World Book Day
By Antony Lishak
I’m not sure if authors are meant to say this – but I’m not a big fan of World Book Day. It wasn’t always like that. The whole shebang started 21 years ago, a few months before I left the classroom to become a full-time writer. In homage to Roald Dahl, who’d been dead for five years, I came to school that day as the BFG; scruffy shirt, skimpy waistcoat and Prince Charles false-ears. Nobody noticed. I’d like to think I was just being upstaged by the phalanx of flamboyant fairies, witches, and Red Riding Hoods my female colleagues had morphed into, but I suspect it had more to do with the close resemblance that my carefully crafted costume had to the teacher-outfit I usually wore.
Let me offer some historical context here – you need to know what the world into which World Book Day was born actually looked like. Back then, the sitting US President was embroiled in a sordid sexual harassment scandal, the Conservative Party was self-destructing over its relationship with the European Union and Arsenal were being managed by a chap called Arsene Wenger.
And in the world of education, primary classrooms were still proudly child-centred and schools hadn’t yet become the data factories they are today. Teachers swooned as a fresh-faced Tony Blair proclaimed “education, education, education”, cheered as resource budgets swelled and punched the air as age-weary buildings were finally repaired. And staffrooms across the land resounded to the sound of popping champagne corks when a Government sponsored committee (chaired by Ken Robinson and boasting the participation of Lenny Henry and Dawn French) published a report called “All Our Futures”, placing creativity at the heart of the curriculum. (Never heard of it? It’s worth a Google…).
Over the last two decades I’ve been the guest author at countless World Book Day events. Believe me, I’ve passed judgement on more parades of strutting mini Harry Potter look-alikes than most. Last year a teacher brought me a copy of a book I had signed for her when she was eight. And most weirdly, a child introduced herself to me as “bump”, holding the book I’d signed for her pregnant mother. So my reservations aren’t directed at the day itself; it’s the disconnect between what the day is meant to be celebrating and the structure-obsessed “literacy lessons” that teachers are forced to force-feed their pupils throughout the rest of the year that concerns me.
My involvement with schools has extended far beyond the events that get highlighted every March. I have been in the business for nearly 40 years and since I left full-time teaching I’ve led writing workshops in over 2000 schools and organised hundreds of creative writing training sessions for teachers. I’ve had a ringside seat at the decline of creativity in our classrooms and witnessed the enthusiasm that children bring to their work when inspired by the power of great writing being slowly crushed under the weight of assessment.
In the context of the current sterile curriculum, where familiarity with grammatical terminology is valued over the ability to meaningfully use it, WBD’s relationship with schools has started to mirror that of Rosh Hashanah’s with shuls. Both dates get circled in calendars months in advance and the rituals of each are bound up with remembrance. Just as the opening Tekiah from the shofar can take you back to the very first time you heard it (in my case sitting on my grandfather’s knee in Egerton Road shul in the mid-sixties…), so WBD can evoke memories of distant pre-digital days, secure in the lap of an eager adult reader holding a favourite book (which for me also involves my grandfather’s knee). Although, if you’re a parent the obligatory face paints, hair dye and dressing up makes WBD feel more like Purim…
Look, I know how “commemorative days” work. But nowadays there are far more of them than there are actual days. This year WBD coincides with National Bed Month, St David’s Day and The Marie Curie Appeal. And if Cornish independence floats your boat you can celebrate St Piran’s Day if you really want to. But I just feel that reading for pleasure is too important for it to be tokenised. The ability to share and create stories is what makes us stand out from the rest of the animal kingdom. Stories define identity - we are all products of the stories we tell and the stories that get told about us. Celebrating the wonder of books should be a daily event.
Antony Lishak is a children’s author and creative writing expert, whose books include Stars, set in Warsaw during the Nazi occupation. He is a member of New North London Synagogue.