Does encouraging children to read require a positive environment?

From now through February 7, all UK McDonald’s locations are replacing toys with books in Happy Meals—for a limited time only.

The campaign started last week. According to the UK nonprofit National Literacy Trust, nearly a third of children in the country do not own a book. McDonald’s, in partnership with HarperCollins and the NLT, are hoping to change this statistic by packaging 9,000,000 copies of the Mudpuddle Farm book series (by author Michael Morpurgo) in the popular kids’ meals. Each book comes with a finger puppet “to help parents bring the stories to life for their children.”

This news makes me wonder about American families and how they instill a love of reading in their children. It’s not easy to admit, but I wasn’t always a reader. For me, it wasn’t access to a book that was the problem—putting a book in a Happy Meal wouldn’t have magically transformed me into a bookworm. For me it was my family environment. From what I could see as a child, reading wasn’t a big priority in my family—especially not when compared to the families of some people I know now, who have shelves and shelves lined with books in their living rooms. Sure, I read some books in my youth (my Mom always let me pick out a few books I wanted from the school book fair), and my family owned others. My parents even read to me a little. But my love of reading was stunted because no one in my household treated books like member of the family. They weren’t really a part of the conversation.

Even though I’m the only one in my family who doesn’t like football (seriously, where did I come from?), TV was still the way we bonded. And while I can read in a noisy setting, I definitely cannot read with the television on. At all. My eyes go straight to the screen as soon as I give in to that first glance of curiosity. I need absolute peace and quiet to read at my best, and that means sequestering myself away in my room.

Now that I’m grown up, I have a better idea of how much and often my family members read. It’s more than I thought when I was younger, but combined the number of books they read in a year is still relatively low.

What do you think? Is coveted access to books, like the movie Matilda suggests, all it takes to create a reader among non-readers? Which wins out: nurture (an encouraged passion for books) or nature (one’s inherent literary inclination)? I suppose for me it was a bit of both: I went to college and studied literature, but I also found ways to nourish my fondness for reading and writing throughout my childhood and adolescence. It just didn’t blossom as fully as it could have if my situation had been different.

Thanks to e-readers like the Kindle and Nook, reading is on the rise in a country that still doesn’t read very much as a whole. To give you an overview:

  • According to a 2003 survey conducted by The Jenkins Group, 80% of US families did not buy or read a book in 2002. This sounds a little outrageous, but the numbers have been repeated by newspapers and other sources.
  • A 2007 article published by The Guardian claims a quarter of adults read no books in 2006.
  • Time reported in early 2009 that almost 16.6 million more people picked up a book since the National Endowment for the Arts’ 2002 census. 47% of US adults read fiction in their spare time in 2008.
  • And an article posted in the fall of last year confirmed that 16% of Americans read between 11 and 20 books per year.
  • The Harris Poll reports that one in six Americans use an e-reader (a fast-growing statistic), with one in six likely to make a purchase in the next six months.

Readers in America are a minority, and as of yet there’s no hard data that tells how many people today read and finish the books they start—or how many “trendy” e-reader users actually use the device in earnest.

6 thoughts on “Does encouraging children to read require a positive environment?”

    1. Thank you! It’ll be interesting if this results in more linked habits of eating and reading, since some book addicts say they crave food in the same way they do books. But yeah—it’s far easier to stare at a TV screen than it is to focus on reading a book, since the latter requires more energy, and if a kid lives in a household where the TV is always on, he or she is much more likely (in my opinion) to put down the book in favor of TV.

      I can’t fault McDonald’s for trying this—it’s not like it’s a bad campaign by any stretch—but I have to wonder what a better approach might be.



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