Somewhat controversial news from Britain where McDonald's is in the process of giving away 9 million books with Happy Meals.
The six titles which are being given away (along with a finger puppet and a voucher for a heavily discounted additional book) are all from Michael Morpurgo's Mudpuddle Farm series, published by Harper Collins. Technically speaking, this will make McDonald's the nation's largest bookseller for the four week period (and the charity Farms for City Children considerably better off, as Morpurgo intends to donate all his royalties to them).
Stunning as it may seem, while eight out of ten British children visit McDonald's at least once a year, one in three doesn't own even a single book (the stats in the USA probably aren't all that different). Because of this, the promotion has been endorsed by at least two leading book related charities:A spokesman for Britain's National Literacy Trust says, "In a society where one in three children don't own a book, this type of campaign will be hugely effective at reaching those who aren't introduced to reading at home and done so in an environment in which they feel comfortable."
While Viv Bird, director of the government backed charity Booktrust, says, "There is a real cultural challenge around reading for pleasure and we've got to be really careful, particularly in the current climate and with the concerns about literacy standards, that parents don't think reading is only about phonics – that they realise enjoying reading is just as important. This partnership with McDonald's Happy Meals and HarperCollins sends a really powerful message that reading is for everyone... You've got Michael Morpurgo, the ex children's laureate whose writing is fantastic, you've got quality books which are going to reach lots of families who wouldn't necessarily go into libraries or bookshops: what is there to disagree with?"
But some do disagree. In an essay in The Bookseller, bookseller Katie Clapham comments, "For booksellers like me, it is another example of giving away for free what we work so hard to give value to. The disposable nature of the previous 'gifts' that have accompanied Happy Meals amounts to no more than scrap plastic and it's an insult to the industry that books should be thought of as an equivalent. The idea of these precious pages littering the car parks and drive-thrus is a sad scene indeed." She goes on to say that, "Selfishly, what upsets me most is the news that the other token gift in the box is a voucher for another Morpurgo book, redeemable only at W H Smith. As an independent children's bookshop in a town that shares the high street with a W H Smith we are constantly working to compete with their never-ending deals and red sticker discounts. Now they can give away for free what we have to pay to sell."
Director of the Children's Food Campaign Charlie Powell is also against the move seeing McDonald's decision to offer Michael Morpurgo's books in the week that the movie adaptation of his best known book, War Horse, hits screens in the UK as nothing but cynical: "McDonald's has been criticised in the past for using toys to promote Happy Meals, it seems they have moved to the next most acceptable thing, which is books for children.... The idea appears to be designed to make fast food more attractive to children, which is not the direction we should be going in." He added: 'You have to question whether it is McDonald's role in society to improve childhood literacy."
It's interesting to note that this promotion totally dwarfs the one million books given away during the UK's first World Book Night last year. A publishing industry supported promotion intended to get books into the hands of non-readers, which is expanding to the USA and Germany for the first time this April.
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