Stories worth sharing

reflects on the power of children’s literature to shape the world we live in

Image: George Hodan

As university students, World Book Day shores up feelings of nostalgia for our schooldays, dressing up as Tracy Beaker, Harry Potter or any number of our favourite book characters to mark the occasion. But for most of us, that was at least ten years ago, and looking upon the event with fresh eyes brings up new questions. Such as: what kind of impact do the stories we read have upon the dreams and ambitions we build? What is the importance of diversity in children’s books? And with children now spending more time in front of screens, is the simple joy of plunging into a good book at risk of becoming a far-flung fantasy?

Taking place on 1st March, World Book Day once again saw an array of colourful costumes take to the classroom, as well as an abundance of £1 tokens being handed out – which can be exchanged for a book from a selection of ten children’s books, or five Young Adult novels. World Book Day Ltd operates as a charity, receiving its funding from contributing publishers, National Book Tokens and participating booksellers. The books on each year’s list are nominated by publishers and then shortlisted by the event’s organisers.

The theme for this year was ‘Share a Story’, based on encouraging children to share the experience of reading with parents, friends and siblings. The #ShareAStory campaign intends to motivate children to read for just 10 minutes a day, noting the educational benefits of reading and its important role in children’s development as key reasons to read more.

After World Book Day 2017, organisers were criticised for not including a single BAME author in the selection, and an (albeit minimal) effort to increase diversity has been made, with authors including Benjamin Zephaniah, Taran Marathu and Nadiya Hussain featuring on this year’s list. Organisers hope that the #ShareAStory theme will place emphasis on diversity, representing characters and stories from different backgrounds.

Image: World Book Day

As well as concerns over diversity, many have lashed out at the high number of celebrity authors on this year’s list, including children’s author David Almond who was featured in 2017’s selection. With this year’s selection including Bake Off winner Nadiya Hussain, broadcast journalist and presenter Claire Balding, and musician Tom Fletcher, Almond’s comments are not completely unfounded. He called the choice of celebrity authors “demeaning to children”, saying that they gave a “lack of seriousness” to children’s literature and express anger that talented children’s authors were being neglected for big names.

Part of me wonders if we are heaping overly high expectations on organisers. After all, it is a charity campaign, and heavily reliant on publishers in the selection process, who will obviously be keen to promote authors that will draw in publicity and make them money. Plus, the campaign has been successful in achieving its main goal – to influence children to read more – World Book Day re-ported that six in ten KS2 children felt motivated to read more after their 2016 campaign. In defence of celebrity authors, organisers argue: “If recognising a name is the catalyst to encouraging a non-reader to pick up a book and starting a nationwide conversation about reading, then everyone will benefit.”

Indeed, initiating a conversation about reading may be more urgent than we think. In 2015, the BBC reported that children aged five to sixteen spent an average of six and a half hours in front of a screen per day, with ‘screen time’ described as “watching TV, playing games consoles, using a mobile, computer or tablet”. With double-screening and social network usage also on the rise among children and teens, children are growing up in a society where there is an impulse towards connectivity at all times. Reading, where one has the bliss of completely disconnecting from the real world and becoming absorbed in a different one, are at risk of becoming obsolete.

We need to conceive of ways to improve access to books and make reading exciting for children

As an English Literature student, I am obviously biased, but I believe that being an avid reader throughout my childhood helped me to develop key life skills, including the ability to empathise with others, to be imaginative and open-minded. In our increasingly digitalised world, the importance of reading books is more urgent than ever: shockingly, World Book Day report that “the book that 1 in 4 children (1 in 3 for those receiving school meals) ‘bought’ with their 2016 £1 book token was the first they have ever personally owned”.

Reading doesn’t have to be a chore, or purely for educational purposes. Reading should be a fun, explorative, and immersive space which allows us to toy with alternative fantasies and adventures. The Harry Potter series is a great example: I remember having the stories read to me at bedtime when I was young; and later, reading them myself, curled under the covers for hours after my bedtime. The series was an integral part of my generation’s reading experience because the characters grew up with us: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was released in 1997, with each subsequent novel released every one or two years after, until 2007, when it concluded with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

It would be ignorant to claim that similar franchises do not exist today, yet nothing seems to have had quite the widespread impact that J.K. Rowling’s series had. This is not to suggest that we need another huge franchise to step in and save the day, but evidently we need to conceive of ways to improve access to books and making reading exciting for children. World Book Day is an effective way to achieve that.

It is evident that World Book Day has sparked much-needed conversations about representation and the issue of celebrity authors. Clearly, the stories that children engage with influence the worldview that they develop, so it is crucial that we put every effort towards making those stories as inclusive and aspirational as possible. World Book Day is not perfect, and for some, the list of authors leaves a lot to be desires. Ultimately, we need to recognise it for the powerful platform that it is, and use it to accentuate a body of children’s literature which reflects the world we want to see. M

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