World Book Day and Reading Aloud

It was World Book Day recently , a day which does not figure much in the consciousness of anyone except the over-worked librarians of secondary schools.

Ideally, it should be a day in which people all over the world come together to celebrate the “uniquely portable magic” of books. It should be a day filled with competitions and conversations and reading and recommendations. On that day, everyone should be talking about books – what they look for in a book, what their favourite book is, et cetera.

In actuality, it is a much less notable affair. Across the UK, at least, it passes mostly unremarked, save in bookshops and schools. Children are given book tokens (redeemable for special World Book Day books, some of which are kind of awesome – I have a copy of Cloud Wolfpurchased with such a token), and some schools have fancy dress days: come as your favourite book character, or as any character by a particular author.

In the main, the day gets ignored, like all of the other national and international days. It’s a shame that few people care about it, and that the various campaigns don’t seem to have the effect that could be hoped for.

I marked it in only one way – I don’t get book tokens now I’m an adult (though I picked up one of the special editions for normal money), and fancy dress isn’t really my forté. Instead, I took part in a “teddy bears picnic”.

Despite the twee name, I think it is an interesting and valuable thing – essentially, students in a school eat their lunch and are read to by various adults. The adults pick a book they think will be interesting, and the students get an easy route into books of various kinds. Even the most reluctant readers will listen to a story, and anything which makes books seem even slightly more interesting for those students can’t be anything but a positive.

I didn’t read from an adult book – I read The Bad-tempered Ladybird. It’s a book that was read to me as a child, and it’s a book that I have a lot of affection for. The basic idea is that a bad-tempered ladybird picks fights with progressively larger creatures until she finally learns not to be so aggressive.

I chose it not because it is my favourite book ever, or even my favourite children’s book – I chose it because it is both short and reasonably entertaining. While other adults read extracts from longer works (most notably the prologue from David Gemmel’s The Sword in the Storm), I decided that I didn’t want to leave the students with an unfinished narrative. I hate not knowing how a story ends, and it seemed unkind to put thirty children in that position and then cart my book away with me.

It wasn’t an age-appropriate book for the audience that I had; every child there was at least six years too old to read it. But that didn’t matter; they were spellbound.

I’m not claiming any special ability here – I don’t do voices when I read aloud, and I’m stuck with a ridiculous accent that lessens the characterisation I can put across when reading. I’m an average storyteller at best.

But the simple act of reading aloud is incredibly powerful – normally grumpy, sneering teenagers lean forwards in silence, waiting for the page to turn. Needy, noisy eleven year-olds stare big-eyed and breathless. No one gets distracted, or wanders off. If you ask, even the shyest students will chime in on The Bad-tempered Ladybird’s constant refrain: “Oh, you’re not big enough anyway!”

It was a wonderful experience – to have so many people hanging on every word, incredibly invested in such a simple experience, such a basic idea. It doesn’t matter what you’re reading (within limits, obviously), or who you are reading to – the story takes over.

I find that amazing – the power that you can have from doing something that, on the face of it, shouldn’t be effective at all. The Bad-tempered ladybird is not a great work of literature – it doesn’t sear the soul, or reveal dark truths about the human condition. It’s a very basic story about a ladybird that tries to fight a whale. It has very simple language, and brightly-coloured pictures of the various animals encountered by the eponymous insect.

It’s an overly clichéd message, used everywhere from children’s television to patronising campaigns in libraries, but reading is wonderful and amazing. Reading is radical.

I really enjoyed the experience – it’s the second year I’ve done it (I did The Gruffalo last year), and both times have been far more fun than you might initially expect from the basic description of the idea. You get to have a large group totally focused on your every word or gesture, and you get to introduce new stories to an appreciative audience.

So this World Book Day, I read to children and we discovered the magic of books together.  It was an enjoyable experience (something of a rush – like being a Roman general on a triumph), and I think that the students enjoyed it too. Books were promoted and experienced, which I guess is the whole idea of the day. From my perspective, World Book Day was an actual success.

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