Karen Bentall has worked in school and public libraries in the UK and US. She is currently taking study leave to pursue an MPhil at the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge.
What kind of Grinch would cringe at World Book Day? What’s not to like about celebrating all that is good and joyful about literacy? Of sharing the excitement of dressing up as a favourite book character? Of getting books into the hands of children by giving away free money in the form of book tokens? I have been suppressing my grinchly frown but it’s time to come clean. I am a school librarian: my life revolves around getting children to want to read. I wholeheartedly endorse the aims of World Book Day, but it’s not the aims that worry me. It is the unintended alienation of children who most need to find the joy and solace of getting lost in a book. A quick scan of social media for #worldbookday reveals posts from parents, teachers, politicians, celebrities, universities and more. Bookish celebrations and good times, it seems, were being had by all. Across the country, schools encouraged pupils to dress in a favourite book character. In classrooms I visited, there were fairytale characters and superheroes, Willy Wonkas and Matildas, and plenty of Wallys (Wallies?) and Wilmas to be found. But there were also, in every class, a handful of children who were not in costume. That morning as their excited classmates arrived in eye-catching, iridescent polyester and plastic, they stood apart, silently watching, keeping their emotions in check. These are the children whose parents did not buy into this literary extravaganza. Perhaps because of financial or time constraints? Or perhaps they could not read the notes that were sent home the week before? Whatever the reason, these children are the ones who most need to be included in our reading community. And they were not. My heart ached for them. A picturebook came to the rescue. The children’s minds were soon transported into the world of one of their teacher’s childhood favourite books, Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge by Mem Fox. It tells of Wilfred, who lives next door to a nursing home. When he discovers that his friend Nancy is losing her memory, he sets out to find what a memory is.
“Yay, we’re not learning today” remarked ‘Darth Vader’ as the teacher began. “Of course we’re learning,” said Miss, “we’re always learning.” She was right. Together, they explored some complex ideas about what really matters in life. In thinking about the lives and memories of the characters in the nursing home, the children pondered their own memories – the highs, the lows, the unusual and the universal. When Darth wondered whether they were learning, he was referring to their regular morning schedule of phonics and spelling tests: the mechanics of reading rather than the meaning of reading. In between bursts of discussion, the students responded by writing and drawing about their own memories, some happy, some sad, all precious. It occurred to me that it would have been feasible for the children to continue this line of thought by creating a simple dress-up costume at this point. Something simple using paper, card, yarn, etc. Might this not point to a better way for schools to engage in World Book Day? Rather than encourage families to spend time and/or money on store-bought outfits, could educators teach students how to make simple costumes in response to books? The World Book Day website is packed with “budget-busting dressing-up ideas” that can spark children’s imaginations to create their own character costume. Could school leaders give teachers and students time to read, think, talk, and create in the days leading up to World Book Day? Not just for primary children but older children too? If we invite World Book Day into our schools we have a responsibility as educators to do it right. I am acutely aware of the financial constraints and heavy workloads that face teachers and school administrators. With that in mind, I offer the following suggestions for a better, more inclusive, creative, and inspiring World Book Day 2020.
As the schedules are set for the 2019-2020 school year, make space in late February and early March for teachers and students to respond creatively to books by designing and making simple costumes.
Paper, crayons, glue, yarn. Start collecting items that can be recycled and reused, carboard, clean fabric, felt etc.
Access to plenty of picturebooks.* Allow teachers free choice of books. Their enthusiasm is contagious. These suggestions target primary schools, but World Book Day and picturebooks are not just for the primary set. Why not use picturebooks with older students to prompt discussions about creativity, climate change, social justice or the ideologies surrounding language, reading and banned books? A few recommended titles follow but your local librarian* might suggest more. It’s important to note that I am not suggesting that every child must dress up as a book character on World Book Day. Children who do not want to dress up should not be made to. My point here is that no child should be excluded from the excitement of World Book Day because of circumstances beyond their control. Exclusion from the reading community at an early age can lead to disaffection and disengagement with potentially disastrous results for the future. “Reading for pleasure” states the World Book Day website “is the single biggest indicator for success in life, more than family circumstances, educational background, or income.” As educators, let’s focus on the ways that children can imaginatively respond to books through dress-up, rather than encouraging them to buy in to an overly-consumerist culture that leaves too many – and too much waste – behind. After all, as every Who down in Who-ville knows, the true spirit of world book day doesn’t come from a store. My small grinchly heart might grow three sizes that day.* The pitiful state of UK school and public libraries is for another conversation.
A very unexhaustive list of picturebooks for older readers
Bryant, J. (2014). The right word : Roget and his thesaurus. Grand Rapids Michigan : Eerdmans.
Coy, J. (2013). Hoop genius : how a desperate teacher and a rowdy gym class invented basketball. Minneapolis : Carolrhoda.
McGill, A. & Soentpiet, C. (2009). Molly Bannaky. New York: Houghton Mifflin.
Pattison, D. (2017). The Nantucket sea monster : a fake news story. Little Rock, AR : Mims House.
Paul, M. (2015). One plastic bag: Isatou Cessay and the recycling women of Gambia. Minneapolis: Lerner.
Smith, L. (2010). It’s a book. 1st ed. New York : Roaring Brook.
Tan, S. (2000). The lost thing. Melbourne: Thomas C. Lothian
Fox, M. & Vivas, J. (1989). Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge. Brooklyn, NY:Kane Miller.
Seuss, Dr. (1957). How the Grinch stole Christmas. New York: Random House.World Book Day. http://www.worldbookday.com