Friday, March 05, 2010

World Book Day : In A Non-Book Culture

World Book Day is an initiative to get children reading, and enjoying reading. Many schools join in by encouraging pupils (and staff) to come to school (not necessarily on the day itself, but on a day in that week that suits the school – hence our school is doing it today) dressed as their favourite literary character.

It was interesting to observe this in action in a non-book culture, having observed it in book-cultures in the past.

Firstly, growing up in a non-book culture – most homes round here have very few books in them - children simply don’t have access to literary characters. Instead, most of the pupils in the playground this morning came as characters from films or TV. Some boys came in Liverpool FC strips – as a teacher friend of ours had predicted based on previous years – on the grounds that team captain Steven Gerrard is in his autobiography. To be fair, I suspect that the Stevie G in his autobiography is, indeed, a literary character...

Secondly, most of the costumes worn to school today were bought costumes. Film and TV characters come with tie-in role play merchandise: Darth Vadar masks and light sabars; superheroes; pirate costumes; Disney princesses in abundance. In contrast, purely literary characters are significantly less likely to have tie-in merchandise and, just as the reading requires us to use our imagination, so making the costume requires us to use our imagination. It is another way of entering into the story.

In our house, Noah cut out leaves to go as Stick Man; Susannah cut out a school badge and prefect badge (and recycled a tie from her previous school) to go as Darrell from the Mallory Towers series; and Elijah was sent as Bob the Builder – not a literary creation, I know – he wanted to go as Percy from Thomas the Tank Engine, but World Book Day came at the wrong point in the recycling cycle and we had no cardboard boxes with which to turn him into a train!

Does World Book Day work in a non-book culture? Or, to ask a more interesting question, how does World Book day work in a non-book culture?

It is a classic example of de Certeau’s observation, that externally imposed strategies – in this case, to get children reading – are met with tactics of subversion, that make it something the indigenous population are prepared to own or at least tolerate.

Reading for pleasure is a particularly middle class value, and is never going to become a working class value by imposition from above. That does not mean that we should abandon seeking creative ways to encourage children to read (literacy is still an important life skill). But it does mean that we need to recognise that any ‘global’ strategy will be subverted by ‘local’ tactics. Moreover, we need to recognise that:
reading is, frankly, not as essential a life skill in a post-print society as in a print-based society;
that other forms of literacy may be more important - such as teaching children how to interpret the very sophisticated messages of advertising, celebrity gossip magazines, and television;
and that reading is not the only or even the dominant means of nourishing the imagination (with good or bad nutrition).

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