Happy World Book Day. Except in the UK…

World Book Day in the UK is arguably just a marketing opportunity and a fancy dress contest. Let’s make it a REAL celebration of the printed word instead.

In the vast majority of countries, today is World Book Day, a shared celebration of the printed word spanning cultures, countries and continents.  As usual though, old stick-in-the-mud UK goes it alone and contrives to do things differently. Consequently, our ‘World’ Book Day currently takes place at the end of March. Except it’s not a wholly innocent celebration of the printed word. And it’s falling short on several fronts. What follows is my own personal take on UK WBD as a parent and as a reader, and my own suggestions for what could really breathe life into the day on our islands.

So it’s intended to promote books (and I assume the general cause of literacy) in the UK. It’s also spawned its own tradition of giving schoolchildren a chance to dress up as their favourite book character. So far, so seemingly wholesome and innocent. But as a someone who likes to read, who values books and book culture, and as a parent myself (veteran of six World Book Days and counting…) I have my doubts that it genuinely fulfils the nobler of the intentions that UNESCO had in mind when WBD was established in the 90’s. Lest anyone accuse me of being a grumpy old git, let me point out that only a total cretin would NOT want the cause of literacy or the joy of reading to be promoted. And who am I to say kids shouldn’t get a chance to spend a day out of their dowdy school uniforms? So be clear: stick in the mud I am not. But cynic I most certainly am. That said I’m a cynic who doesn’t want to be so, because I can see how things could be so much better and brighter about World Book Day in the UK, if only it were a genuine celebration of book culture with nary a thing to be cynical about.

A bit of background…

 The official UNESCO designation is of World Book and Copyright Day, which is actually celebrated worldwide on April 23rd. Irina Bokova, UNESCO’s Director-General, describes the day thus on UNESCO’s website (certain items put in bold by me, by the way):

On World Book and Copyright Day, UNESCO invites all women and men to rally around books and all those who write and produce books. This is a day to celebrate books as the embodiment of human creativity and the desire to share ideas and knowledge, to inspire understanding and tolerance […] Books are not immune from a world of change, embodied in the advent of digital formats and the transition to open licensing for knowledge-sharing. This means more uncertainty but also new opportunity — including for innovative business models in the world of publishing. Change is raising sharp questions about the definition of the book and the meaning of authorship in the digital era. UNESCO is leading from the front in the new debates about the dematerialization of books and the rights of authors. By championing copyright and open access, UNESCO stands up for creativity, diversity and equal access to knowledge. We work across the board – from the Creative Cities of Literature network to promoting literacy and mobile learning and advancing Open Access to scientific knowledge and educational resources. For instance, in partnership with Nokia and Worldreader, UNESCO is striving to harness mobile technology to support literacy. 

So let’s try and cut through the flannel here and look at things another way: There’s the usual high-minded and ambitious sentiment about wanting to promote literacy; to celebrate books, authors and the transmission of knowledge; and  to preserve and sustain book culture because it’s a source of collective and personal empowerment. I’m not going to argue with that. But as the parts I’ve put in bold clearly imply, the link between World Book Day and the publishing industry has always been there (remember that ‘Copyright’ bit), and we’d be fools not to bear that in mind amid all the noble and lofty sentiment. By the way, Irina, I’d keep a close eye on the “dematerialisation of books” problem. I seems like all those British schoolkids dressed as Harry Potter have been waving their wands a bit too hard…

Meanwhile back in the UK…

As I see it, the problems with World Book Day in its British form are various, and it’s the result of misplaced priorities.  In the UK World Book Day is organised by a charity,but i would be very surprised if that didn’t take a large part of its direction from the publishing industry. As the World [i.e. UK] Book Day wesbsite says: World Book Day Ltd is a registered charity whose financing of World Book Day comes mainly from contributing publishers, the generous sponsorship of National Book Tokens Ltd, some literacy partnerships and other supporters, as well as the participating booksellers who fund the entire cost of Book Token redemption. While some of WBD’s partners are charitable organisations engaged in promoting the general cause of literacy both at home and abroad, let’s get down to bass tacks: On balance of probability, it’d be fair to argue that  publishers and the book trade stump up a lot of the upfront cost for WBD in the hope of a return in the form of boosted sales. How does this fit in with the nobler of UNESCO’s core aims, viz. inviting people to reflect on the very notion of books, and to send them away with a renewed sense of the power of books to educate, inspire, inform, entertain, instruct, enrich, sustain, promote, alter, reinvent, provoke, protect, deceive, destroy…?

Well I’m not sure it gets us very fair. In my experience in the UK, World Book Day is as much about shifting product as it is about feeding minds and animating the collective human spirit. Let’s get specific.   1) In the UK we don’t ‘celebrate’ World Book Day actually ON World Book Day.   No minor point this, so bear with me. World Book Day in the UK should actually be called UK Book Day, because it currently falls at the beginning of March.  Almost everywhere else in the world it’s on April 23rd. The reason? Well Wikipedia (a useful source even when it’s wrong) currently states that  “in the UK, World Book Day is held annually on the first Thursday in March, as 23 April clashes with Easter school holidays; 23 April is also the National Saint’s Day of England, St George’s Day.” There’s also this justification which is taken from the ‘World Book Day’ website: In the UK and Ireland World Book Day is on Thursday 5 March 2015. This date came about after serious thought and lengthy discussion to ensure that we were making the best decision for all participants and our supporters. We take into consideration religious holidays, school terms and potential conflict with other charitable activities. In other countries World Book Day takes place at a different time of year – usually in April. As most people would be able to tell you, this point about April 23d clashing with the Easter holidays is a red herring. Easter is rarely so late in the year. The worst that would happen is that this would ‘clash’ with the beginning of a school term. I can’t remember the last time the Easter Holidays actually ate so far into the end of April. It does happen, but it’s no big deal. As for April 23rd also being St George’s Day, well so what? Some people ‘celebrate’ it but it’s not exactly a major date in most people’s calendar in the UK, despite noisy protestations of a vocal minority or recent half-baked attempts to raise its profile in recent years. Some english schools make an attempt to acknowledge it in some way, but when they tried this at my kids’ school they said come dressed in a way that reflects the St George story or in something that reflects England. One kid came in a dragon ‘onesie’ while a few appeared in England football shirts. What a staggeringly successful affirmation of the patriotic spirit. Of course April 23rd is actually one of the most auspicious days in the UK literary calendar, being the anniversary of the Bard Shakespeare’s  birth and death. Even UNESCO refer to that. What’s the UK publishing industry’s problem? Make no mistake: To cite clashes with the Easter holidays, St George’s day or any other reasons is just spurious. The real reason that we have World Book Day in the UK during the dog-end of Winter rather than in the first flush of Spring, as I recall Private Eye among others have pointed out in the past, is that the main funder and driver of World Book Day in the UK is the British book trade. It suits their commercial purposes to have an influx of book-token-touting kids going into bookshops when the new titles of the quarter are being released. What was that they say again? Oh yes, “in the UK and Ireland World Book Day is on Thursday 5 March 2015. This date came about after serious thought and lengthy discussion to ensure that we were making the best decision for all participants and our supporters”. [Items in bold are mine].  Since the children’s book market is so lucrative in the UK, World Book day effectively spearheads the first major sales push of the year after Christmas. Cynical, moi? Not half as cynical as the average publisher, baby. In fact I’m a softy idealist at heart. I say celebrate World Book Day in the UK actually ON World Book Day, in perfect harmony with our brothers and sisters everywhere else in the world, and also to honour the Bard for good measure. It’s wouldn’t even be half so big an inconvenience as some would have you think.

2) This dressing up malarky.  I refer not to the elaborateness of some costumes. I refer not the cost. It’s the prerogative of each parent as to how much time or cash they part with in order to make their child or children dress up. I refer instead to what the children actually dress up as. Let’s look at the name of the day again. World Book Day. For the hard of thinking or those who don’t own any books, let write that again with a hint. World BOOK Day. Yes, I’m addressing you, parent of the child in my daughter’s class who let their son go dressed in a full Real Madrid kit with ‘Ronaldo’ written on the back. Are you stupid? I don’t care if Ronaldo’s appeared in Panini sticker books. I don’t care if he’s had books written about him. The bloke might even have an autobiography, not that I give a damn. Ronaldo is a footballer. It was World Book Day. Where is the logical connection?  You parents are guilty of extracting several large vats full of urine. For the parents of the four children dressed as Lego Ninjago characters there are no words. Other than to say that I suspect the last new book to enter your home was probably the Yellow Pages. I’m also thinking of you, the parents of children who go dressed as Darth Vader or a Stormtrooper. As my son rightly says, if you’re going to dress as a character out of a film, at least have the common sense to choose someone who has appeared in the book first, and then appeared  in the film of the book. I’ve even got those of you in my sights whose kids go as Spiderman or Batman. “But they’re characters out of comics!” Yes they are. And granted some of those comics can be very good. But face it, you too are extracting the urine. Why? Well it’s because it’s more convenient to let your child go dressed in a play outfit they already have, one with only a tenuous link to a celebration of BOOKS (not comics, and PLEASE DON’T SAY THAT COMICS ARE A KIND OF BOOK BECAUSE THAT’S NEVER BEEN THE TRADITION IN THE UK). It indicates to me that Batman or Spiderman is probably the most intellectually advanced reading material to be found in your home. And there, I;ve said it now. Yes, parents like you are also very thick indeed. I think it’s essentially up to UK schools to show some backbone on this, by actually talking to children about what they might like to go dressed as, and trying their utmost to get children’s head around the fact that it really has to be a character who can be found (or was first found) in a genuine BOOK. “Oh but we don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings!” Oh grow up! Would you let a child consistently give the wrong answers to a series of sums and not correct them for fear of hurting his feelings? Of course not. And yet you still let children come dressed as Ronaldo or Lego Man to world book day. You are teachers. You are there to guide and educate. You are there to support the qualities of curiosity, excellence and truth exemplified in the very best books. The least you can do is help a child tell the difference beforehand between an attacking forward for Real Madrid and a character in a book. Better still, some parents might say, don’t encourage the kids to dress up at all, or vigorously send the message that there’s no shame in not dressing up.  After all, there are many (parents and children alike) for whom this dressing up lark is nothing but an annual pain in the backside, a waste both of time and money.

3) Those book tokens.  Hmmm. They haven’t got it right have they? So each child comes home with a token giving them either a free book or a quid (that’s ONE SINGLE, SOLITARY, LONELY, MEASLEY LITTLE QUID) off a book priced £2:99 or more. Now my kids are avid readers with catholic tastes, but they never, and I mean NEVER, go for any of the free books on offer. What I have to put up with instead (and I have genuinely heard this from other children as well) are complaints from my children that the free books don’t look very good, but that they still want to use their token on something else in the shop. Which is interesting, because my children don’t normally pester me to buy them books just like that. Unless, of course, the idea has been planted in their heads… That’s not to say that the free books are all without merit, but on the whole they always seem rather middling to poor fare to my kids. They’re slimmed down volumes, often consisting of little more than excerpted and previously published material. I see them hanging around bookshops near me for months afterwards. And a quid off a news book is neither here nor there really when (and sod it, let’s be completely cynical about this) you can save far more by ordering a book off certain internet sites. I wonder if you’ve experienced the same thing? When it comes down to it, just how many of those book tokens go unredeemed? Of course, we’ve already established that the main drivers behind UK World Book Day are the publishers and book floggers themselves, so little wonder that the day is capped off with the ceremonial handing over to each child of the blessed Token. It strikes me that the kids’ time (and money if it comes to that) would be better served by a trip to the local library or a second hand bring and buy book fair in each school: bring your old books and come away with some new ones.

4) Are schools really joining in the party?  In too many schools, World Book Day is just another day, albeit with the kids dolled up in fancy dress. Not enough schools are really joining the party by putting on an extensive series of book and literacy themed events. Some do (and some schools make sure their annual ‘Book Week’ coincides with Book Week and that there is a consistent set of activities over several days to promote all aspects of reading and- in the most outstanding examples- the children’s own creative writing. But I repeat: in far too many British schools, it’s Just Another Day with the exception of some funny  costumes.

5) UK WBD is aimed overwhelmingly at CHILDREN. The children’s market incidentally remains one of the most lucrative sectors of the UK publishing market in these uncertain and changing times. There are a few initiatives in the UK aimed at older readers (some taking place on or around the official WORLD Book Day on April 23rd. But still if you piece together what seems to be happening on UK WBD in March, it’s a case of shifting product.

So should we do anything about it? 

Here are some random suggestions for ways to put books and book culture at the very heart of UK Book Day, and to give it a truly international feel…

1) Celebrate World Book Day actually ON World Book Day.

Enough British exceptionalism.

2) Find an alternative to the Book Tokens. 

Make it worthwhile to use them. Let me be viciously blunt about this: £1 off the price of a new book is a lousy idea of a discount. Maybe we hold just ditch them. And remember that as a parent, if you don’t like the books on offer, make a point of taking your kids to the library instead. Or perhaps visit a second hand bookshop or a charity shop.

3) Remember everyone that it’s not World New Books Day, it’s World Book Day. 

That’s books in general, which doesn’t just mean living authors with product to shift. Let’s celebrate everybody.

4) Do we really have to have all that dressing up? 

I write as someone who gets away with it pretty lightly: There have been tears and arguments in our house over costumes, but not for a while now. The past couple of years I have just let my kids get on with it themselves and they’ve done very well.

A lot of people would be glad to see the back of this ‘tradition’, however.

The fact remains that there are a great many parents feel under great pressure to help their children go to town on the costumes. A lot of the time this leads to arguments and frustration, and 3am dashes to the all-night supermarket to get that all-important item to finish off a costume for the next morning.

Let’s not forget as well, that there are always children who for whatever reason don’t go dressed up as a character. Spare a thought for them (there, I told you I wasn’t such a cynic after all).

Once, just once, it’d be lovely to hear of a school who encouraged their pupils not to worry so much about dressing up and who found a simpler way of celebrating UK Book Day.

Which brings me to point five…

5) Why not encourage the children to take their favourite book into school instead? 

This might entail just as much thought as choosing which character to dress up as, but ultimately it’d be far less hassle, involve far less effort, fewer tears and less expense.

It’d also symbolise UNESCO’s values far more. Children take these things seriously. Let’s get them to share there enthusiasm for a book in a truly meaningful way, rather than encouraging them to flaunt it (i.e. by dressing up) in a more shallow manner.

The following points are aimed mainly at Schools…

6) See points 4 and 5 above. Don’t be afraid to buck a trend.

7) April 23rd is also Shakespeare’s birthday. Some sensible teachers and schools know this band do something curriculum based to exploit it for learning opportunities. Most schools don’t, and they are looking a gift horse in the mouth.

8) Have two world book days. Play the game if they insist on still playing it, i.e. dole out the tokens in March so no-one feels left out, and so you don’t get any snide and negative headlines in the local or national press.  But make it clear to the children in your charge that the real fun will be in April. Give them a sense of being part of a worldwide celebration of the book.

9) Use World Book Day to introduce the literatures of other cultures into your lessons. And by other cultures, I don’t just mean the Commonwealth stuff so beloved of GCSE English literature courses. Your kids will learn/ are learning enough about that. Instead, show some intellectual curiosity and ambition yourselves. Look to our European neighbours (April 23rd also happens to be Cervantes’s birthday too of course). There’s a massive wider European cultural tradition that our kids are unaware of.

And lastly one for the BBC and Channel 4…

10) More coverage of books is needed. I’m not aiming this point at commercial UK broadcasters. They are largely a hopeless case. Instead as the national broadcaster and a public service one to boot, I expect far more from the BB and C4.  Aside from the odd factual programme on Radio 4 (most of which reach only to the converted anyway…) and book adaptations on radio, the BBC’s coverage of books in general and literature has largely lost its way.

Time for a rethink. I personally think that a UK version of the notable French series Apostrophes could work extremely well.

And finally…

One-off celebration days are great, but each time you put your mind to opening a book with the intention of enjoying it or getting something from it, you are in your own way celebrating our collective book culture and learning. Make everyday a World Book Day.