Every year thousands of parents have to help with a costume for their child for World Book Day. It isn't easy, writes father-of-two Dominic Casciani.
There was a time when reading a book meant just that. In your head, out loud, to yourself or to a crowd. Whichever way, it was reading.
But not any more. It’s about dressing up. Or at least it’s about dressing up if you happen to be of school age and your teachers have been sucked into the literary-industrial complex of World Book Day.
So a few weeks ago when the slip appeared in my son’s book bag (don’t get me started on pointless bits of paper that could be emailed) announcing yet another opportunity to blow a small fortune on dressing up for one day only, my heart sank.
Before my wife and I had been able to have a grown-up discussion about what to do (as recommended in those middle-class angst parenting books that we seem to have collected but never read) it all happened very quickly.
“DAD! DAD! DAD! DAD! DAD! DAD! DAD! DAD!”
“DAD! DAD! DAD! DAD! DAD! I KNOW WHAT I’M GOING TO BE FOR WORLD BOOK DAY!”
“Can you stop shouting and tell me in a normal voice.”
“Sorry. I want to go as a…" (dramatic pause for effect as he assumes the position) "NINJA!”
“A LEGO NINJAGO NINJA!!!!"
“But that’s Lego. That’s not a character from a book.”
“NO IT’S A BOOK I’VE GOT THE BOOK THE LEGEND OF ZANE! SEE! SEE! LOOK! LOOK! LOOK!”
“Please stop shouting. Isn’t that a catalogue?”
For the uninitiated, Lego have a range of "character encyclopaedias" which perform the same function for children as the Boden catalogue does for middle class adults.
“Remember, we got it when we went to that rubbish restaurant and I spat out all the food and was sad because I was hungry and you wouldn’t let me play Angry Birds.”
“CAN I TAKE MY SWORDS TO SCHOOL? NINJAAAAA!”
At that point, he leaps on and off the sofa and makes like Jackie Chan. I go to see Mrs C to discuss.
“Well that’s done,” she says.
She’s already been online and ordered a ninja face mask.
“Hang on. It’s World Book Day, not kung fu fighting.”
Wife looks at me sceptically and moves on to the next problem.
Now here’s the point - World Book Day is a marvellous thing. Reading liberates minds. Every page turned expands the horizons of our children’s ambitions.
But in many schools up and down the land WBD has become an excuse to dress up as characters with the most tenuous links to any literary form. It’s slowly ceasing to be about reading.
Now, I’m not against dressing up – I love seeing the little ones in infants loving the fantasy of it all.
But let’s think through what’s increasingly going on here – particularly with the boys. They see WBD as an opportunity to be Battle Force Earth Defenders or something or other.
You’ve seen the cartoon, you’ve bought the book, NOW YOU CAN BE COMMANDER TUCK “EARTHQUAKE” McCRAW.
You get the idea: it’s just another way for us to be sold a load of plastic and polyester tat. And the upshot is that every pound spent on a dress-up is a quid less on books.
Orwell was quite good at dystopian visions of the future. Would he today be predicting a new form of bookshop? One where you can choose between Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and a rack of sensible tweeds?
That of course will never happen. It’s as unlikely as a world where books are pinged over the internet to a handheld device, removing the need to have the bothersome things cluttering your home where they can be picked up and read by your children.
To my great relief, my daughter’s school is having none of it. They’ve told parents to cough up for a reading activity day with an author. That’s money well spent because (wait for it) IT’S ABOUT READING.
But other schools plough on, despite every parent I can think of being rather tired of the whole dressing-up thing.
So one parent I know has a 16-year-old who is turning out as a banana.
“Is that because she wanted to be the lead character in Defence-related Enzymes Induced by Elicitors of Fusarium in Banana? (£35 online).”
“No,” says mum. “We ran out of other ideas and costumes. So she decided to go as a banana.”
Banana mum’s experience is echoed in unanswered calls for help by other parents up and down the land.
So if you want to be like Winston Smith in 1984, I propose the following mass act of rebellion for next year’s WBD dressing up.
Option one: Put a saucepan on your kid’s head and say they are a tin man or robot or something from no end of books. If your child is subsequently barred for boisterous wielding of said saucepan, you can spend it together tucked up on the sofa reading some actual books. Time well spent, and a day off work too.
Option two: Copy one hard-pressed and exasperated mum I know who is sending her son as Danny the Champion of the World. This is an utterly ingenious act of passive resistance because she is dressing him in the oldest and scruffiest clothes in the house.
Not only has she resisted yielding to the marketing machinations of toy manufacturers, she has paid tribute to one of the greatest works of modern English literature.
Of course, there is a possibility that a teacher will suspect you of spending the family budget on cheap cider rather than children’s clothes.