Remember those book club flyers that we used to get in elementary school? I lived for those. Dinosaur books with ten words and fifty pictures! Sticker sheets starring ballerina bears that shouted various encouragements via word balloons! The errant Garfield bookmark!
Most of the time, the things I bought from those flyers only provided fleeting moments of joy. A smile, a quick browse, and I was ready to move on with my life.
In rarer cases, I’d find something awesome enough to completely change my life. Like the book I’m about to babble on about for seventeen disjointed paragraphs.
That’s the one. FREE STUFF FOR KIDS!
My sympathies to those for which this is news. Free Stuff For Kids was an annually-released collection of… well, free stuff for kids. Samples. Pamphlets. Doodads. Tiny things that cost absolutely nothing, and by “nothing,” I mean “up to a dollar.” The fine print is always a fucker.
I owned similar “free sample” books in my youth, but this was the only one that catered so directly to me. No longer was I forced to justify sending away for trial-sized packets of laundry detergent. With this book, the free stuff I went after was free stuff I actually wanted.
Okay, so “wanted” might be too strong a word. I guess I never explicitly “wanted” a pen shaped like a baseball bat. Most of the time, it was less about “wanting” and more about “accepting on the basis of it being dirt cheap.” Like walking through Costco and eating the weirdly lavender crab cake samples, it was all about the price.
Free Stuff For Kids had nearly a hundred pages, each featuring different wackadoo item that — for a brief moment — seemed like the most important thing in the entire universe.
For me, the process and the anticipation meant as much as the actual “stuff.” It was so much fun to write all of those letters, and I loved how I could always find just enough coins to cover the shipping costs just by going under our old couch cushions. If I was lucky, some week old Fritos would be under there, too. They tasted better stale.
The waiting really was the best part. I always made sure that I was waiting for something to come in the mail. I loved the consistent anticipation. I loved having a reason to stare out our front window, pining for our mailman’s arrival. I revered the mail truck in the same way other kids revered ice cream trucks.
I loved the packaging as much as the items. I used to keep not just the paperwork my freebies came with, but the envelopes they came in. I’d open them as neatly as I could, using steak knives. I can explain none of this.
Many of the freebies were only interesting because of their prices, but Free Stuff For Kids still hit some home runs. Hello, Nintendo stickers? Ninja Turtles stickers? EIGHT for a dollar? Only a fool would pass that up.
After picking up the book, I made a “first run,” plucking out all of the obvious big ticket items. Eventually, the well would run dry, and I’d move onto the stupider things… stupider things that were still eventful, because they came in packages with my name on them. The baseball-shaped pen would be in that group.
Eventually, I’d get down to the nitty gritty. Pamphlets about Arabian horses. Something called the “Introduction to the Rules of Tennis Booklet.” A coloring book that doubled as a guide to bike safety. Stuff I absolutely did not want, but still ordered, because the thought of having no incoming mail made me SICK.
Re-reviewing the pages, I’m amazed at how many knockouts there were. Or maybe I was just the perfect audience? I loved the Spider-Man comics and the prism stickers, but I was just as happy about the solar system fact sheets, and the coloring books starring roller skating dinosaurs. There wasn’t much in Free Stuff for Kids that I couldn’t find merit in.
I’ve thought about this book many times over the years. I was pretty voyeuristic when it came to what my classmates were ordering from those book clubs, and I never saw anyone else with a copy of Free Stuff For Kids. I remember explaining its virtues to my childhood friends, who responded with the kind of familiar silence that was easily read as disdain. But there had to be others, right?
There must be someone who enjoyed this book as much as I did. If it’s you, please, tell me. Tell me you that owned this book, read this book and LIVED by this book.
Tell me that you sent away for tourist info from every damn one of the 500 locations listed on the book’s back pages, because even if you had no reason to suspect a trip to Guam, getting a Guam brochure in the mail was better than getting no mail at all.
I loved this book. Holy hell, I loved this book.