March 2, 2022
Back in the days when everything took place on Zooms and Teams, I was part of a World Book Day event that was livestreamed from the set of the hit musical Matilda. The set is magical: a child’s swing with an explosion of books fire-working up behind it. Now, of course, Matilda has become a battlefield in the Roald Dahl chapter of our culture wars.
It is worth noting that World Book Day has always been a battlefield. Every year teachers, carers and librarians defend the joy of reading from the forces of darkness. Almost as soon as someone suggested dressing up might be fun, predator supermarkets caught the scent of anxiety on the hurrying bodies of young parents and pounced, selling them bundles of single-use Where’s Wally costumes. But schools pushed back and now instead of parades of children dressed in expensive landfill, you’ll find schools where the pupils come dressed in their pyjamas and cosy up to listen to stories, making the day into one long dreamy sleepover. I’ve been to schools where, instead of parents or carers dressing up children, children are invited to dress wooden spoons, or their classroom door. Another where the teachers sat in their classrooms reading their favourite stories and the kids could chose which one to go and listen to. There are whole school book swaps. And “home and away” reading, where children from one class go and read to another. More ideas every year.
Until the next enemy took the field. The pandemic. Then again schools rose to the challenge with online readings, and livestream events such as the Matilda one. Thameside primary in Caversham encouraged people to put book covers in their windows to make a trail around the area. I especially loved “Masked Reader” moments, when teachers disguised themselves with filters while reading favourite stories.
‘You can always move on to Narnia’ . . . The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005). Photograph: Phil Bray/Ronald GrantThis year, Leslie Manser school in Lincoln is making a food bank collection part of its World Book Day celebration because the latest threat to the fun is the cost of living crisis. I really hope that – apart from spreading light and magic – World Book Day throws some light on the impact this the crisis has on children. With money short, parents and carers are buying fewer books for their children. For previous generations this wouldn’t have mattered so much because they had libraries. Nowadays, one in seven primary schools don’t have anything resembling a library. Prisons are obliged to have libraries by law. Schools are not. The outgoing children’s laureate Cressida Cowell has spent the last few years fighting for her Life-changing Libraries campaign. It’s making a huge difference but it would have a been a lot easier if our media showed a fraction of the interest they showed in Roald Dahl’s vocabulary in our children. Sometimes advocating for children in this country feels like a niche enthusiasm instead of the future of the nation.
Of course I know there are important issues behind the Dahl row. But whatever you think of the rights and wrongs of sensitivity reading, surely it’s equally important that all our children have access to a couple of shelves of books and a corner to read them in. The key to reading for pleasure is having a choice about what you read. As a child I disliked Dahl intensely. I felt that his snobbery was directed at people like me and that his addiction to revenge was not good. But that was fine – I just moved along to Joan Aiken, Moominland and Narnia. Today publishers such as Knights Of, writers such as Nadia Shireen, Elle McNicoll, Katherine Rundell, Phil Earle, Lissa Evans Onjali Q Raúf and Alice Oseman are pumping out masterpieces that would suit any sensitivity or none. I name the names – as Philip Pullman did when he was asked the question – because they don’t crop up enough in the national conversation. Tireless, heroic teachers will be doing that today (or tomorrow, perhaps). Children need to be pointed towards these books and they should be available in schools.
Now that I’m grown up I can see that there are moments of real genius in Matilda. That first encounter with Trunchbull when – without having even seen her – she convinces herself that Matilda is the root of all her problems and whips herself into a fury about it, is both terrifying and prophetic. I think we’ve all learned what that combination of stupidity, power and vindictiveness leads to. But there’s still something about that book that niggles me. Matilda makes herself: she’s clever because she’s clever. This is something Dahl believed about himself. His breakthrough piece – Shot Down Over Libya – is the story of how he saved himself when he crashed his plane in the desert. Except he didn’t. He was saved by his co-pilot, whom Dahl wrote out of the picture.
The truth is, none of us saves ourselves. We save each other. Or not. World Book Day is a chance to celebrate the power and pleasure of reading, to help our children build the apparatus of happiness within themselves. It should also be a day to ask ourselves whether we are doing right by our children, by our future. Because, to quote the smash hit musical Matilda: “If you sit around and let them get on top, you / Might as well be saying you think that it’s OK / And that’s not right.”
We are including these tidbits as blog posts so that they are searchable. They do not relate specifically to book banning efforts, but they do seem relevant to issues of censorship and the misguided attempts to limit access to books that children want to read.