February 22, 2019

Is World Book Day becoming too expensive for parents?


A cardboard box: no longer a viable costume

When I was eight, I wore a box to school. Just for one day, mind—it was the inaugural World Book Day, in 1995, and I was dressed as Mr. Strong, the amiable power-lifter from Roger Hargreaves’ Mr. Men series. The box was painted red and had a paper smiley face on it, and I topped it off with a little green top hat made out of a tin can. I estimate that, in total, my costume cost about 50p.

Although I couldn’t really sit down for the whole day, I had a lovely time: we all got a voucher for a free book, and I have a vague memory of there being some cake at some point. Ideal!

Fast-forward 24 years, and World Book Day is an extremely big deal. In that time, the YA genre truly flourished thanks to the emergence of Harry Potter and His Dark Materials, and enormous Hollywood adaptations of series like The Lord of the Rings helped push ‘children’s books’ into the mainstream.

World Book Day has grown up alongside this boom, now rolling out a vast selection of learning resources, video material, TV slots and celebrity endorsements every year. Perennial kids’ favourites Lauren Child, Jeff Kinney and Malorie Blackman are among those contributing to the range of 12 books which will be available for £1 around the time of this year’s big celebration on March 7th.

All of this is, obviously, brilliant. Putting affordable books into the hands of kids: awesome; getting them excited about the power of reading: marvellous. Let’s be clear: World Book Day is a Good Thing in a Bad World.

However, in recent years it seems that—like everything that begins with pure and homespun intentions—a competitive edge has crept into proceedings. While in my schooldays it was perfectly acceptable to turn up in a literal cardboard box, these days sending little Timmy off to school in anything less than a hand-stitched, movie-accurate Hogwarts uniform, complete with taxidermied Hedwig, is a serious faux pas.

But for time-poor parents, especially those with full-time jobs and more than one child, hand-making costumes simply isn’t an option. Luckily (and with weary predictability) several major retailers now offer pricey solutions to their woes – tellingly, the first Google suggestion when you type ‘World Book Day’ is ‘costumes’. One mum’s tale on the craft site Maflingo recounts her annual ‘dread’ at WBD costume-making season, and her last-minute dash to, you’ve guessed it, Amazon, for a pre-made outfit; a scenario that a lot of parents will be more than familiar with, and one that can easily run into hundreds of pounds.

In a world already crammed with expensive school trips, cake sales, Christmas and Easter fairs, sports days, etc. etc., World Book Day is fast becoming just another thing for parents to worry about. Yet the World Book Day website stresses that props and costumes should be ‘inexpensive’ and can be made ‘at home or at school’. So what gives?

One gets the sense that much of the oneupmanship around WBD actually stems from parents and teachers themselves, and the often-febrile environment of the schoolyard. But more broadly, it’s the fault of a culture where Instagramming a book is just as important as reading about it; where we are hooked on the comforting visual validation provided by TV and film adaptations. That means we are less reliant on our imaginations to fill in the gaps; less willing to accept a tin can as a top hat.

World Book Day is, of course, a wonderful thing—but in the annual clamour for a painstakingly accurate costume we are in danger of forgetting the defining wonder of books: the magic that happens inside our own heads.



Tom Clayton is publishing executive at Melville House UK.