It is no secret that the nutritional value of a book from an ex-children’s laureate will outweigh any burger from McDonald's, but the news that Michael Morpurgo’s Mudpuddle Farm series will be given away as the free gift with Happy Meals could go either way for booksellers.
In theory, it’s a good idea; after the recent figures that one in four children in the UK don’t own a book, the hope is that this will crossover neatly with the millions of people who eat under the golden arches every week. A nation of book buyers and book owners would be great, even if they do have greasy fingers, and perhaps this Morpurgo title could be the first book to start their library.
Of course, public libraries, schools and charity shops have long meant there are cheaper ways of acquiring a book than buying a box of McNuggets so why should reluctant readers take any more notice of the book under the burger? If anything, this does more for McDonald's' image than anyone’s—shaking up their menu with salads and replacing toys with books sends all the right signs that they’re really trying to improve.
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. For Morpurgo it’s an unhealthy association with a corporation that capitalises on fast and cheap but I don’t really believe, on the week that "War Horse" hits the cinema, that he was looking for a push on sales. He’s the good guy here, lending gravitas to a scheme that has good intentions. Again, in theory – it sounds like a great idea for all involved.
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.
If the offer motivates a non-reader to seek out further Morpurgo books, and I don’t doubt that it will, it could mean a child’s first experience of a bookshop is W H Smith, setting price expectations accordingly. Maybe the combined might of McMorpurgo could have spared a thought for us.