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Harry Potters, Horrid Henrys, Cats in Hats, Gruffalos and Gangsta Grannies will all be turning up for lessons at schools across the UK today.

Dressing up as a favourite book character is just one way to celebrate the annual World Book Day, with pupils and teachers at schools throughout the nation joining in the fun.

Originally organised by UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation), World Book Day was launched in 1995 to promote reading, publishing and copyright. In most places it is celebrated on April 23rd – the date when both William Shakespeare and Spanish author Cervantes died – but in the UK this tends to clash with the Easter school holidays, so it is held instead on the first Thursday in March.

The first World Book Day in the UK was in 1998, launched by Prime Minister Tony Blair at the Globe Theatre in London, which makes this year the 20th anniversary. As part of the event, every child in full-time education in the UK is given a £1 World Book Day Token. It can be redeemed against any book, but a small selection of books is also specially published each year for World Book Day with a £1 cover price. It means schoolchildren can get hold of one of these books completely free by using their book token.

In 2007, World Book Day marked its 10th anniversary with the publication of 10 £1 books, covering a variety of interests and age ranges. Many of the £1 books are now specially written by recognised authors who donate their services for free. This year’s £1 books include a special Peppa Pig adventure for pre-school children, a classic Famous Five collection by Enid Blyton, a Horrid Henry Funny Fact Files book, and a new story specially written by David Walliams, entitled “Blob”.

Although largely aimed at encouraging children to read, over the years World Book Day has grown to include adult readers too. In particular, it has linked up with the ‘Quick Reads Initiative’, which publishes a series of short books, no more than 128 pages, by well-known authors and celebrities. It aims to encourage more adults to discover the joy of reading by ‘dipping a toe in the water’ through its Quick Reads. The scheme was launched on World Book Day in 2006 and since then more than 60 Quick Reads titles have been published, with more than three million copies sold.

There have also been a number of initiatives linked to World Book Day which encourage people to give away new books or pass on secondhand ones for free to others who will enjoy them. Some classic titles have been given special print runs just to be given away.

For schools, one of the most enjoyable aspects of World Book Day has become the chance to dress up as favourite book characters for the day. When the Harry Potter books were at their peak of popularity, many UK schools looked more like Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry on the first Thursday in March!

Schools can also hold ‘readathons’ or other book-related activities and are encouraged to raise money for World Book Day, which is a registered charity. The money goes to Book Aid International, a separate charity which aims to give people, especially children, access to books in some of the poorest parts of the world. It is particularly active in Africa, establishing and supporting libraries to increase literacy.

So by joining in with a range of fun World Book Day events, children at UK schools are also helping other children less fortunate than themselves to learn to read and, by doing so, improve their prospects for life. 

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