Thursday, 4 March 2021

World B**k Day - by Ciaran Murtagh

I should like World Book Day -  it's a no brainer surely.

I make a living writing words for a living, a lot of them go into books, World Book Day should be right up my street when it comes to all round good days. But the truth is, I'm just not sure it is. I like the idea of World Book Day, I like what it represents, it's definitely a 'GOOD THING' but in execution... well, it makes me feel a bit dirty. 

Partly it's because it feels like a wolf in sheep's clothing. Can't argue with celebrating books or reading can you? But is World Book Day about celebrating books, or is it about selling books? It's like Valentines Day - you can't argue with wanting to celebrate the one you love - but do you have to do it on one specific day in a way that just so happens to make a mint for florists and Hallmark cards?

I'm always busy on World Book Day, but truth be told none of my best visits occur on that day. My best visits occur on a random day in November when I just happen to be in a school to talk about books and writing. On World Book Day it's hard to connect. 

Partly that's because - as any teacher will tell you - putting 300 kids in fancy dress and sitting them in a hall is never the best way to ensure complete focus. The first half hour of any World Book Day assembly is usually spent trying to persuade all the Harry Potters to stop poking all the Boys in  Dresses with their magic wands, and to tell the Marvel Super Heroes to stop punching the Disney Princesses with their power fists. 

One memorable year I was in a school where all the staff had decided to dress as crayons in a homage to The Day the Crayons Quit. However, as they had effectively put themselves in full length tubes for the day it meant they couldn't use their arms, or climb up stairs, or sit down, or do just about anything else...It was an almost perfect metaphor for the problems with World Book Day -  we so desperately want to show how much we love books, that in our effort to do so we make it impossible to pick one up. 

I have the best events when people are surprised by what I'm doing, who look at books afresh because of it, not at the end of a long week of stress and preparation where quite frankly the pressure of the fancy dress competition, teachers doing masked reading and the book fair have made everyone sick of the sight of books by the time Thursday rolls around. 

I don't know if it's a uniquely British thing, or just a human thing, but there is a tendency to commit so whole heartedly to a 'good thing' that it stops being enjoyable or even necessarily a 'good thing' anymore. There are pressures on schools to find authors and come up with events, pressures on authors to cram as many events into the week as possible and pressures on parents to come up with a costume and find the cash for a book or two. 

What is wrong with simply having a day that is focussed on books without all the rigmarole? I guess you wouldn't sell as many, but who cares? Because the truth is, the argument that it's good for business only applies to certain authors. There was a feature on World Book Day in The Daily Mail this week, the kids authors they chose to highlight? David Walliams, Julian Clary, Ricky Gervais and Tom Fletcher. So even when there's a golden opportunity to repoint the conversation around children's books towards authors who do it for a living, who go into schools even when it isn't World Book Day - shock horror! -  it's missed. 

I am aware this may all be sounding a little like sour grapes, but that's a perennial problem. If children's authors can't critique a day that is supposedly all about children's books then who can? It's the problem with universal 'good things'. They become bullet proof and that makes it impossible to even comment on them without being told you have some kind of agenda.  

The nation has decided that World Book Day is a good thing and therefore you can't criticise it - it's good for books and books are good for children, what kind of monster wouldn't want to encourage children to read -  and you call yourself an author! 

Yes, but could it be better? And is suggesting that we might just take it down a peg or two to focus on what it's actually about really that wrong? I'm just saying that if people spend more on the costume than they do on the actual book then maybe, just maybe, World Book Day has become about something else. 

And as if to prove a point, here's The Mail's World Book Day coverage today

Is it about an author? 

No, it's about Amanda Holden. 

Is it celebrating books? 

No, it's celebrating Heart FM

Time for a rethink yet?


Kelly McCaughrain said...

Yes, it's a nice idea but also a bit unfair on families who can't afford the costume rigmarole. And I've always found it ironic that writers end up turning down events on World Book Day because they're invited to so many, but are twiddling their thumbs the rest of the year. It's like World Book Day exists so that people can get it out of the way and don't have to think about reading for the other 364 days of the year. Newspapers are especially guilty of this. They're completely uninterested in kidslit the rest of the year.

Nick Garlick said...

I had no idea WBD prompted so much dressing up and brouhaha. (I don't live in the UK, which may explain it.) The way you describe it, it sounds like nothing so much as a celebration of the successful and about as helpful to children's books as the Oscars are to independent movies. Good post!

Penny Dolan said...

A great post, Ciaran, and such a recognisable description of what so often happens - and what's unbalanced about the "shopping" rather than a real "reading" focus!
And that newspaper article was infuriatingly typical.

Also, the characters are so often known from films or screens, rather than from reading the book itself.

Joan Lennon said...

Thanks for this, Ciaran!

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Lynne Benton said...

Excellent post, Ciaran - I couldn't agree more!