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World Book Day – Schools need a new approach to store-bought costumes

The familiar characters and man-made fibres will be out in force again on World Book Day. But maybe it’s time for a different approach, says Jonathan Brough...

  • World Book Day – Schools need a new approach to store-bought costumes

World Book Day – what’s not to like? All that needs to happen is for registration and roll numbers to be checked with the organisers, and then a bundle of complimentary book tokens appears annually during the first half of the spring term.

The month of March can thus become a celebration of the written word, with free books for all children: not a single voucher should go to waste!

Furthermore, the choice of titles available is impressive.

This year, young children have a choice of two picture books, pupils in KS2 can select from a whopping eight titles (overwhelmingly fiction, but with an excellent child-friendly introduction to growth mindset theory too) and there are even a couple of options for teenage readers as well.

So – what a fantastic thing this is for a school to do. Invest a quarter of an hour in admin and an hour or so to run the trip, and then everyone benefits from the infectious enthusiasm of being given something new to read.

Even better, a considerable proportion of the children will be introduced to unfamiliar characters or new authors: as just a few examples of the possibilities out there, this year pupils could get a first taste – or a much-anticipated bonus helping – of Alex Rider from Anthony Horowitz, Wells and Wong by Robin Stevens, Onjali Q Raúf’s Ahmet (The Boy at the Back of the Class) Saqqal, Amelia Fang from Laura Ellen Anderson or Matt Haig’s Evie (and the Animals) Trench.

It is, therefore, no wonder that World Book Day celebrations have established themselves as mainstays of many schools’ annual calendars. Indeed, 2020 will be the event’s 23rd birthday.

Over the years, I believe that almost everything about the endeavour has gone from strength to strength.

Everything, that is, except for one key element – something that, way back at the turn of the century, was an absolutely brilliant thing to do across the school but over time seems to have deteriorated beyond measure.

Indeed, it is something that – in the school which I lead – was replaced a couple of years ago with a much better alternative.

Given the obvious enthusiasm shown in the paragraphs above, it may surprise you to learn that I’m referring to the classic (or cliché?) school-wide Dress-Up-As-A-Book-Character Day.

Better back then

Now, before you turn the page and convince yourself that my Ebenezer Scrooge costume must have dropped to bits and I’m too mean to replace it, bear with me.

When we used to ask the children to raid their wardrobes at home to find an outfit that might be worn by their favourite character from literature, I was as enthusiastic as anyone.

Particularly valuable, I thought, were the costumes that couldn’t be easily guessed: asking a child to explain who their character was and to articulate why they had made certain clothing decisions was entertaining (often hilarious), informative and educationally beneficial.

It was true comprehension in action, and a great catalyst for passionate oral debate!

But then, alas – and particularly regrettable as the whole World Book Day initiative was born out of the desire to give to children rather than take from them – the profiteers began to get involved and mass-produced costumes started to appear, expressly targeted (it was claimed) at “busy, hard-working parents” who – thanks to those dreadful teachers! – suddenly found themselves “required” to provide their child with an outfit for school themed around a character from literature.

Forgive me, but the whole dressing-up endeavour should never have become a job for parents. Instead, it has always been an ideal task for children.

The contents of any young person’s wardrobe, combined with an active imagination, can be used for a perfect outfit for Charlie Bucket, Tracy Beaker, Paddington Bear, a Smed or a Smoo… the list is endless!

Children enjoy reading about personalities essentially like themselves, but with certain particular exaggerated character traits.

Dressing up to look like a fictional hero, therefore, should be a straightforward task: no particular amendments or embellishments are essential (and any individual parent’s desire to engage in a bit of one-upmanship should be firmly quashed).

The activity should provide much cause for creativity, personal expression and – ultimately – celebration.

However, the restricted range of costumes commercially available means conformity now risks becoming the norm.

The opportunity to make a quick buck has replaced one school uniform with another, albeit only for one day, and it’s a type of attire characterised by man-made fibres that are remarkably successful at being simultaneously skimpy, sweaty and “sponge clean only”: suddenly an outfit advertised as “only worn once” on eBay seems remarkably less attractive!

Prices are cheap – two of the discount supermarkets engaged in a price war last year when outfits could be purchased for under a fiver – but there must be unseen costs underpinning these (ultimately pointless) clothes, much more significant than those on the price tag.

The ultimate irony, of course, is that the same supermarkets also stock new children’s fiction books at around the same price point.

These would be much better – and more appropriate – uses of the money concerned.

Building a new approach

And so, after several years of valiant, yet ultimately unsuccessful attempts to hold back the tide, the school I lead finally moved the goalposts a couple of years ago. It’s true: we no longer dress up for World Book Day.

Or we don’t dress ourselves up, anyway. We dress up our school buildings instead.

A couple of weeks prior to their voucher-spending bookshop excursion, each class decides on a title (through hustings and votes – it’s democracy in action) and they then work collaboratively on an alternative cover design which is produced at an appropriate scale to cover the classroom door.

The book selected is used as a stimulus for creative work over the next few weeks, and this is all displayed inside; the door/cover therefore becomes – quite literally – a portal into another world.

Each class works on a different title, and so our school becomes a living library.

In 2019, titles chosen ranged from The Three Little Pigs in Reception, through Q Pootle 5, The Bolds and The Ice Monster, to Chasing Vermeer, Running Wild and Wonder in Y6.

For 2020, I’m very much hoping that someone will choose The Land of Roar by Jenny McLachlan; it’s the perfect children’s novel for our special World Book Day treatment!

We find that the project work initiated by this approach to celebrating quality literature is infinitely more valuable, impactful and longer lasting than the dressing-up activity which it replaced.

It involves every pupil, gives a book-centred focus for the entirety of the second half of the Spring term each year, is both collaborative and creative, and makes our school environment a truly lovely place to be.

And, just in case you’re still reeling from the lack of costumes, we don’t actually ignore clothing completely but on World Book Day itself (which, this year, is Thursday 5 March, by the way); each child sports an accessory or element inspired by the particular fictional community created within each classroom – so it might be a motif, a design, a badge or something as simple as a colour – that all children integrate into their everyday school uniform.

We get the best of all worlds – and we love it!


Jonathan Brough is the Headteacher of Hurlingham School in Putney, where he particularly enjoys sharing picture books and novels with children. He is also an active and enthusiastic member of SCBWI (the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators).

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