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World Book Day


World Book Day – Beyond the Costume (3 minute read)


"World Book Day vouchers brilliantly help give children a flavour of reading for pleasure for free. The Library has the whole menu." 


a group of young children dressed in colourful superhero outfits


The first Thursday in March strikes emotion in all those caring for an under 12. Some love it - an opportunity to engage your child with their passion for a character, a chance to low-key show off some crafty skills (great if bake sales are where you often fall foul of the parenting peer pressures), a day for fun and excitable children. But for many, dread sets in – the frantic panic as March draws ever closer, not even Prime can save you, all Hermione Granger costumes are sold out in age 7-8, your child will never forgive you, you may as well have sold the family dog for the reaction and guilt you’re feeling. So, in the spirit of participation, you settle for a hastily drawn lightning bolt on the forehead with an eyeliner, throw some glasses towards child at the school gates, and hope for the best. And yet, Friday rolls round and all is forgiven, World Book Day forgotten until the cycle begins in 360-ish days’ time (because for all your promises to yourself that ‘next year we’ll be more organised’, life gets in the way).


So why do we, as parents, teachers, librarians, and children themselves bother? Why one day of the year to celebrate reading? Should this not be every day in a child’s developmental journey? What’s the tangible link? And if your child ‘doesn’t read’, how on Earth do you make them care?


World Book Day (WBD) was first celebrated in the UK in 1997, a localised incarnation of a global UNESCO initiative, launched in 1995. In the UK, WBD was launched to much fanfare by the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, at an event held consciously at Shakespeare’s London Globe. The main concept of this vibrant new charitable initiative was to distribute tokens to all children in full time education that could be redeemed for a specially curated anthology, levelling the playing field for all children to be united in reading for pleasure. An initiative created that transcends political leanings or affiliations, as summed up by founder Baroness Gail Rebuck, who recalled earlier this year: “We wanted to do something to reposition reading and our message is the same today as it was then – that reading is fun, relevant, accessible, exciting, and has the power to transform lives.’


2022 marks 25 years of ‘World Book Day’ in the UK, and the initiative has grown, evolved, and adapted as new generations of children take part. The books involved have changed, with a voucher now issued to all children through schools and libraries that can be exchanged for either a book or £1 off retail price in any book retailer from a book or audio equivalent. The selection of ‘free’ books available with the voucher has grown significantly, from the original anthology, with a selection of 15 books available, specially written for the initiative, that span all age ranges and interests, giving children autonomy over their reading choices, a key principle that we have within the ethos of public libraries. This year also sees 4 national online events, partnerships with Premier League football clubs, distribution throughout prisons and hospitals, and even an official song – all to encourage and spread the message to ALL children that ‘You are a reader!’


a group of children reading


The introduction of costumes and dress up as a way of celebrating was driven by education settings themselves, as a way of encouraging engagement from children and families, and is not an ‘official’ part of WBD. Certainly, in principle, inviting children to recreate their favourite characters in this way sparks imagination. It encourages children to look beyond the words on a page, relate to characters, and reinforces that books are fun! In reality the task of creating/finding a costume in time for a specific day has become a nightmare for many parents and carers. WBD has become ‘just another day’ in a school calendar, another ‘thing’ to do, watered down to a stressful task, and a far cry from the purpose of the initiative. Many children dressed as Harry Potter have only seen the films, the child dressed as ‘Where’s Wally’ had a red/white striped top available in the airing cupboard at 6pm the preceding Wednesday, the child in the Hulk costume has never picked up a comic or graphic novel from which the Marvel Cinematic Universe evolved. And honestly, as a librarian, and as a parent – there’s no judgement here! Between the stresses of adulting, the children deciding they simply ‘have’ to be Ariel or Super Mario, and school reminding you of WBD on Monday, you just want your children happy, and on a level playing field with their peers. It’s hard navigating life in 2022 as a parent or carer, and honestly, WBD seems like the least of your worries.


But it does make us question, should we bring things back to basics with WBD? Let’s face it, kids can dress up for a party or a disco, and it have much the same impact in reality. Indeed, many schools are starting to rethink their approach to WBD. In recent years many schools have moved away from children dressing up, instead opting for other activities that hopefully encourage the official message of WBD – ‘you are a reader’. Creating ‘books in a jar’, a wooden spoon or potato character, book review competitions, all completed at home, with activities within school that are directly related to reading for pleasure, and fostering and encouraging a love of reading, especially for those children who don’t see themselves as ‘natural readers’. Yes, reading is for everyone, libraries are for everyone, WBD is for everyone, but these reluctant readers are the children who need the most focus and support.


As a children’s librarian I love that all children can walk into a public library, or visit our digital platforms, and access all the wonderous books and stories that await them without financial or social barriers, and of course I love chatting stories and characters with the Matilda-like children who bounce into libraries, racing towards the shelves, absorbing books with an unrivalled passion. These children have discovered the secret already - that books are whatever you want them to be, they bring joy, spark imagination, inform and inspire, and help in times of need. But many children haven’t unlocked this secret yet. Lack of concentration, struggles with the physical act of reading (because of dyslexia, visual impairments, developmental delays, etc), having been pressured to read and ‘failed’, or simply having a lack of access to books that they don’t see as ‘boring’, all contribute to create ‘non-readers’. Completely understandable, but that doesn’t mean we should give up on that child’s ability to change this perception. Indeed, even ‘non-reader’ adults can flip the script. I’m a firm believer that no-one is a non-reader – they just haven’t found the right book yet, and arrogant as it may sound, I’m yet to be proven wrong!


a teacher reading to a group of children


So, your child doesn’t read. How do you change this? It’s a natural response when a child is struggling to enjoy books, especially if you or their siblings and peers are, to push books on them. I see so many well-meaning caregivers in libraries hunting for the book that will unlock their child’s passion for reading. But here’s the key – you cannot find that book, only they can. There is an overwhelming power in children having autonomy over what books they choose and being free from judgement over their choices. For generations we have been told which books are right or wrong, and as with anything in our modern world, media influence hasn’t helped. Honestly, the concept of ‘the library’ and the historical connotations of libraries as institutions and places for ‘proper reading’ hasn’t helped either. But libraries are not the same places they were 50, even 20 years ago, and all reading is proper reading. Grown adults feel judged for reading ‘Fifty Shades’ or Katie Price’s latest biography, rather than the latest from the Booker longlist. A suited man in his 50’s couldn’t openly read ‘Knitting for Beginners’ on the bus without side glances from fellow passengers. And we consciously and unconsciously project these insecurities onto our children, gatekeeping their reading and narrowing their choices. And yet all it does is stop children from discovering what they love. It stops adults too! You may read every book on every top intellectual prize list, and that’s ok too. Reading for pleasure means your pleasure, whatever topic or format that may be – your reading is your own and is valid. We need to apply these principles to our children if we want them to discover all the benefits that reading brings for their emotional, social, and intellectual development.


All formats are valid – graphic novels, eBooks, audiobooks, traditional print books. Let your child take the book that is ‘too babyish’, ‘too silly’, ‘too difficult’. Let them take the book that seems ‘wrong’. Reinforce to them that not all books are for everyone, and that that book may end up being dreadful, but it’s ok to try another. It’s ok to not like a book. It’s ok to love a book that isn’t what their friends are reading. It’s ok to enjoy the book that you would have never picked for them off the shelf. Let them be led by their interests. Football books, books on gaming, books on dancing, unicorns, superheroes, cars, farts! The library has them all, and for free. Owning books to keep is a wonderful thing. Flicking through the dog-eared pages of a book cherished countless times, and the thrill of buying a book that never has to be returned should never be dismissed or underestimated, but it is limiting. When you’re not sure what you or your children want at £20 RRP is understandably off-putting, which is one of the key principles of WBD and the ‘free book’ vouchers. World Book Day vouchers brilliantly help give children a flavour of reading for pleasure for free. The library has the whole menu.


So don’t stress about the costume on that first Thursday in March. Let’s be honest, most of us dressed for Halloween in a bin bag with mum’s eyeliner hastily drawn on our faces to masquerade as a ‘witch’ in the 80’s and 90’s, and we turned out ok.


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