Belfast Telegraph

McDonald's can help kids turn over a new leaf

By Jane Graham

You have to be desperate for allies when you find yourself patting McDonald's on the back for positive contributions to children's health. But when the signs are as bad as they currently are, desperation seems like the morally righteous response.

It's true that the company is best known for doing anything to get us to stuff as many burgers down our throats as is humanly possible - and we've all seen those puce-faced individuals who appear to spend every lunchtime stretching the term 'humanly possible' as far as it can heart-attackingly go.

But the news that the free plastic toy in McDonald's' infamous child-bribe Happy Meal is to be temporarily replaced by a book must be welcomed.

Yes, it's a cynical ploy to cash in on the success of family film Warhorse; the giveaway Mudpuddle Farm books are written by Michael Morpurgo, author of Steven Spielberg's latest blockbuster.

But in light of recent news that almost four million children in the UK - one in three - do not own a single book, we must be thankful for any move which is likely to make a serious dent in that catastrophic figure.

I have to admit, I actually cried when I read that statistic.

I cannot imagine a childhood without a single story book at home, without a bookshelf by the bed to bring comfort when a nightmare strikes, friendship when your best pal turns her back on you, and the warm promise of a nightly mum or dad cuddle and read aloud session.

My own childhood - I wasn't outdoorsy or sporty (wearing glasses from the age of five tends to curb your sporting brio) - would have been bereft without my book friends, without Darrell from Malory Towers proving that a fiery temper needn't rule out being a good person one day, or Mister Tom showing that unconditional love can come from unexpected places.

I've sometimes been accused by readers of living in a cosseted middle-class ivory tower.

Having grown up in a council house with memories of tying car doors on with string still fresh, this rankles a bit.

The charge is usually prompted by my reference to being happy (!), or to valuing the arts, and books in particular, as highly as others value sport or Eastenders.

I find this an extraordinary notion. What basis is there for the idea that enriching the mind and soul is an ambition only the middle classes can comprehend, that 'the real world', as working class life is often bizarrely referred to, should limit itself to matters of practicality, of day-to-day survival?

Working class parents like my mum and dad - the offspring of a cabinet-maker, a waitress, a butcher and a factory worker - have always had big dreams for their children.

And many believe that the insight and emotional intelligence kids derive from flights of imagination and passion like JM Barrie's Peter Pan and Rumer Godden's The Dolls' House is crucial to raising a rounded, self-reliant, empathetic human being.

Studies show children who own books have a higher reading ability than those who don't. Like we needed a study to tell us that.

Or that reading aloud regularly to an infant leads to a wider vocabulary, a greater depth of knowledge, superior listening skills and a better chance of them doing well in school (good footing for the 'real world' then).

As well as a lifelong joy they will never stop being grateful to you for. Even if they never tell you so, the awkward little wretches.

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