The UK’s 2020 World Book Day: ‘Reading in Sharp Decline’

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Armed with new and disturbing survey information about youth reading from the National Literary Trust, this year’s UK World Book Day distributes its annual book tokens.

In one of the March 5 2020 UK World Book Day events, children’s author Cressida Cowell and Boris Johnson headline a kids’ session at No. 10 Downing Street. Image: WBD, Andrew Parsons

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

25.8% of UK Kids Say They Read in Free Time
Timed by sheer coincidence to the rapidly spreading outbreak of the coronavirus COVID-19, publicity professionals in England today find themselves sending out messaging that reads: “In schools, stadiums, and TV studios, in bedrooms, bookshops, libraries, and prisons, hundreds of thousands of stories will be shared across the UK and Ireland” today (March 5) for the UK’s 2020 World Book Day event.

For our international readership’s clarification, the United Nations’ World Book Day is held annually on April 23. The United Kingdom’s World Book Day is observed on the first Thursday of March because organizers reportedly prefer to avoid conflicts with Easter holidays and St. George’s Day.

This energetic charity in the UK works by having more than 15 million £1 tokens (US$1.29, Ireland €1.50) distributed to children and young people in partnership with schools all over the UK and Ireland. “Tokens are valid during World Book Day month from February 27 to March 29” this year, organizers say.

“All you need to do is to take your token to your local bookseller,” according to promotional content, “and swap it for one of the 15 exclusive, brand new and completely free World Book Day books, including one Irish title and two books exclusive to Wales. If you’d prefer, you can use your book token to get £1(or €1.50 in Ireland) off any full price book instead.”

Organizers are reporting that this year, more than 180,000 “stories”—referring to the tokens—already have been shared this way before today’s official kick-off of the event.

Lowest Reading Levels Since 2005

The UK’s World Book Day—which falls on a different date from the UN event of the same name—is held on the first Thursday of March. Image: World Book Day UK

In contrast to the gaiety of the familiar dancing cartoon bookmarks of the annual campaign, the program this year is citing serious findings by the National Literary Trust.

Quoting from a summary of the new study’s findings:

“Research from the National Literacy Trust, published today, shows levels of daily reading among children and young people in sharp decline: just 25.8 percent of children said they read daily in their free time in 2019, the lowest level the National Literacy Trust recorded since it surveyed children in 2005.

“Levels of enjoyment are also down. More than half (53 percent) of children and young people said they enjoyed reading either ‘very much’ or ‘quite a lot’—the lowest level evidenced by the National Literacy Trust since 2013.

“The report, published on the National Literacy Trust website today, is entitled National Literacy Trust (2020) Children and Young People’s Reading in 2019. Findings from the National Literacy Trust’s ninth Annual Literacy Survey of 56,906 children and young people aged 9 to 18 in the UK in 2019.

“Frequency and enjoyment are two of the three key elements that make good readers, as defined by the National Literacy Trust’s Read on. Get On. (ROGO) Index, the third being cognitive reading skills.”

The overall goal of the World Book Day charity is “to provide every child and young person in the country with a book of their own.”

This is the first year in which all prisons in the United Kingdom are to take part in the program—24,000 World Book Day books are being distributed to children and young people visiting their parents in prison. Some 1,200 books are to be distributed today in London at food banks.

Another first this year: World Book Day is partnering with McDonald’s restaurants, which are printing £1 World Book Day tokens on Happy Meal boxes sold between February 5 and March 17.

Celebrities get into the mix, as well. The Duchess of Cornwall is to visit a London primary school with World Book Day author-spokesman Anthony Horowitz. And Waterstones’ children’s books award winner Cressida Cowell—who would have been an Author of the Fair at London Book Fair—is to join World Book Day authors Onjali Q. Raúf and Robin Stevens and what’s being described as “1,000 children” for the main event of the day, to be held at the HSBC UK National Cycling Center in Manchester.

The program has the cooperation of the UK market’s major publishers, a number of independents, and a host of retailers, as well. You can find the group here.

The UK’s prime minister at No. 10 Downing Street joins children in a ‘draw along’ to recreate Hiccup, the main character in Cressida Cowell’s ‘How To Train Your Dragon’ series. Image: WBD, Andrew Parsons


More from Publishing Perspectives on the UK market is here, and more on book and literacy charities is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's 2019 International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for trade and indie authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson also has worked as a senior producer, editor, and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA, and as an arts critic (National Critics Institute) with The Village Voice and Dallas Times Herald.

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