For parents of primary school children, the first Thursday in March has got to be the worst day of the year. Even an attendance Nazi like me, who won’t countenance any excuse for keeping a child home from school, would accept that on this occasion a ‘tummy ache’ is a perfectly legitimate reason. Why do I say this? Because the first Thursday of March is World Book Day.
Now, for those of you without children, or whose children went to school before this annual ritual was invented by Unesco in 1995, I should explain that the reason it’s such a colossal bore is because parents are expected to mark the occasion by sending their offspring to school dressed as their favourite fictional character. That might sound harmless enough, but for status-conscious middle-class parents such as Caroline and me it’s a complete nightmare.
The problem begins when your child insists on going to school in a superhero costume, rather than a character from Winnie-the-Pooh or The Wind in the Willows. As the father of three boys, I have had this argument so many times I can recite it in my sleep. Yes, Charlie, I know Superman is cool, but it’s World Book Day, not World Comic Day. No, Freddie, graphic novels don’t count so I’m afraid you can’t go as Batman from The Dark Knight Returns even though it’s technically a ‘book’. Sorry, Ludo, if you wear a Black Panther costume you’ll be accused of ‘cultural appropriation’.
To be fair, Ludo has dressed up as a girl on World Book Day, which if not ‘cultural appropriation’ is in the same ballpark. He went as Goldilocks and even took three teddy bears with him as props. I thought he looked so good I took a picture of him and posted it on Twitter — which, like many things I’ve tweeted, turned out to be a terrible mistake. I was immediately deluged with angry comments from conservatives who thought I was a virtue-signalling liberal, bragging about the fact I had a transgendered son and was happy to send him to school dressed as a girl. They didn’t notice the World Book Day hashtag at the bottom of the tweet.
At one stage, all four of our children attended the same primary school in Shepherd’s Bush, which meant Caroline and I had to stay up half the night on the first Wednesday in March frantically assembling costumes for them to wear the next morning. It didn’t help that the school awarded prizes to the best-dressed boy and girl in each class. Our children didn’t give a fig, but Caroline and I are ferociously competitive and cared deeply about winning. If the infant of one of our friends took home a prize and none of ours did, we would be teased mercilessly by them for weeks.
Each child would then be subjected to a lengthy cross-examination about what went wrong during the parade. Did you keep your hat on? Did your tail fall off? Did you remember to do that cute little thing with your hands when you pretended to roar?
World Book Day is supposed to promote literacy and the joys of reading, but for most families it’s just another piece of homework that involves cutting and sticking and making things out of loo rolls and cereal boxes. Surely the time could more profitably be spent forcing children to learn great poetry by heart? Prizes could then be awarded to the boy and girl in each class who managed to recite the longest poems. Memorising The Lady of Shalott would make a welcome change from trying to convince Freddie that Tintin ‘books’ are, in reality, just oversized comics with hard covers.
To complicate our lives, the primary the children attended (and which two still do) is a C of E school which means World Book Day is followed quickly by the Easter bonnet parade. Out come the scissors and the Pritt Stick again and the competitive juices start to flow. I’m lucky in that Caroline is brilliant at coming up with witty, creative costumes that often win prizes. Her best yet was an Easter bonnet that was made entirely out of discarded takeaway boxes from all the different fried chicken outlets on the Uxbridge Road.
I tweeted a picture of Sasha in that, too, and without asking permission the Daily Mirror reproduced it in the following day’s paper. That cutting occupies pride of place in our downstairs loo.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.