Gabrielle Coleman

DO BOOKS STILL HOLD THE POWER TO KEEP OUR COGNITIVE COGS TURNING?


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Have you seen fantastic foxes and very hungry caterpillars passing you by in the street this morning? Well, that’s because it’s World Book Day! Never mind the naysayers - today holds real value.

Children have now joyously celebrated the day, which was created by UNESCO in 1995, for twenty-six years, with hundreds of countries joining together to celebrate books, authors, and the joys of reading. Today, the day is celebrated through creative costumes and an array of affordable literature.

Whether you were hastily wrapping toilet paper around your child this morning while you attempted to recall a book containing a mummy (National Geographic’s ‘Ancient Egypt’ counts right?) or you’ve been planning your mini-Miss Trunchbull costume for weeks, World Book Day is a chance to reflect on the huge impact stories can have on our developing (and ageing) minds.

One parent who remembers the excitement of her child on World Book Day is Ellie, our Marketing Manager. Inspired by her love of Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, Ellie sewed her son Caspian’s full Max outfit in time for his grand arrival at school. For Ellie, it was a memorable bonding experience and a chance to pass on her love for the written word: “I loved the book as a child and really enjoyed sharing it with him. As a boisterous 6-year-old boy, it also seemed the most suitable costume for him”.

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My parents weren’t quite as organised, and I was usually sent off to school in an old Halloween costume, with more of a “there’s a witch in lots of books!” mentality. Nevertheless, I was still excited to arrive at school as either Meg from Helen Nicoll’s Meg and Mog or The Grand High Witch from Roald Dahl’s The Witches - depending on my mood.

At present, World Book Day, in partnership with schools all over the country, now distributes more than 15 million £1 books to children each year. The gift of free or discounted books allows all children, including those with financial hurdles, to enjoy creative freedom, to become inspired, and to invent. And, this year’s theme, “You are a reader” drives home the message that reading is for everyone and anyone, no matter your age, interests, or ability.

Ellie remembers, in a time before the iPad, how the gift of a book meant everything to her child: “I remember one World Book Day, my son was given a free book from school. It was a picture book filled with pages of pets, house, beds, jobs, and so on. Every night Caspian and I would meticulously go through each page, discussing which ones we would choose. It was his favourite book for about six months. Every day the same conversation, ‘Mummy I’d want my pet to be either a dinosaur or a robot dog’ - I think I might have hidden the book in the end!”

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It’s a light-hearted and fun-filled event with a great message - but of course, the naysayers will still creep out of the woodworks. Indeed, Emma Kernahan of the Independent has called for an end to end the ‘performative hell’, in which she says parents are ‘fetishising the act of reading as a nostalgic, middle-class pursuit’. Kernahan argues that parents are pushing their bygone hobbies onto a generation that find no value in, or have fallen out of love with, literature. Though, I would have to disagree - reading still holds real and tangible health benefits, aside from getting the creative juices flowing.

In 2020, Cambridge University Press presented evidence from a 14-yearlong study which found that ‘reading activity prevents long-term decline in cognitive function in older people’. Truly then, it is more than just performative. Continued studies of real-world benefits drum home that the celebration is more important than it may at first seem and demonstrate the importance of getting children hooked on literature early. The celebration, which was originally concocted to improve schools’ decline in reading and writing standards, is today as important as ever.

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Nowadays, statistics show that reading, unfortunately, is still on the decline. In fact, The Hechinger Report states that “the percentage of public-school students who said they read 30 minutes or more a day, besides homework, declined by 4 percentage points from 53 percent in 2017 to 49 percent in 2019”. The already dwindling hobby is very much at risk.

By the same token, as an avid book reader in my childhood, I’ve noticed this decline in my own daily reading habits. Whether increased screentime or busy schedules are to blame, it’s difficult to ignore the dust gathering on my book collections. Likewise, Ellie has experienced the same phenomenon: “I’ve always love reading; I’ve gone through phases of reading 2 or 3 books a week. But if I pick up a book and end up not liking it, I end up in a real reading slump! I stopped reading the Time Traveller’s Wife about 20 pages from the end and didn’t pick up another book for at least a year”.

In adult life, just as in childhood, making the act of reading ‘fun’ can reap benefits. In the “Top 100 challenge”, Ellie and her friend competed to read as many Big Read titles as possible in 3 months and managed a whopping 45. By and large, the population can benefit from increasing their reading habits, and, who knows, seeing a 7-year-old dressed as Harry Potter on their way to school might just ignite your desire to revisit JK Rowling.

Not only can stories become integral moments in our lives, but they can equip us with lifelong skills for our futures as well as offer potential health advantages in old age. So, whether you’re thinking deeply about the benefits of promoting reading for pleasure, you’re vehemently defending your cognitive functions, or you’re simply having fun dressing your child in a silly costume - it’s not performative, it’s important. Happy World Book Day!

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