6 February was World Book Day, which sounds like a Good Thing. After all there seem to be days – or even weeks – set aside for just about everything. There’s even a National Slug-breeders Week. Well, actually, there isn’t, but there is a Rhubarb Week about this time of the year in Wakefield. To have a day to emphasise the importance of books once a year is not overdoing it.But what has it turned into? Children are encouraged to dress up as literary characters. It would presumably be easy to copy Tracy Beaker, but most children seem to choose Aslan the Lion, Spiderman, Legolas or some other animal or fantasy character that requires the purchase or hire of the costume. That, of course, costs money, and we have heard of costumes costing up to £300 for one day’s wear. Internet fancy dress shops have had a bonanza. It’s the latest “must-have”, gone bananas. It’s got as much to do with books as Easter bunnies have to do with the resurrection. It’s another marketing festival, another sales opportunity, another chance for parents to outdo each other.
Things used to be a lot simpler. Tea-towels for shepherds’ head-dresses in nativity plays used to be the order of the day, together with a lot of imagination. Getting the children to think of the roles they play and to use their imaginations is the key. It can, of course, backfire and create problems for the teacher.
There was the nativity play where all the star roles had been cast, and the left-over children were told that they were going to be the sheep. “But I want to be a wolf”, the one boy insisted. “No, you’ve got to be a sheep too.” “Then can we make a noise?” “What sort of noise?” “I want to growl.” “And I want to bark”. “Then you will all have to keep quiet”. Silent sheep; silent night; creativity stuffed.
Or there was the re-enactment of Moses crossing the Red Sea, put on at a boys’ school. For a start, the cast all wanted to be the Egyptian soldiers chasing the Israelites, even if they were due to come to a watery end. Because of the limited number of extras available, it was decided that they should all be Israelites and march across the stage, nip round the back, pick up spears and come on again as Egyptian soldiers in hot pursuit. At the first rehearsal, the Israelite vanguard was so speedy that they metamorphosed into soldiers in time to catch the Israelite rearguard and do them over; history rewritten. The denouement was that, to indicate the drowning of the soldiers, one Egyptian was to be left on the bank to say, “Oh, look, they’re all drowning”, after which he dutifully ran after them, stage right, to a dramatic death.
Dorothy Heathcote was one of the people who introduced children to free drama; she has websites dedicated to her work and her archives are held by Manchester University. But she was not a traditional academic, having left school early, gone to work in a mill, taken up amateur dramatics, and then moved on into teaching drama, until she had built up quite a following.
Dorothy Heathcote used whatever props came to hand. What mattered was the children identifying with their roles, thinking about them, feeling what it was like to be the people they were playing. You could do drama with any child, she used to say. The film of her work with children with serious learning disabilities won the Silver Rose at Montreux. At one point in the film, the children were told to build a fire, and the staff who were their carers were to be the logs. The children had to drag the logs and make a heap of them. One little child was obviously concerned and whispered to her carer, “You know we’re not really going to burn you”. A low IQ does not prevent an understanding of the nature of drama.
So, do we need all the expensive fancy dresses to make literature come alive? Not if you have good teachers. Their choice of literature, the way they read it, the explanations they give, their involvement of the children, and most of all, their enthusiasm for the books is what will make National Book Day work. But if fancy dress helps to make it memorable, and puts books on the map, especially for children from book-free families, why not?