McDonald's branches in the United Kingdom will include a book with each Happy Meal sold as part of a promotion called "Happy Readers," starting Wednesday.
With one book per Happy Meal in the U.K., McDonald's estimates that they will become the largest children's book distributor in the country, with a total of 15 million books handed out by the end of 2014.
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The initiative was inspired by data complied by Britain's National Literacy Trust, which recently revealed that out of a group of 21,000 children, only 50 percent of them said they enjoyed reading "very much" or "a lot."
For the next five weeks, Happy Meals in the UK will feature non-fiction books from DK Books' Amazing World Series, with categories of Stars and Planets, Big Cats, and Oceans. Children can also redeem a voucher from their Happy Meal if they'd prefer to choose their own book at bookseller WH Smith.
"Our research tells us that there is a very clear link between book ownership and children's future success in life, so it is very concerning that one in three children in the UK doesn't own a book, and half of kids don't really enjoy reading," Jonathan Douglas, the director of the National Literacy Trust, told Britain's Telegraph. "Initiatives like McDonald's Happy Readers campaign play an important role in getting more books into the hands of children, and inspiring families to read together as a fun and interactive pastime."
Children in the United States would undoubtedly benefit from the encouragement to read as well. Out of 34 countries, the U.S. is ranked 14th in reading tests, with many children reading below their grade level and only one-third of 13 year olds are daily readers. England's ratings are even worse. They come in at 19th in international literacy tests.
15 million free books might seem like a big number, though it's paltry compared to mega bookseller Amazon.com, which sells more than 3.1 billion books a year worldwide. Of course, those books aren't free.
At the moment, McDonald's has no plans to bring the Happy Readers initiative to the United States, but that doesn't mean it couldn't come here in the future, Heidi Barker Sa Shekhem, Vice President of Global External Communications told Yahoo! Shine.
"One thing to understand is that McDonald's has a commitment to children's well-being all over the world and that's implemented depending on what the country's needs are," she said. "We recognize that literacy is a global challenge. This is a fantastic program that McDonald's U.K. is doing, we hope to learn from it."
However, the UK's Children's Food Campaign is criticizing the campaign, calling it an "inappropriate marketing strategy at a time when there is an epidemic of childhood obesity."
Barker Sa Shekhem acknowledges the obesity issue, and says their focus in the U.S. is currently on nutrition and exercise rather than literacy. "As of 2011, 100% of our advertising to children features messages about nutrition or physical activity," she said. "This program is called the Champions of Happy-focused on things children can do to grow strong and be healthy. It is unique to McDonald's U.S."
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