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!
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