McDonald’s Happy Meal Kids Book Giveaways: Then and Now

In What's the Buzz by Dennis Abrams

By Dennis Abrams

goat who ate everythingStarting tomorrow, at least according to Advertising Age, McDonald’s is poised to become the nation’s largest children’s book publisher, at least for the month of November.

“The chain, which typically offers toys in its kids meals, will package four original children’s books carrying a nutritional message Nov. 1 through Nov. 14 with its Happy Meals, the beginning of a massive children’s book push expected to last for several years. The chain said it expects to distribute 20 million books in that two-week promotion window.”

(The article points out that to put McDonald’s 20 million book giveaway into perspective, “consider one of the most popular young-adult lines in recent years: post-apocalyptic trilogy The Hunger Games. (The eponymous first book came out in 2008, followed by Catching Fire in 2009, and Mockingjay in 2010.) In 2012, the year The Hunger Games film was released, the trilogy sold 27.7 million print and digital copies — 15 million were print books, according to Publisher’s Weekly. So McDonald’s is set to give away in a two-week promotion 5 million more books than what “The Hunger Games” trilogy sold last year in print.”)

The books, which will be based on “McDonald’s characters” (although not Ronald McDonald or the infamous Hamburglar), will be published by McDonald’s itself.

One book, “The Goat Who Ate Everything,” tell the story of a goat who loves to eat, but struggles to eat the right things. “Deana’s Big Adventure” shows how Deana, the world’s smallest dinosaur, grows tall by eating healthy foods.

Ad Week reports that “the characters and storylines were created by Publicis Groupe’s Leo Burnett, which handles the chain’s family and kids marketing. (Omnicom’s DDB Chicago is McDonald’s lead creative agency.) TV spots and other advertising will support the book promotion. Leo Burnett declined to comment.”

“We think that this is a fun and engaging way to give a nutritional message to kids,” said Ubong Ituen, VP-marketing for McDonald’s USA. “This is really the first step in a larger book strategy, and our intent is to continue over several years.”

Image-1-Millions-PieceBut over at The Millions, James S. Murphy looks back with longing to the late 1970s, when McDonald’s had a similar program in place, but with very different kinds of books.

“…when I was five years old, living in Wilmington, DE, my family took one of our painfully rare trips to McDonald’s to get Happy Meals for my sisters and me. There were few things more exciting at the time than opening up that iconic box to see what sort of toy was inside. On this visit, however, there was no toy. The counterperson handed over a little paperback with a drawing on the cover of a boy whitewashing a fence.

McDonald’s introduced me — and I would venture thousands of other kids — not only to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer but also to the notion of a classic. In 1977 and again in 1979, the fast food chain paired up with the publisher I. Waldman & Son to distribute Illustrated Classics Editions in their restaurants. Waldman had published children’s versions of classic literature, such as The Three Musketeers, Robinson Crusoe, and Moby Dick, in 1977 under the brand name Moby Books and, in 1979, the publisher paired with Playmore, Inc. to distribute the series in supermarkets, drugstores, and other retail sites.”

And while Murphy acknowledges that the Illustrated Classics Editions were not quite up to the originals, he also acknowledges that it didn’t really matter. “What really mattered to me in the long term, however, was not the quality of the text but the authority behind it. There were few institutions I respected more than McDonald’s, so when I saw that it had endorsed a line of books grouped under this mysterious rubric “classic,” I knew that this was a work worth reading. More significantly, I learned from McDonald’s that there was a whole class of books out there that were especially worth reading.”

In fact, for Murphy, the Happy Meal literary classics seem to symbolize something that’s been lost. “What seems unbelievable now — and even sweet — is that McDonald’s ever cared about its brow enough to try raising it. McDonald’s and I had that in common: we wanted to elevate ourselves by association with the classics, only I held onto that desire long after the fast food chain did. I went to grad school for a lot of reasons, but McDonald’s Illustrated Classics played their own little part in that decision. It’s not a choice I regret, but, in this deeply pessimistic moment for English departments, I cannot help but feel nostalgic for a time when literature’s cultural stock was so high that even McDonald’s wanted to invest in it.”

About the Author

Dennis Abrams

Dennis Abrams is a contributing editor for Publishing Perspectives, responsible for news, children's publishing and media. He's also a restaurant critic, literary blogger, and the author of "The Play's The Thing," a complete YA guide to the plays of William Shakespeare published by Pentian, as well as more than 30 YA biographies and histories for Chelsea House publishers.