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World Book Day’s 20th Anniversary: A Celebration of the Power of Books


A discussion of the cultural importance of World Book Day and current trends in children’s literature

World Book Day was first organised by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) and celebrates its 20th anniversary in 2017. It was developed in keeping with the Organisation’s broader aims to promote peace through educational and cultural reforms. The event recognises the importance of books, the gateway to knowledge and the role that education has to play in dispelling ignorance and prejudice. Literacy is a step towards power and freedom.

The old adage of the pen being mightier than the sword was first coined in 1840 and soon became universally applauded. The powers of communication, thinking and writing are certainly values we would want for future generations. Perhaps this is why World Book Day has become so globally established over a relatively short space of time and is now a marked event in 100 countries worldwide. UNESCO originally chose April 23rd as the date for World Book Day as books had been exchanged by the Catalonians on this date since 1929 in honour of Miguel de Cervantes, the Catalonian author of Don Quixote. Coincidentally, the 23rd April is also the date of William Shakespeare’s death, doubling the anniversary’s literary significance. As World Book Day’s widespread popularity has increased, a few countries, including the UK, have moved the date as since it clashes with the Easter school holidays.

Schools have unsurprisingly embraced World Book Day. It’s a celebration of books, authors and most importantly, reading. It encourages children to gain pleasure from books; to explore the stories, emotions and characters. One of the most widely adopted World Book Day traditions is for pupils to dress up and go to school as a favourite book character. As children’s literature appears to be enjoying somewhat of a Golden Age, there is a wealth of characters, old and new, to choose from.

Children’s authors at the turn of the twentieth century seem to have focused on confronting real-life obstacles whereas the focus of current authors have veered towards fantasy. While past generations of children had predominantly enjoyed adventure based stories, such as Treasure Island written by Robert Louis Stevenson in 1883 or E. Nesbitt’s The Railway Children in 1906, children’s literature today often presents darker twists. As their increased worldliness is undoubtedly a result of having been raised in the information age, modern kids are unlikely to wince at the threat of mythical creatures or other dark themes.

J.K. Rowling’s phenomenally successful Harry Potter surfaced at a culturally significant time for young readers. The release of The Philosopher’s Stone in 1997 coincided with huge advances in technology and mass marketing shifted towards the internet. With this came the first generation of children to experience a new genre of reality television and exposure to online media. The Harry Potter series became an attractive prospect for children experiencing their first taste of written culture in the modern age due to a greater awareness of social abilities and constraints. Harry Potter is the archetypal, average character who triumphs by being good. This is every child’s fantasy; a nerdy boy, having been bullied by his aunt and uncle, ultimately becomes famous, strong and respected.

The Harry Potter series predominantly grew with its readership. In the final book the primary protagonists are 17 years old and it’s fair to presume that by this point, the franchise was attracting as many adult readers as it was children. The later books did not shy away from confronting issues of death, abandonment and overcoming adversity. Ultimately, like many children’s books, it is a story of coming of age and a lesson on accepting diversity. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy addresses similar issues using allegorical themes and fantasy. Pullman’s main characters, Lyra and Will, wander through parallel universes and come of age throughout their journey. The Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer, which is aimed at a slightly older audience, similarly portrays Bella Swan exploring her own identity and eventually accepting a different species as her own.

Any trend in children’s literature has evolved in some way, cultivated by writers who have been influenced by social or cultural change. The importance of writing children’s literature cannot be underestimated, especially now that children are also being shaped by information available on the internet and other media. If World Book Day can help to promote literacy, it can only be a good thing. Teachers have recognised the valuable role the event can have in fostering a passion for books. Most schools in the country distribute the £1 Book Tokens and many get involved with events in local libraries. As a pinnacle date in the reading calendar, libraries will often use World Book Day as an opportunity to talk about upcoming events or details for the Summer Reading Challenge, where children are rewarded for regular reading over the summer holidays. Often one of the best tools that schools can employ is to engage with its pupils; discuss books that have had an impact on their own lives and to ask them about their favourite books.

Outside of school, there are many fun and original ways to celebrate World Book Day. Craft activities are a great way to bring reading and creativity together. Julia Donaldson’s range of children’s literature offers some fantastic inspiration. Her immensely popular Gruffalo books have prompted ‘Gruffalo Trails’ around the country, where children follow clues to find characters hiding in the woods. Or, why not create your own stick man and take him for a walk to find his family tree? There are various pirate themed activities for Treasure Island or Peter Pan inspired fun. Older children in particular will enjoy making their own pirate treasure map and a nice-seized treasure chest made out of a decorated egg box that they can keep for their trinkets. A Mad Hatter’s tea party is a great idea if you want to get a group of children together. Set up your party table with mismatched cups and plates, cake-stands and colourful food. Children can decorate cupcakes, paint tea-sets or play croquet!

Whatever you do to celebrate World Book Day, remember the important origins and the purpose of the event. The celebration of literature is crucial in the mission towards globalising literacy and empowering future generations. Thankfully, we can encourage this love of books and learning with fun and creativity.

Article by Keri Wilson 

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