When I was a kid, we had to cover our textbooks the school provided in order to keep them from being damaged. I don’t know if book covers were sold in stores back then, but if they were, we didn’t use them. We used brown paper grocery bags. My father would cut the bag to size and create a dust jacket for each book with some tape. Then I would write the subject on the front of the cover and the rest of the cover served as class-time doodling space. At some point, I started making the covers myself at the beginning of each school year. It was an intergenerational family skill.
I don’t know if people anywhere still use paper grocery bags to cover textbooks. I was sent to Staples last night to buy a book sock, which is a cover that slips on a textbook. They come in all sorts of colors and designs. The lines at the registers were each 20 deep, clogged with people buying last-minute school supplies. My wife had told me that the book socks were right in the front of the store, but it was a chaotic scene, my path blocked by sullen children and their sullen parents arguing over binder colors, so I asked the Staples guy where the book socks were.
“We’re all sold out. Except for these Hello Kitty covers.” He indicated something quite pink.
I thanked him and said that a boy just starting middle school might be wise to avoid Hello Kitty book covers. Other boys don’t let you forget something like that for the rest of your life. You end up still being called Hello Kitty when you’re 50.
On the drive home from the store, I wondered if I was depriving my son of a character-building experience — maybe Hello Kitty book covers in middle school would make him learn to fight and be tough, like the guy in that Johnny Cash song about a boy named Sue. But I’m not that kind of father. He’d have to build character some other way.
Was it still acceptable to use homemade book covers? In most places that would probably be like going to school in homemade duct tape shoes. Yet brown paper bag covers might build a little character without resulting in the profound emotional scars sure to be caused by Hello Kitty covers. Maybe it was a middle ground worth considering.
Was it possible that the other kids would think the brown paper bag covers were cool? Really, really cool? If so, this could be the beginning of my son’s social ascendance. Forget building character — he could be a trendsetter! The most popular kid in school! It was possible — likely, even — that my son’s paper bag book covers would lead to a life of success, wealth, and happiness.
I almost had myself believing it when I pulled into the driveway, without a book sock or a plan and full of regret for always answering “plastic” at the supermarket checkout.