doing something I already do.” I remember the teacher handing us giant buttons with five spots on them. For each completed book, she would add a star to one of the empty spots. Upon filling all five, she would sign a certificate that you could then redeem in person.
The Book It program was brilliant because it both encouraged reading in young children and brought families to Pizza Hut for meals together. Rarely would a child come just to eat alone. Instead, it was a family affair, and it brought business to the local Pizza Hut.
We would work hard to earn our Book It certificates (but not too hard, since we both loved reading, and we naturally devoured books). My favorites were series—I loved The Babysitter’s Club, Judy Blume, Sweet Valley, and the Chronicles of Narnia. My sister, Caroline, and I would go to the library, check out stacks of books, and tear through them whenever we had a spare moment.
Each time we read enough to earn a certificate, we would convince our parents to take us to Pizza Hut. I remember my father grumbling that pizza was not real food, but grudgingly taking us there for dinner anyway. As we grew up, we were able to go more often, even without the certificates. The Book It program accomplished two things: 1) it inspired us to read, and 2) it introduced pizza to our family as a meal option. I am forever grateful.The Book It program was brilliant because it both encouraged reading in young children and brought families to Pizza Hut for meals together.
Though I say this in a tongue-in-cheek way, programs like Book It, which are partnerships between corporations and schools, can be powerful tools for inspiring kids to learn.
Today, many decades later, I am the CEO of Ancestry, the leader in family history and genomics, and I’ve been lucky to connect with classrooms in a new way. The Ancestry Classroom initiative allows kids to delve into their family history and learn about their origins and the experiences of their ancestors. Since 2010, we have maintained a philanthropic program that provides educators with access to classroom resources, professional learning tools, and Ancestry historical record collections at no cost to help students find their personal place in history. This is available for free to over seven million students in the United States, Australia, and New Zealand to help them learn more about themselves, navigate the world around them, and become more resilient.
Like the Book It program, we understand the power of private-public partnerships in order to change kids’ lives and fuel their curiosity through education. As a child, I would read books about the incredible adventures of kids all over the world, but few of the kids in those books looked like me. I hope that through Ancestry Classroom, children will discover the people who helped shape who they are and brought them to where they are today.
Take Back Your Power by Deborah Liu is available from Zondervan