Buy a costume or give a book?
World Book Day is upon us again. During their time in primary school this has meant me desperately scrabbling for a costume for my son or daughter, or both, to represent their favourite character in their favourite book, to wear for one day at school. This is in addition to the random, Egyptian day, Celts day or Victorian child day that also necessitates a hurried trip to the internet for a costume that then languishes in the wardrobe never to be seen again.
It has also seemed, from a brief poll of looking around the classroom, that World Book Day may as well be called Harry Potter day given the number of cloaks and circular glasses filling the playground. Much as I love books, and it’s safe to say I LOVE books, this doesn’t seem quite the celebration of stories and literature I’d hoped it would be.
For me the joy of stories is in discovering something different that I can share with others or that is being shared with me by the writer, an alternative perspective on life that has me nodding with sudden recognition or wondering how they came to that view. The wonder of stories is the diversity of characters you can encounter in a book; from a thousand year old demon to an enchanted baby, from a dying King to a child languishing in a Victorian workhouse.
Through books and stories all these possibilities live and breathe again, even if their time is long past. A book can communicate through space and time in a way nothing else achieves. Through a book I can have a conversation with twelfth century Julian of Norwich or Matt Haig. I can see the Tudor court through the imagination of Hilary Mantel or travel through other worlds with Philip Pullman.
Books and stories help us to generate communication across time, space and divides of class and culture. By reading the stories written by or about those who are not me I can expand my own idea of what it is to be human. This then serves to increase my understanding of other experiences and with it, my compassion and empathy, in a world that sometimes seems starved of both.
Books have in every way enriched my life and they continue to do so as I indulge in my privileged occupation of weaving magic; narrating audiobooks for others to listen to and expanding the audience for the writers I serve. This enrichment is something I want for my children and, indeed, all the children of the world.
While the biggest challenge in our house is whittling down a favourite book and then negotiating over whether we own a suitable costume, 38,000 children in the UK do not own a single book (National Literacy Trust, December 2019). This is not acceptable.
I don’t want to come across as a parsimonious killjoy. Many children and teachers enjoy the dressing up that comes with World Book Day, but what if there were an embargo on buying new costumes? What if we tried harder to share what we already have in our privileged lives and didn’t buy another disposable set of flammable clothing? What if instead of buying clothes we don’t want we instead bought a book for someone who needed it, a favourite perhaps, that we could give to a local charity for one of those 38,000 children.
38,000 books is not really that many if we share our resources a bit more. At an average cost of £7 for a new book it is £266,000, considering many well-off areas have second hand books selling at £1 each in charity shops it is £38,000.
This could also change our children’s perspective of their lot. Most of us do not question the position we are born into or the family situation we find ourselves in. It is normal to us and we assume everyone else is similar or the same.
This is a chance to exercise the compassion and empathy grown in the pages of the books they have been listening to or reading and see life from another’s perspective, as well as having the chance to be a change maker.
World Book Day
World Book Day is a wonderful charity with fantastic aims, their recruitment of writers to inspire and educate, helping children learn through play, imagination and story, is an incredible gift for our children and an exciting day in the school calendar.
But so is a single book for any child. A single book can be a friend; a companion on an adventure; a sanctuary; a teacher; a magician taking us out of our difficulties and into another world. It can empower us as we read the stories of others like us who have been under-represented or determine that we will write such a story.
Empowering the Powerless
And empowerment is still an imperative for many girls and women around the world. The writings by and about women, as well as my indomitable mother, gave me my political awakening as I delved into the feminist perspectives that had remained hidden before.
Recently I have narrated a selection of re-tellings of fairy tales for a young adult audience. These all involve themes of power, abuse of power, entitlement and rising above your expected destiny through story. The versions I have read re-imaging the women particularly, as artists, power brokers and powerful mages, keeping the story tradition but giving an alternative slant, perfect for our emerging young women as International Women’s Day also approaches.
And isn’t that what stories celebrate, alternative ways of being, seeing and living, that we would otherwise never know. Without them we might grow up thinking that the narrow life we live, now in our town, our house, our family, is the only real way to be human. With them we may find a depth of compassion and empathy that has us sharing books with others, ones that they can enjoy, learn from and find courage from.
As always I would love to hear your thoughts, join in the chat here.