Crying In The Classroom (or How author Ali Sparkes was introduced to

World Book Day) March 2008. My first EVER World Book Day event in a school. Nervous? Me?! NEVER! I was bibbling with fear.

And if you’re now querying the word ‘bibbling’, you’re right, I did just make it up. Bibbling. You know...when your mouth is moving and little bibbly words are coming out but inside your head it’s all: AAAAAAAAAAAAAAARGH!

That’s bibbling. Look – if Roald Dahl was allowed, so am I.

Anyway, back to the school, somewhere in Hampshire. I was led to an empty classroom where my first ever book – The Shapeshifter: Finding The Fox – was present on every desk. They were covered in lovely plastic dust jackets. It was a scene from my pre-published dreams. My very own book – a class reader!

Then I noticed the book on the desk in one corner. It had no shiny plastic jacket. It was naked. And it was in a bad way. Someone had driven a sharpened pencil through the cover with such force it had fully punctured and ripped asunder. On closer inspection the pencil was stippled with teeth marks and the whole book looked slightly gnawed.

‘Ah, yes,’ said the lovely librarian, following my gaze. ‘That’s Benjamin. There’s something you should know about Benjamin...’

It emerged that Benjamin was a weeper. Not a wailer (that’s Bob Marley’s backing band) but a weeper. ‘He’ll probably cry quite a lot,’ I was warned. ‘And quite loudly. I hope you’ll be OK with that.’

‘Oh I’m sure it’ll be...fine...’ I bibbled.

The class came in. They were lovely shiny Year 5s and despite the terror in my soul I was pleased to meet them. I had my presentation and workshop planned – with loads of props and fun stuff including peppers, pineapples and giant pants. Everyone settled down and I got going.

Then Benjamin started crying. Very, very loudly.

It was the other kids who impressed me most that day. They just carried on regardless; clearly so used to Benjamin’s relentless audible grief that it was no more than background noise to them. Benjamin even had a special place to go and do his weeping – a tear-stained beanbag in the corner. And he gave it his all – no half measures. Until about ten minutes in when, St Bibble be praised, he got too interested in what we were doing to keep it up. He joined in and was a cherub of joy for the rest of the session.

That was my WBD baptism and it’s stood me in good stead. Since that day I have probably visited close to a thousand schools around the UK and Europe. I no longer bibble and am pretty much ready for anything that gets thrown at me from letters of love to projectile vomit.

I have learned to have fun with my audience, getting it to do all kinds of things for me from wild applause to supplying very specific sound effects. As I see it, we’re all in this together – if I’m sharing a school hall with 400 kids for an hour, we may as well have a blast. I get them up to do daft things and I frequently hypnotise them and programme them to read my entire body of work.

I have to confess I find World Book Day somewhat hysterical. The dressing up, the book tokens, the frantic teachers in Winnie The Witch outfits, the mums who’ve been up all night stitching a giant peach for their little James (or driving to the 24-hour Tesco at midnight for the nylon Harry Potter cloak and lick-on scar tattoo), the libraries decorated and the school halls filled to bursting with Hermiones, Wallies, storm troopers and Marvel heroes...and then one author, up on a stage, staring at the carnival and thinking ‘Come one everyone, breathe...breeeeeathe!’

4 Books for Keeps No.229 March 2018

It’s the literary equivalent of Christmas morning. Stressy and stupidly overhyped...but absolutely compulsive.

And I’m all for it. But...

...schools are allowed to do it on another day. I’m just saying... Children’s authors journey across the kingdom every school day of the year but there’s a finite number of us available and after our seventh or eighth desperate email from a school with two weeks to go to WBD we can only remind them again, ‘It’s OK... You can do it on another day!’

By all means launch a big reading festival for the year on WBD – even do a cool assembly reveal of the author you have booked for later in the term. Don’t feel pinned to the first Thursday in March.

World Book Day should be just the start. That tsunami of excitement should barrel-roll children through the surf and carry them all the way to the shallows of late summer – lapping to the very end of the school term, just in time to get up and go again with the Summer Reading Challenge.

But what about Benjamin? I know you’re worried about him. So was I. At the time, a decade past now, the teacher told me nobody knew why he liked to weep on the beanbag in the corner. His home life seemed happy and they thought it was maybe just an extreme case of separation anxiety. In any case, he was perfectly fine once he got stuck in with the other kids.

A few weeks ago a young man came up to me at a signing in a Hampshire bookshop, smiling nervously. He was holding a paper bag and from it he drew two books. One was the new version of Finding The Fox and the other was the old version. He laid the old one before me and there it was...the hole ripped through the cover, the gnawed corners. I could never have mistaken it for any other...

‘My name is Benjamin,’ he said. ‘And this is the last book I ever defaced... Thank you, Ali Sparkes! Thank you!’

A true story? Look, I just shamelessly made up bibble. You decide...

Ali Sparkes’ Shapeshifter series is published by Oxford Children’s Books. Her new book, Night Speakers, is out now (Oxford Children’s Books, 978-0192749956, £6.99 pbk).

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