World Book Day

World Book Day 2017

So it’s World Book Day again (the 20th in fact). Research conducted by the National Literacy Trust has shown that one in four children bought the first book they’ve ever owned with the WBD token issued last year, and for pupils receiving free school meals, the figure is even higher. Which goes to show that the day has a huge impact, particularly on those in deprived areas. This is a phenomenal achievement for promoting reading.

For those who don’t know, WBD distributes £1 book tokens to schools and nurseries countrywide, which can be exchanged for a special WBD book, or used as a £1 voucher towards any other book.

So I won’t go on about my views on the costume element (you can read this here), which probably applies more to a different demographic than those above, or the lack of diversity in the WBD choices, which hopefully will be rectified over time, or the downsides of having celebrities and licensed products lead the displays and sales of children’s books (another blog, another time).

World Book Day is a positive day. So many of the children’s writers and authors I know are participating in school visits this week, showing children that they too can be writers if they persevere and dream hard enough. So many are inspiring children to discover a new book, or pick up a book for the first time, and see that creating a reading habit will lead them to travel the world through a book and meet the most extraordinary eye-opening characters, learning empathy and heart.

In a time when schools’ budgets are being ferociously slashed, with little or no hope of a statutory law insisting on school libraries, and a time in which public libraries are in decline, and independent bookstores with their knowledgeable booksellers are struggling, it is more important than ever that we teach our children that reading is important, despite what they may see around them. Sometimes the most beautiful, captivating, marvellous things are hidden – down a rabbit hole, behind a wardrobe, through a portal, in the stars.

One of the schools I’m involved with has asked children simply to bring in, or bring in a picture of, their favourite book. A book that makes them want to re-read, to see themselves mirrored in it, or to see how others live. A book that grabs and captivates and excites them.

What would I choose? A veritable sparkling feast of children’s literature lies before me. One book? ‘One?’ I cry.

I choose a book that is well written, gripping, but also teeming with beautiful descriptive language, clever realistic dialogue, and engaging characters.

It’s a book I can discuss with anyone of any age. It has illustrations, which enhance or extend the narration of the story. It has a character who springs out of the page – I can talk about them years after reading the book, and my family all secretly (and not so secretly) believe that the character resides in a special place within our own house, or down the street, or in the garden. The character might be a house elf, a tiny creature living beneath my floorboards, a shiny man in the fridge, a tiger who pops in for tea, or a daemon who sits on my lap while I watch TV.

It contains phrases that seep their way into the family vernacular, whether its being glad about something, or calling cucumbers snozzcumbers, or having a little smackeral of something at elevenses, or just a comical evil laugh. It’s a story we live in, whether its waking to have midnight feasts on a sleepover or seeking hidden doorways in the garden. And a story we’re glad we don’t live in, because we’re foundlings who miss our parents, or refugees suffering the most appalling journeys, but from which we learn about other cultures, and distant pasts.

I choose a story that I’ve read to myself, but also to many others. A story that’s not grand, or mystical or spiritual. It doesn’t necessarily teach me political discourse, the whys of warfare or existentialism.

But it definitely teaches about fair play and friendship and family. It teaches about doing for others what you would have done for yourself. It teaches how to have spirit and work and to harness resilience and grit. It teaches about how to be the best person you can be, and how to live the best life you can live. It teaches about kindness.

Funnily enough, this is something that many other best children’s books do too.

World Book Day Offerings

World Book Day 2016

World Book Day happens every year in the UK and Ireland, and next year will be held on 3rd March 2016. Many children will take part by participating in some book-led activity in school. They may dress up as a favourite character, have an author visit, or discuss favourite books at school. This is great. As a children’s book advocate I’m delighted to have these days/weeks in our schools to promote reading. This is A GOOD THING. And for children it’s an opportunity to take their ‘£1 off’ or free book voucher to the local shops and pick one of ten exclusive books. For some children this is their only opportunity to own a book. According to the National Literacy Trust, 15.4% of children don’t have a book of their own.

What’s the aim of these ten books? Is it to put books into the hands of those 15.4%? Is it to provide a familiar landscape for children to navigate, or give them another title by their favourite author? Or is it a chance to broaden their horizons – make them reach for a book that they might not have otherwise picked – to explore the huge vista of children’s books available? Last week the ten books for next year’s World Book Day were announced. And although my heart rose at the opportunity for young adults to read a book by James Dawson or Rainbow Rowell (those lucky things), my heart sank a little for those key stage 1 and 2 children.

Because from the huge wealth of children’s literature, the ten books on offer included these three: A Star Wars book; a celebrity author book – The Boy Who Could Do What He Liked by David Baddiel; and a Roald Dahl book – The Great Mouse Plot, which is an extract from his autobiography Boy.

Firstly, if reading the Roald Dahl spurs a child into reading more Dahl at Key Stage One, I sincerely hope it’s The Enormous Crocodile or The Twits, and not Boy. I don’t want to spark a huge debate about censorship and reading ages, but frankly, I would recommend Boy as a 9yrs+ read, not for Key Stage 1. Secondly, with McDonalds giving away free Roald Dahl books with Happy Meals for the next few weeks, I wouldn’t want our children to think that the only children’s book author is Roald Dahl.

Why, when limited to just ten titles, are we going for a celebrity author, a film and merchandising brand, and a Dahl extract? If children walk into a WHSmiths on their high street, these are the authors who already get top billing. I’d love people to think beyond Roald Dahl, David Walliams, and David Baddiel when they think of children’s books. There are so many wonderful books out there.

Also, why aren’t there any ethnically diverse authors or illustrators featured? With momentum growing to portray our multi-cultural society in children’s books, and to show children that you can be a writer regardless of your background, this is the opportunity to do so. Those ten books are a wonderful chance to give attention to lesser known authors – those with equal or even higher quality narratives and illustrations. Lastly, what about non-fiction? I know plenty of children who are happily introduced to reading for pleasure through non-fiction rather than fiction, and yet none is featured within this ten.

Saying that, I applaud World Book Day for the work they do, and for including such treasures as James Dawson, and Kes Gray’s Daisy, as well as Sue Hendra’s Supertato, because no one could possibly resist Supertato: Hap-Pea Ever After.

Every Day For Me is World Book Day

I wrote about focusing on the book, not the costume for World Book Day here. But I don’t want to appear negative, for I adore World Book Day. It’s a day to celebrate writers, writing and favourite characters. The bus stop was quite a sight this morning with unicorns, Horrid Henrys, monkeys, including my own adorable Muggle Wump, some crocodiles, and I even spotted Where’s Wally. Kudos to me! Of course I didn’t take the bus this morning, I used my Harry Potter floo powder to get to the library.

Other than dressing up, how can we celebrate books this World Book Day? There are lots of ideas on the WBD website, and hopefully many of us will visit our local independent bookshop to spend our £1 Book Day tokens. My son has a chart to fill in from school, in which he has to ask different members of society which is their favourite book and why. And he asked me.

“One book” I shrieked. What torture! And then I realised which it was.

Little Women

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
This book is unique. I don’t think it can be pigeonholed as a children’s book, nor an adult book – although is often labelled as a classic. It’s historical, but not pegged as an historical novel. It’s semi-autobiographical (Louisa May Alcott didn’t correct readers writing her letters addressed to ‘Miss March’, but replied as if she were Jo.) It’s about feminism. It’s also a family saga, and a coming of age book. I suppose it was one of the first YA titles, although most children seem to read it as they reach the upper level of middle grade – about age 10-13yrs.
Little Women tells the story of four sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, during the American Civil War. Their father is absent, fighting in the war, and their mother is left to raise the girls alone. As they grow from children into adulthood, they face dramas of friendships, illness, arguments, breaking free from constraints of domesticity, and explore first love. The book highlights the wonder of storytelling, as well as espousing moral virtue over materialism, but the wonder of the book for many lies in the depth of characterisation of the four sisters.
They are each so well-defined that, as with Pooh, Piglet and Eeyore, you can remember the character traits of Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy long into your own adulthood. Meg, the beautiful compliant daughter; Jo, the non-conformist hot-tempered tomboy; Beth, the shy, quiet creature, whose sacrificial death can be read as the death of the era of quiet domesticity; and finally Amy, the vain and self-centred baby of the family, who nevertheless excels at art and pursues her passion for it no matter the cost. It teaches such important lessons subtly – women’s access to education, overcoming shyness and having confidence, practising small kindnesses, charitable acts, and the importance of a sense of humour too. Little Women was even mentioned in that long-running television comedy Friends, when the girls ruined the story for Joey by telling him what happens to Beth in that devastatingly sad chapter, Dark Days. I don’t think there’s any other book from which I can remember the actual chapter titles. The description of Christmas with the Marches made me long for an American family Christmas just like theirs, and even made me consider calling my  mother ‘Marmee’. It’s a beautiful re-read, and works wonderfully as a ‘read-aloud’ too. I implore you to revisit it – and then give it to your children.

So I chose my one book. However, the fun of being a children’s book blogger and writer is that I don’t have to choose one book. I blog twice a week (sometimes more) about all the amazing books there are for children to read. And I have to read the books to enable me to blog. I interview the authors and tweet with other writers. It’s a privileged and rewarding task. Every day for me is World Book Day.

 

World Book Day: Costume Craziness

world book day logo

This Thursday is World Book Day. I love World Book Day – it’s like the best birthday except everybody receives a book as a present, and you talk about books all day. It celebrates readers, reading and writers. However, at some point somebody thought it would be a great idea if children went to school on World Book Day dressed up as ‘their favourite character from their favourite book’. Fun, you might think. But here’s the rub. The majority of children want to read books with characters that look like them!

world book day books

Some children love dressing up and will take every opportunity to do so. A multitude of 5 year old girls will happily use any excuse to traipse around all day in Disney Princess outfits, happily opining that their favourite book in the world is Snow White, the ‘Frozen’ book, or Beauty and the Beast! If your child’s favourite book is The Tiger Who Came to Tea, Where the Wild Things Are, or We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, is your child’s favourite character the tiger, the wild things and the bear – or is it Sophie, Max and the bear-hunting children? For the parent’s sake I hope it’s the children. And certainly not Elmer!

For those children who hate dressing up, are we just putting another obstacle between them and reading for pleasure? Instead of a day celebrating books, World Book Day becomes a day to dread. I find more boys than girls wish they didn’t have to dress up for WBD. And fewer boys read for pleasure than girls. So we’re managing to equate dressing up with a day celebrating books – actively turning off potential readers.

In fact, studies show that most children at that crucial primary school stage, Years 1-4, when reading for pleasure, want to read books with characters who look like them. So, when we ask them to dress according to their favourite character, they wouldn’t be needing to dress up at all. If the children I know went to school as their favourite character, they’d pitch up in their everyday clothes or their school uniform, just like Matilda, Emily Sparkes, as a school girl from Malory Towers, as Chloe in Mr Stink, Liam in Stonebird, Horrid Henry (just an ordinary boy), Jack and Annie from the Magic Tree House series. Children’s favourite characters aren’t always wizards, witches, cats and crocodiles.

I will see swathes of children dressed as Harry Potter on Thursday though – and Peter Pan, Alice and Dorothy. Not because these are the children’s favourite characters, or because they have even read the books in which they appear, but because an industry has grown up around the World Book Day costume theme so that all fancy dress shops and online party retailers have a section called World Book Day Costumes with these same generic outfits. They even have them for teachers. I’m not being self-righteous. I too have sent my children as characters that they don’t adore, simply for ease of outfit, or because it’s cheaper.

There’s also the huge issue of diversity. Sam Hepburn highlighted this on the Guardian Children’s Book site this week, pointing out that almost all the protagonists in well-known children’s literature were white, so black children found it difficult to find a character with whom they could identify, and that in some cases it posed issues dressing up as a ‘white character’. Sam writes that the fun for children was dressing up as someone instantly recognisable, and I quote “preferably one whose story has been made into a film.” For me, this emphasises my point that making WBD a costume day detracts from the idea of a ‘book’. There’s not much point calling it World Book Day if it’s a parade of Disney princesses and film characters.

I wish that the schools would do something else instead. Bring in your favourite book and talk about it? Write down the title of a book you’ve read that you’d most like to own? Bring in a book that you can swap with someone else? There is a huge range of activities and resources provided on the WBD website, and I fully endorse a massive enthusiastic day that celebrates reading and books and writing and writers. I just wish it hadn’t become quite so much about the costume, rather than the book.

If you are dressing up and need some ideas, see here