Voices: Let’s end the performative hell of compulsory World Book Day costumes

·4 min read
What’s always overlooked is that dressing up children either requires time or it requires money  (Getty)
What’s always overlooked is that dressing up children either requires time or it requires money (Getty)

On Thursday 3 March, millions of adults and children around the country will mark the 25th annual World Book Day, celebrating books, authors, illustrators and the power of the written word, with a series of book-themed events.

Each year, children show their love of reading by going to school dressed up as their favourite fictional character. World Book Day is important because it’s also the day that parents around the country receive a text at 8.35am reminding them that they have in fact forgotten to make a World Book Day costume and now have seven minutes to demonstrate the power of the written word by texting swears to everyone they know on the group chat.

What kind of parent, you might ask – what kind of anti-intellectual monster – would say that a kids’-book costume makes their book-loving soul leave their body? Well, brace yourselves, because I am that monster, and I hate to tell you this, but so is every parent I know – yes, even the nice ones.

Obviously not ALL parents. I have huge love for those who really do enjoy crafting clever and joyful literary costumes for their children and always remember to do so. My only rule for raising children (apart from “check if it’s chocolate before you lick it”) is “just do what you like, babes”. This ancient mantra has steered me safely through every parenting choice.

But what’s always overlooked is that dressing up children either requires time or it requires money – and if you have a child who has an eye for negotiation then it’s definitely going to require both. And inevitably, that cost is not felt equally by all parents.

I’m a working parent of primary school-aged children, and I’m enormously fortunate. I only need one job to pay the bills, and I have a partner who will actually organise World Book Day while I just write about World Book Day. Yet still, every year I have a small meltdown about making costumes, then feel guilty about it afterwards.

I’ve seen my own children move from happiness about dressing up as their favourite character, to a low-level hum of anxiety about having a shop-bought outfit, and one that has to be from a “real book” rather than the cartoons they actually love reading.

Watching my timelines fill up every year with the obligatory #WBD outfits, I can’t shake the feeling that this part of the day is creepingly performative. Look, I’m not saying social media is fetishising the act of reading as a nostalgic, middle class pursuit regardless of the child’s actual interests, but what I am saying is there are an awful lot of Pippi Longstocking outfits on Instagram.

Maybe if we saw fewer pictures of finished costumes, and more of women (and it is mostly women) frantically hunting for sellotape in a 4pm Teams meeting with the camera off, then we might get a better idea of how many hurdles there are for those with caring responsibilities to access the arts themselves.

What’s better than reading? That’s right, it’s looking for teal face paint and a bow and arrow in Sainsburys at 5.30pm, or rage-buying a dragon onesie off Amazon Prime at one in the morning. Let’s not forget the year I made a mammoth out of a potato at 8pm on a Wednesday, with kebab stick limbs that kept falling off (book fact: that’s how Ernest Hemingway wrote A Farewell To Arms).

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And at least I have the option to dash out and buy things because our family income places us above the poverty line. After a decade of austerity, a pandemic and now the cost of living squeeze, 31 per cent of children (or 9 in a class of 30), live below it. These are the inequalities that World Book Day sets out to tackle, including with book tokens for every child. But something about frantically buying disposable merch at a time when 40 per cent of primary schools don’t have library budgets, and a record 1.7 million children claim free school meals, feels like it goes against the spirit of the day.

Let’s ditch compulsory costumes. There are a million other ways for us to find joy in reading, and you can find just some of them here. Teachers already work tirelessly to make this a wonderful day for children, and they do it, as they do everything, in the face of chronic underfunding and obstructive policies.

If we’re going to imagine a future full of opportunities for all children, then we are going to have to imagine very hard. Books lie at the heart of that – children’s books most of all. It’s here that we learn the value of kindness, courage, the telling of difficult truths. What light, devastating sedition this is – no wonder I have the feeling it’s being repackaged and sold back to us.

If you have cash to spare on Thursday, give it to charities, schools, authors or parents in your communities – not supermarkets. And if you’re worrying about getting a costume sorted, well you really don’t have to. I don’t want to get too literary, but just do what you like, babes.