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Feeding young minds

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Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

McDonald's may have found a happy medium amid today's concerns about childhood obesity, nanny-state regulations and literacy — in the United Kingdom, where it's giving away children's books with Happy Meals.

Last year, McDonald's gave away 9 million such books in a pilot version of the full-scale program it's now rolling out. Working with the U.K.'s National Literacy Trust, it plans to give away 15 million children's books by 2015 — and is also providing vouchers that can be used to buy children's books for just 1 British pound each at U.K. retailer WHSmith.

The campaign will make the fast-food chain the U.K.'s biggest distributor of children's books, according to the British newspaper The Telegraph. The books will be both fiction and nonfiction, starting with nonfiction titles about stars and planets, big cats and oceans from DK Books' “Amazing World” series.

National Literary Trust research shows only half of U.K. children enjoy reading and a third don't own even one book — and links childhood book ownership to success later in life, according to another British newspaper, The Guardian.

Conal Presho, the trust's head of development, told The Guardian its focus in partnering with McDonald's “is on using any way we can to encourage children to read, and to read anything they can ... anything that spreads children's enjoyment of reading.”

It's undeniable that this effort helps McDonald's improve its image at a time when it's increasingly criticized for what and how it markets to children. But it would be a churlish critic indeed who'd put more importance on such concerns than on the good that learning to enjoy reading in childhood can do — and how critical it is to instill a positive attitude toward reading among the age group most fond of Happy Meals.

Kids who like to read gain a rewarding, encouraging outlet for their natural curiosity; a fundamental skill for education — the formal, classroom variety and the informal, self-directed, lifelong kind; and a key for developing the sort of critical thinking capacity in such short supply these days.

Imagine the potential impact if McDonald's were to conduct a campaign similar to its U.K. effort through its U.S. restaurants. It probably wouldn't silence the chain's harshest detractors — what would? But however many U.S. kids would get books of their own, each would have a chance at a better life that otherwise might be beyond their reach — and that would make for millions of truly Happy Meals on this side of the Atlantic.

Spark kids' interest with White House pets

Politics and history are serious matters, about which many serious books are written — which makes the occasional title that provides a change of pace from all that seriousness all the more welcome. One that stops short of silliness but makes learning about U.S. presidents downright enjoyable for both youngsters and parents is “President Adams' Alligator” by Peter W. Barnes and Cheryl Shaw Barnes (Little Patriot Press, available Monday).

This latest offering from a well-known husband-and-wife writing/illustration team is geared for kids age 8 and older. Among the things they'll learn:

• Calvin Coolidge walked a raccoon named Rebecca around the White House on a leash.

• Abraham Lincoln's Fido was the first presidential dog to be photographed.

• James Buchanan's 170-pound Newfoundland, Lara, was the biggest White House canine to date.

• Lyndon Johnson danced with Luki, a stray mutt found at a gas station, at the wedding of his daughter Luci.

• Probably less well known than Fala, the dog depicted beside the statue of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial's namesake, is Major, FDR's German Shepherd, who once tried to tear the pants off Great Britain's prime minister.

• Theodore Roosevelt kept more pets than any other president in a veritable White House menagerie that included snakes, lizards, a flying squirrel, a hyena, a zebra, a badger and a rat.

• Warren G. Harding and family threw a birthday party for their dog Laddie Boy, inviting other dogs and serving a cake made of dog biscuits.

Suitable for classroom and bedtime use, with a section offering games and quizzes that reinforce what children read in it, “President Adams' Alligator” is a book that can teach adults a few new presidential facts, too.

Alan Wallace is a Trib Total Media editorial page writer (412-320-7983 or

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