This week is Book Week, an annual event that for children means a celebration of all the great things found in the pages of books, and for parents (mostly, let’s be honest, mums) means the not inconsiderable challenge of coming up with a costume for their child or children for dress-up day.
Will it be Harry or Hermione? A classic Where’s Wally? An old-school Cat in the Hat? Gangsta Granny? The Gruffalo?
But if this event is all about children’s book favourites, there is—in the stress of the whole thing for parents, the tears and tantrums (of the parent)—shadows and echoes of literature for adults as well, as if fictional characters for young and old were walking side by side during Book Week.
Some parents are like Jay Gatsby, the titular character in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic. They are believers the perfect costume for their child is possible, and that it will win them the love and approval of all. They will be made worthy. Like Gatsby with his piles of fine shirts, money is no obstacle. They believe in the dream and feel, arms outstretched, they can hardly fail to grasp it—’it’ being the most expensive item at the costume hire shop.
These parents are of course hated by all the other parents, and the latter, to create a clear point of difference, adopt the persona of Holden Caulfield. They love children and their play more than anything, but they also think the adult world is full of phonies and you shouldn’t suck up to it by being superficial. In other words, re the costume, they’re all for not trying too hard.
Fathers have a particular tendency in this direction, which is why mothers end up doing all the work. As pressure around the Book Week costume intensifies, men are good at disappearing. They morph from Holden Caulfield into Dean Moriarty from Kerouac’s On the Road. They may not drop everything and head to San Francisco chasing kicks and jazz and the mad and the holy, but they mumble something about Bunnings and are gone an awful long time.
So mothers end up lumped with making the costume. They trawl Pinterest for ideas. They negotiate with the child. They deep dive into dress-up boxes. And then, in after-work hours that turn into after-work days and late, late nights, there is a terrifying blur of cardboard, glitter, hot glue guns, string, ribbon, spray paint and sticky tape.
Come the day, the costume is ready, the child happy and off to school. But the mother is a wreck. Her hair has glue in it and sticks in all directions. She hasn’t showered or changed her clothes for days. Her man is nowhere to be seen. She has become a Dickens character. She is Miss Havisham, bent on revenge.
Simon Castles is an Age desk editor.