There has been a reminder in my emails shouting at me, in capital letters, every week since early January: ‘PREP FOR WORLD BOOK DAY’.
This year I swore I would not find myself, late on Thursday morning, desperately looking for that red duffle coat I chucked into the loft sometime in 1996, which would now make a passable Little Red Riding Hood for my daughter. Or trying to fashion a pair of tights into a fantastical mask while cooking breakfast and pointing out to my son that he could easily pass as one of Maurice Sendak’s Wild Things if he just went as himself. No, this time, World Book Day wouldn’t rear up on me like the troll in Three Billy Goats Gruff but instead be an opportunity for days of delightful bonding time, creating wonderful costumes with the three of my five children who are at primary school.
World Book Day is a splendid initiative, launched in 1998, to celebrate books on the first Thursday in March – especially among children, who are encouraged to go to school dressed as their favourite characters. All good so far. Except that in my experience, like a few other ideas about how parenting will pan out (my children will only play with wooden toys; they won’t eat sugar at all; I’ll start them all on a musical instrument by the age of five; they will never shout at me in public; I will never shout at them in public), it never quite works out that way.
Instead, over the years, I’ve found myself on the morning of the big day trying to lash together a passable costume whilst making packed lunches, coaxing the toddler out of his pyjamas and trying to prepare for a meeting, resulting in tears and recriminations – and not always from my children. I’ve rarely been so grateful to anyone as I was to my now-19-year old son Jimmy who, back in 2008, gamely agreed to dress as Wee Willy Winky by wearing his younger sister’s nightdress and clutching a candle stick (pictured above).
Preparation for World Book Day requires a serious amount of strategy and forward thinking. Ecological principles, for example – and my daughter’s absolute devotion to Greta Thunberg – means I cannot grab one of those ready-made costumes composed entirely of man-made fabrics and flown across the world to be displayed by some of the more cynical supermarkets at this time of year. Also, tempting though it might be to spent £14 on a Willy Wonka or Gruffalo costume, I am a child of the 1970s, when dressing up meant turning old curtains into turbans and making masks from cardboard boxes and loo roll inners. It shouldn’t be about Amazon Priming the problem.
I do find consolation in the fact I know I am not alone. 'Right kids, who wants a day off school to go to the dinosaur museum?' my friend Anna shrieked at her astonished 6-year-old twins, speeding past the school gates. She had completely forgotten World Book Day was happening at all, until she spied a gang of their friends trooping past as variations on fantastical creations straight from the minds of JK Rowling, CS Lewis and Philip Pullman.
My friend Rachel likens it to the kind of homework challenges that will see her, at midnight, fashioning a root vegetable into a favourite pet or sticking together a carefully collated collage of ‘best summer holiday experiences' on the first day of the autumn term. In my experience, craft is another one of those aspects of parenting (see also: no sugar, limited screens, endless patience) at which I repeatedly fail as a mother. World Book Day might just have been the only day I stayed off Instagram last year, so acute was my sense of shame that I couldn’t create the Matilda book cover my daughter wanted to “wear” as a dress – something the better-organised, more crafty mother of one of her friends managed just fine.
So this year, unlike those before it, I started the conversation with my children about what they might wear for World Book Day, if not in January, then at least, well, last weekend. Inspired by her school strike in Bristol on Friday, my daughter is plaiting her hair, digging out a bobble hat and a yellow parka and will go as her heroine Greta, clutching a copy of No One is Too Small to Make a Difference. The only concession to craft is that I‘ve promised we’ll make her a placard – from recycled materials of course – emblazoned with "Skolstrejk for Klimatet".
Last year, my fairly devout five-year-old son played a blinder by going as Jesus, although that did send me out at 6am, stalking around looking for ivy to twist into a crown of thorns. He has upped his ambition this year, claiming he’ll go as God, something his non-believing sister says is ridiculous as God doesn’t exist. It has, at least, inspired some healthy theological debate amongst the younger children, and finding a stick to use as a staff and a sheet to wrap him in shouldn’t be beyond my creative abilities, this year at least.
Clover Stroud is the author of My Wild and Sleepless Nights, a memoir about motherhood.