Every year, at the same time, they come – great flocks of them. Squawking, squabbling, screeching. Never mind the first cuckoo call or the sighting of the earliest swallow, there is no more reliable metric in modern Britain for the arrival of spring than parents moaning about their children having to dress up for World Book Day.
What started in the mid-nineties as a fairly innocuous celebration of all things children’s lit, has somehow in the quarter century since evolved into an annual festival of epic parental whining: ‘it’s too commercial’; ‘too demanding’; ‘too expensive’; ‘too tacky’; ‘too much’. These are all, I concede, to a degree, reasonable criticisms.
Personal anecdotal experience suggests that at least half of all children insist on going as characters whose literary credentials are decidedly dubious, existing in book form only in novelisations and comic books: Spiderman, the various Disney princesses, the Star Wars galaxy, Minions.
As for the rest, even those who do take inspiration from recognised actual fiction tend to visit and revisit the same sources: there will have been enough children dressed in its uniform today to fill the dorms of Hogwarts many thousands of times over. Where’s Wally? Where’s anyone but JK Rowling? It makes one almost nostalgic for the days of yore when the non-Stormtroopers and Little Mermaids seemed to go, as one, down the dull Roald Dahl route.
And it certainly does tend to be either too demanding or too commercial – depending on how you play it. You could, of course, sit little Emily or Oliver down at the craft table, patiently guiding them over many hours through the processes needed to create a charming evocation of the Very Hungry Caterpillar from dyed-green bed sheets; or to turn your old plaid curtains into a prairie dress to celebrate the pioneering spirit of Laura Ingalls Wilder. But when, in under 60 seconds, you can log onto your Amazon Prime and get a pair of plastic glasses, a nylon black cape and a tie-on-a-string in Gryffindor colours delivered free within 12 hours for just £14.99, which is it realistically going to be – and who’s going to blame you?
After the horror of months and months of homeschooling, if you did decide to make something yourself you might as well have constructed a sign to hang on the back of your little one’s costume saying: 'We think we are better than you' before you drop them off at the school gate, such will be the unspoken reaction from the parents of their peers.
So I have no small degree of sympathy for the chorus of parental moaning we have heard this week. But there are two important counterpoints I think are worth bearing in mind.
Although I recognise that this is an extremely unlikely scenario – if just one of those young Spidermen or Jedi or culturally-appropriated Pocahontases (Pocahonti?) were to return home this afternoon with a newly-kindled ambition to read, it could change a young life. And that would rather vindicate the whole circus.
Beyond that, to the parents, I would say more generally: tempus fugit, especially when you are bringing up infants and juniors. One minute you’re stressing at your eight-year-old’s request to spend £40 to be a bespoke Hagrid rather than a perfectly good, bog standard £20 Harry/Hermione, and the next they’re 15, a teenager. And now they barely talk to you, except to complain about how poorly stocked the fridge is. There’s a fug coming out of their bedroom that could be from strong weed or just the rotting of various accumulated detritus – but the door is locked against you being able to find out. And whatever it is they are doing in there, you can be pretty confident it’s not reading JK Rowling, never mind Dostoevsky.
When that happens – and unless you are very lucky it will – you may just find yourself feeling nostalgic for the days when they toddled off to school, holding your hand, in their tinpot outfit and then told you all about it going home. And all it cost you was a little bit of sewing hassle or a few quid.