So, last week the ‘world’ celebrated World Book Day, on the face of it, a wonderful idea. It is the prevailing wisdom that children are falling out of love with the written word. A report by Common Sense Media, entitled “Children, Teens, and Reading,” suggests that, in the US, “since 1984, the percent of 13-year-olds who are weekly readers went down from 70% to 53%, and the percent of 17-year-olds who are weekly readers went from 64% to 40%.” The mechanism by which WBD aims to reverse this trend is to create an emotional connection between children and the characters in books. WBD encourages children to bring to life their favourite literary characters – hence the frightening number of Harry Potters stalking the streets on the big day. This is the 19th year there’s been a WBD. Organisers send resources and activities to participating schools. Millions of book vouchers reach children who can take them to a local bookseller and pick one of 10 designated books, or get £1 off any book at a participating bookshop. All of this sounds worthy, but the question remains – does any of it actually achieve the stated objective?
Because the ‘downside’ of World Book Day is that this has unwittingly become yet another source of competition between children, with the inevitable consequences for parents. Ian Midgley of the Hull Daily Mail comments “During World Parent Disruption Day poor bedraggled parents are charged with finding increasingly bizarre costumes at vast expense so their kids can wear them at school for a few hours before discarding them in the dressing up box never to be seen again.” Midgley goes on to say: “It’s a scam. A swizz. A Brave New World attempt to make us shell out endless more cash for endless more products we don’t need that has absolutely nothing to do with books or reading or literary endeavour.” Alice Winter of the Telegraph trawls through Twitter to showcase the struggles of costume prep for WBD in this illuminating feature: World Book Day costumes: a parent’s 7 stages of crisis
As an author (I write a light-hearted crime series set in India and featuring a baby elephant, the first of which is The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra) I sit uncomfortably on the fence. For me the vision of WBD is sound. Children learn through fantasy and role-play – this has been amply demonstrated through research. In their paper “Symbolic Play and Emergent Literacy” Sandra J. Stone and William Stone state: “Both literacy and symbolic play require the ability to use words, gestures or mental images to represent actual objects, events or actions. The very nature of symbolic play … has an intimate relationship with reading and writing … in that children use similar representational mental processes in both.” Yet unintended consequences are also part and parcel of such schemes, as Midgley suggests.
I work in a university. Evidence-based thinking is part of our DNA, and so, personally, I’d like to see a systematic review of WBD – what evidence is there that it really enables reading, or embeds a love of literature? If so, what is the effect size? Does this effect persist as the child ages? I know, I know, I’m a killjoy. But, then again, some argue that the millions spent on WBD costumes each year might be better spent on books. Now, that’s a novel idea.