World Book Day – A Feminist Dilemma

“In the spring, a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love,” said Alfred, Lord Tennyson, probably while looking out untroubled over a sunny meadow. But then, he wasn’t a teacher, didn’t have children, and World Book Day hadn’t been invented yet. This event, which will be going on in schools across the UK this week, is designed to encourage a love of reading in children and teenagers of all ages, through extra-curricular activities, book tokens, and above all, the chance to come into school dressed as your favourite book character.

Being the sort of person that leaves a trail of books wherever I go and would be happy to live in a library, I am all for anything that encourages a similar enthusiasm (or addiction) in the next generation. From a distance, it all sounded like a lot of fun, and up to recently I would wonder wistfully why World Book Day hadn’t been invented when I was of the age to dress up as Encyclopedia Brown (of ‘Encyclopedia Brown Takes The Case’ and ‘Encyclopedia Brown Finds The Clues’ fame) or Sherlock Holmes. I wondered why my similarly bookish friends would go into meltdown at the mention of World Book Day – it all seemed like a pretty sweet way to encourage discussion of the books favoured by each child in the class.

Encyclopedia Brown - image taken from openlibrary.org

Encyclopedia Brown – an easy costume

Then my own child started school, and I’m beginning to understand the angst.

I should have seen the clues – Encyclopedia Brown would have done. First, the mention of World Book Day – an event that takes place in March – in the school newsletter that was issued around Halloween.  That level of warning implies that parents will need plenty of preparation time. However, like so many innocent parents of small children, I was too busy kitting out my child with a witches’ costume and a broomstick to take note. Then there were the numerous photos appearing on Facebook of children dressed in their World Book Day costumes – a natural admiration of how adorable a seven year old looked dressed up as a knight or Gobbolino the Witches’ Cat, I thought. Now I realise that this marks the pride and relief of a parent that has spent the previous night assembling an alien costume out of tin foil and a tablecloth in the hope that it might bear a passing resemblance to Dr Xargle, and stay together long enough for the child to get through the school gates.

And so, like the disorganised pastry I am, World Book Day escaped my radar until last week, when I suddenly realised that I, too, would have to assemble a costume for the mini-brioche to wear into school for World Book Day. I approached it all the wrong way by asking her what her favourite book was, so we could construct a costume around it.

Image taken from fantasticfiction.co.uk

The Worst Witch – another easy costume

Had the answer been ‘The Worst Witch’ we would have been home and dry. A recycled witches’ costume from Halloween (check), a broomstick (check), disheveled hair (not difficult at the best of times) and striped tights (not too difficult to get hold of, and not entirely essential anyway) – and we’d be ready to roll. The outfit would be practical enough to run around in, unlikely to disintegrate, represented a realistic, well-developed heroine and crucially, required minimal effort from me. My daughter would not be relegated to a simpering, drippy princess, and I would not be reduced to a quivering wreck by a complicated costume. Sadly, this was not to be.

“Hm,” she mused, “I think my favourite book of all is… Fantastic Mr Fox.” Oh.  It’s a typically well-written book by Roald Dahl, of course, with a resourceful lead character and a nice message about sticking together in adverse times, so in that respect it was a heart-warming answer. However, my sewing skills extend no further than sewing on name tapes very badly, and I was pretty sure that rustling up a fox costume in three short days would be far beyond my capabilities. Ordering one online seemed both extravagant – fancy-dress companies can smell costume-related desperation from miles away – and optimistic. I began to suggest that she had also really enjoyed The Worst Witch, when she reached into her wardrobe and pulled out a frilly concoction with a crinoline that, despite my best efforts, she loves.

“Or I could go as Beauty and the Beast!” she said brightly, assuming a celluloid-friendly smile and waltzing around the room. “I’ll look really pretty!”

I felt instantly relegated to feminist purgatory. Evidently my five-year old child is already obsessed with external appearance – which is ironic, given the subject matter of the fairy tale – and prefers to be the simpering Disney heroine with a crinoline than the more believable female leads of the BFG or Harry Potter. I didn’t expect to send her in as A Vindication Of The Rights of Woman – well, not this year, anyway – but the feminist in me felt a pang of disappointment. Had she really chosen ‘looking really pretty’ over representing a book that interested her more? I hoped not.

But the costume is ready-made, said my practical side, like a devil on my shoulder. You need do nothing whatsoever between now and next Thursday. She gets to dress up, you make no effort at all, and everyone’s happy. Plus the fact she is unlikely to be the only one dressed as such – after all, you’re not the only harassed parent with a daughter that caught the princess virus despite all your efforts to the contrary.

In the end, my aversion to sewing has won out over the radical feminist in me, and in all likelihood she will walk slowly into school on World Book Day wearing the frilly dress, clutching a single rose and simpering all the way. With luck, she’ll get it out of her system this year, and want something both feminist-friendly and easy to assemble to wear to next year’s World Book Day (a Rosa Luxemburg costume can’t be too difficult, can it?). In the meantime, I might get into the spirit of World Book Day and throw together a costume for myself. I wonder how ‘The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat’ will go down at the school gates?

brioche in a hat

The official site for World Book Day is http://www.worldbookday.com, which has a really nice ‘start your story’ tool, amongst other activities you can do when you’ve recovered from the costume angst. Courage, mes braves!

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