Schools disagree on how best to cover a book


Standard book covers in Xiamen

The spring school semester has begun, and China’s local newspapers have lately been full of back-to-school stories.

One old favorite is the debate over book covers. They’re important for keeping textbooks clean, dry, and usable for the entire semester, says one side. They’re a waste of time and resources, says the other, particularly if they’re made of non-biodegradable plastic.

Last week, the Sichuan Daily described how one school district in Chengdu is encouraging students to stop using plastic book covers:

Elementary school student He Pan has a book cover made from paper wrapping materials. During the semester opening ceremony at Taiping Elementary in Wuhou District, she demonstrated for her classmates how she made the book cover. The district Bureau of Education had just issued a “plastic ban” and was encouraging students to reject plastic book covers. Conservation was the theme of the first class of the new semester.

“Plastic book covers are a source of white pollution. Over the long-term, they pick up germs, and they’re made from some harmful stuff.” The school released some stats, and He Pan has them memorized: if every student has an average of nine books, and two plastic covers are used per book per semester, then the 1,166 students in Taiping Elementary need 20,988 book covers. Taken together, all primary and secondary schools in Wuhou district would require almost 1.58 million book covers, an amount that could fill Taiping Elementary sixteen times over.

Instead of using plastic covers, He Pan uses plastic bags, paper bags, newspapers, and old calendar pages to make book covers, and she decorates them with paper cut outs. Once she finished the simple task of wrapping her books, He Pan had saved more than 20 yuan.

In other schools, students have less freedom. The Xiamen Daily recently reported that teachers at a number of local schools gave strict requirements on how books could be wrapped:

“Why do teachers get to decide what book covers should be used?” Mr. Wang, whose son is in the second grade, learned that at the start of the new semester, his son’s teacher had required all books to be covered in cellophane wrappers.

Two classmates, Chen and Cai, covered their books in plain white paper that can be found at any stationery store. Their textbooks are all white, but their workbooks are covered in a form that the teacher can use to record their marks. “The principal said we could use calendar paper, but the teacher said that we had to buy that special paper,” Cai said.

At a stationery store next to the Lianhua Kindergarten, transparent cellophane is the biggest seller. This reporter met several students and parents from Lianhua and Lianlong elementary schools who said that cellophane was “the teacher’s request.” At Dongdu #2 Elementary, this reporter learned from several fourth-graders that they were allowed to choose their own book covers for textbooks, but workbooks were required to be covered in the special grade form.

Cellophane makes for the most expensive books covers, running 2 yuan for a large book and 1.5 yuan for a small one. Of course, you could also buy the paper to take home and apply yourself, causing no end of headaches for parents.

“It’s really hard to use. If you don’t apply it right, there’ll be bubbles,” said Ms. Lin, who was waiting for her child at the gate of Lianhua Elementary. She said that her child would complain if the paper wasn’t applied correctly, so she had it done at the store.

Mr. Zhang, proprietor of a stationery store, said that applying cellophane was very time consuming. You’d get bubbles if you weren’t careful, and the paper would be ruined if you tried to peel it off to reapply.

The Xiamen Daily concluded with quotes from a number of students, teachers, and parents. Here, principal Chen Rongyi explains his understanding of the value of home-made book covers:

For expediency, some teachers may recommend that their students use a particular type of book cover, but our school would never encourage teachers to do so. On the contrary, we are about to conduct an activity to encourage students to use old calendars or folders to make their own book covers. It’s environmental, and it will also exercise their manipulative skills.

I went to elementary school in the 1970s. At that time, using butcher paper for book covers was a luxury. Basically, I used very thin white paper, the kind you use to steam rice cakes, and I folded my book covers very neatly and carefully. I think that making your own book covers is an excellent tradition and a great way to cultivate students’ environmental awareness and self-reliance.

However, the environment is not the sole concern of those opposed to book covers. Feng Dan, a civil servant in Beijing, wrote in to the Beijing Youth Daily last week to speak up for the interests of book jacket designers:

It’s the start of another semester, and my grade-school-aged nephew came with a whole stack of old calendars to pester me into helping him cover his books. Looking at the drab calendar pages brought back a bunch of memories. I told him, “there’s really no need to cover your books,” and then I told him this story:

I remember the first class period after I entered middle school. The language arts teacher entered the room, swept his eyes over the dozens of textbooks on our desks, and told us that there really was no need to cover our books. Noticing our confusion, he said, “The cover of a book is an important part of the creation of a book. It reflects the efforts the book designer put into it. Even though our textbooks aren’t as pretty as novels or fairy-tales, they still carry a certain aesthetic value. Look at the crescent moon hanging in the blue sky: isn’t that just a picture of beauty? If we wrap up our books in calendar pages or dark plastic, aren’t we unintentionally burying the cover designer’s efforts? Worse than that, we’re sacrificing our own chance to appreciate beauty.”

He continued: “Anyway, I never put book covers on my own books. Can you imagine a copy of the classic Dream of the Red Chamber sitting on your bookshelf wrapped in white paper? Ridiculous! Of course, if you don’t like the cover of a book, you can certainly wrap it in any cover you like, or a picture you’ve drawn yourself. Or if you don’t like language arts, you can wrap the textbook in a book cover to remind me that I need to teach you a lesson.” We all laughed.

My nephew listened to me attentively, and then said, “Uncle, that’s very interesting and educational. I’ll tell the teacher what you’ve said. If I can’t make myself clear, I’ll write it down in a weekly journal entry.”

Looking back now, what the teacher told us in that first language arts class wasn’t simply about book covers. It was a way to awaken our sense of aesthetic appreciation to notice the fact that “beauty can be found everywhere in life.” However, I’m not at all confident about my nephew’s situation, because after all, not every teacher is an idealist.

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