‘I spent £50 on costumes and didn’t buy any books’: How World Book Day lost the plot

Once a celebration of reading, literacy and bookshops World Book Day has become a commercialised excuse for fancy dress. How can we fix it?

Tuesday, 3rd March 2020, 8:27 pm
Updated World Book Day, and schools across the nation are tidying their reading corners as bookshops unfurl their bunting. A registered charity funded by publishers and booksellers, WBD is celebrated in more than 100 countries – and this year it turns 25.

Here in the UK, children are encouraged to come into school dressed as their favourite character from a book. Fifteen million WBD tokens are distributed, which children can swap for a free WBD title, or use to get £1 off any book of their choice.

As Abi Elphinstone, whose adventure stories have captured the imaginations of a generation of 10-year-olds, puts it: “In sharing a story with a child on World Book Day you’re not just sharing paper and ink; you’re sharing worlds, ideas and values, and for a planet that needs healing, that might well be the most powerful sort of sharing there is.”

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According to the National Literacy Trust, 16.4 per cent of adults in England can be described as having “very poor literacy skills”. If that’s going to change, we need children to have ready access to books and the enthusiasm to pick them up.

But books compete with tablets, Fortnite and phones for attention. Almost 800 libraries have closed since 2010, and one in eight disadvantaged children in the UK say that they don’t have a book of their own. Children’s thriller writer and ex-teacher Martin Griffin was in a school recently and recalls: “An English teacher, addressing a year group of pupils, described reading as a ‘dying pursuit’.”

And while the event is intended, as Catherine Wilkins, author of , says, as “a chance for books to be genuinely celebrated and to draw attention to how much fun reading can bring”, WBD is not without its problems.

I’ve been a children’s author for eight years, and I’ve noticed the creeping commercialism of World Book Day. The costumes are growing larger and more elaborate. They’re also likely to have been bought from a supermarket. Look out into any assembly tomorrow and you’ll behold a sea of nylon Harry Potters.

‘Last year, I met a parent who spent £50 on WBD outfits for her children. She had not bought any books’

This year, Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s, Aldi, Matalan and Marks & Spencer are all getting in on the act. A quick internet search for “World Book Day costumes” throws up Asda’s “Disney Princess Cinderella fancy dress costume” along with various characters from Toy Story and the ubiquitous Harry Potter books.

A friend told me that “it does make life easier as a working mum to know it’s an option”. But that option comes at a significant cost: last year, I met a parent who spent £50 on WBD outfits for her children. She had not bought any books.

Not only do these costumes suck up money that might otherwise have been spent promoting literacy, there’s an argument that they may even curtail the imagination. Joseph Craig, the author of the bestselling Jimmy Coates series, points out that supermarkets give costumes more space than books. What’s more, he says: “They narrow the vision of what the books universe actually covers. For them – and then for many kids – it’s become ‘dress up as a character day’ – and not necessarily a character from a book. A superhero, a footballer…”

Unlike books, these costumes are very disposable; a confluence of polyester and glitter. Do we really want to encourage our climate striking children into fast fashion in the name of reading? The founder of campaign group Authors4Oceans, Lauren St John, says: “It enrages me to think of the plastic wands, spiders, glasses and other soon-to-be discarded tat, sold in the name of World Book Day.”

Marks & Spencer has recently been trumpeting that children can spend their WBD tokens in their stores, luring them and their parents away from the very bookshops the event exists to support. Danny Van Emden, children’s buyer of the independent West End Lane Books in London, says generously: “I suppose M&S will be offering WBD books in towns now sadly lacking a bookshop.” But when such bookshops, with their passionate booksellers, have been lost because of pressure from big retailers, it’s hard to feel anything but sorrow.

WBD has long been an opportunity for children’s authors to meet and inspire young readers. Costa-winning writer Katherine Rundell says: “It’s one of my favourite days of the year, professionally speaking: the chance to see roomfuls of children being wildly, superbly, rabidly enthusiastic about books. A day to celebrate that which books can do: the joy they create, the vistas they open, the jokes they spread.”

‘Reading for pleasure should be at the heart of every school, every day, not just fleetingly every March’

But a prevailing feeling among many authors is that WBD is not the ideal time to go into schools. Maz Evans says: “Often you find your visit a little sidelined by other events. It’s better when it is a bigger focus of the day as I think everyone gets more out of it.”

My own experience of going into schools has been mixed. At best, I leave children and their teachers enthused about reading and what it can do. My worst visits have been when I was only allowed to talk to girls, while the boys were shepherded away. “You don’t write books for boys,” I was told, by teachers citing my female protagonists. It was a quick and powerful lesson for all the students that women’s stories, and lives, are deemed irrelevant to men.

Accidental Superstar and Face the Music, both out now

Has World Book Day become a horror story at your child’s school? Send your opinions to [email protected]