Let's Talk About It: Is There A Wrong Way To Encourage Reading?

August 27, 2015

A headline making the rounds on Twitter caught my eye last week: "Australian Parents Angry Over Books in Happy Meals."

You can check out the article from GalleyCat (or the longer piece it cites) for more information, but the gist is this: an Australian children's health advocacy group is angry at McDonald's for its "Happy Readers" promotion. Instead of receiving a toy with a Happy Meal, children are offered a choice of a soft-cover physical book or a code for a digital book via a McDonald's-branded reading app. There are 23 books in total, and parents can opt to buy the books individually at a rate of $2 AUD each.

As someone interested in both early literacy and public health, I've been mulling over the implications of this program since I first saw the article. On the one hand, I believe that putting a book in a child's hand, regardless of the source, is a net positive. Scores of research findings agree with me; in fact, on the very same day that GalleyCat tweeted its piece, the New York Times tweeted one summarizing two recent studies showing how important early reading may be to kids' brain development. If a child is getting a Happy Meal anyway, why not give them a book instead of a possibly vulgar Minions toy?

On the other, I understand why framing the book collection in a "gotta catch 'em all" fashion could entice kids to ask their parents for McDonald's more often or encourage parents to buy it for them more than they otherwise would. While the Golden Arches does offer lighter options these days, not all will order them; considering that rates of childhood obesity have more than doubled in the United States in the past 30 years, it's likely in a child's best interest to limit the number of smiling red boxes in their diets.

Beyond this is where things get hairy for me. Some of the comments on the Herald Sun article suggest that parents buy the Happy Readers books individually or take their children to the library or bookstore instead. While most likely well-intentioned, they miss the fact that not all families have these options. The individual books and books from other stores cost money, and if the choice is between a book (or, like, half a book, if you compare a bookstore paperback to a Happy Meal) and dinner, what's going to win out? At least in this case, when a parent opts for the meal, the child gets the book, too. As for libraries, they may not be conveniently located or, even worse, they may not exist at all.

As for the health aspect of the debate, there's a difference between discussing the physical health ramifications of fast food and lambasting the moral characters of the individuals who eat it, one that gets confused far too often for my taste and, again, reeks of classism. While I didn't notice any particularly egregious comments on either article I linked, I would not be surprised to see them crop up eventually.

Like I said, there's a lot to think about here, and I'd love to hear your opinions on the matter! Feel free to bring up things I didn't touch on here, because there are plenty of 'em.

What do you guys think? Is encouraging reading good regardless of the method, or is how we do it just as important?

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