I still remember the intense excitement I felt as a child when choosing books to buy with my pocket money – Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, Baroness Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel, Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons – and the joy of knowing that these precious books, clutched tightly in my hands, were my very own.
It is that joy that, for 25 years, World Book Day has sought to bring to children across the United Kingdom and Ireland. For a quarter of a century, the first Thursday of March has seen millions of £1 book tokens distributed in schools and nurseries. Much like the “golden tickets” in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, these vouchers offered the recipients untold adventures – not just through rivers of chocolate, but also through wardrobes and rabbit holes and the foggy streets of Victorian London. As it celebrates the past, present and future of reading in this milestone anniversary year, the charity’s aim is for everyone to see themselves as a reader. World Book Day has become, for so many, the birthday of their passion for reading.
Reading for pleasure is, we know, the biggest indicator of a child’s future success – more than their family circumstances, their parents’ educational background or their income. And yet there are still approximately 400,000 children in our country who don’t have a book of their own. Recent research by a range of education experts and organisations shows that some pupils are starting secondary school with a reading age of 6. In 2019, a survey carried out by the National Literacy Trust (of which I am the very proud Patron) reported that only a quarter of eight to 18-year olds read daily. And research by children’s publisher Farshore has found that the majority of boys and over half of girls in every age group said they preferred spending time on their screens to reading.
Books, then, need all the help they can get in our multimedia age. World Book Day is a brilliant way to prove how much fun and escapism can be found in a good book. And it works - 50% of primary school children who have taken part in World Book Day, sharing their favourite stories and sometimes dressing as their favourite characters, have read more books as a result. Through the increasingly diverse selection of literature on offer, children armed with their magical book tokens will be able to find a book that both reflects their own experiences and gives them perspective on other people’s. After all, when we read, we understand ourselves better, we understand others better and we make lifelong friends.
This World Book Day, please take your children and your grandchildren to your nearest book shop to let the explorations begin. As Willy Wonka writes on his golden tickets, “I shake you warmly by the hand! Tremendous things are in store for you! Many wonderful surprises await you!” – surprises, he might have added, that are only possible between the covers of a book…
Here are a few of my own favourite books to read to my grandchildren.
You can find more recommendations - including several from some rather special friends and family members - on my Instagram site @duchessofcornwallsreadingroom.
Black Beauty by Anna Sewell
I loved this as a pony-mad child and, in my dotage, love it still. Written in 1877 from Black Beauty’s own point of view, it tells his life story, from foal-hood to retirement.
The Explorer by Katherine Rundell
A wildly exciting, witty, thought-provoking book that had my grandchildren and me on the edge of our seats from first page to last…
Gangsta Granny by David Walliams
This is a really wonderful book to share with your grandchildren – you can see their eyes widen as they begin to wonder if their own grandparents might have some interesting tales to tell…
When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr
A semi-autobiographical classic, in print for over 50 years, about a Jewish family escaping Nazi Germany. Judith Kerr, most famous for “The Tiger Who Came To Tea”, died just over two years ago. Michael Morpurgo, himself no stranger to powerful storytelling, called it “the most life-enhancing book you could ever wish to read”.