"With kids aged 9 to 12 directly in the sights of these companies, the idea was to give them food for thought," said Eric Schlosser, who kicks off an aggressive tour next month for his book, "Chew on This: Everything You Don't Want to Know About Fast Food," co-authored with Charles Wilson, a New York Times researcher and lifelong vegetarian. "We were trying to write a non-fiction book that kids would want to read that isn't interactive, doesn't have anything electronic to it. It's just a book."
Except that it's already being touted as a 21st century version of Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle," but with chicken nuggets instead of burgers and dogs. Written for preteens who are a prime target for the $300 billion fast-food industry, the 304-page tome focuses on mistreatment of animals in slaughterhouses and employees in restaurants; lays out how eating too much fast food can affect growing bodies; and chronicles the ways the quick-service-restaurant industry shapes schools, communities and the Earth.
"Stomachs will turn and tempers will flare as the authors shine a light on the grisly conditions in a chicken slaughterhouse, explain how market-research firms study kids and learn how those delicious fast-food smells are manufactured off a highway in New Jersey," reads press-release copy for the book.
Not only does the book look at the often-seamy underbelly of the food industry, it encourages kids to take on activist roles in booting soft-drinks from schools and changing working conditions in food processing plants and restaurants.
Originally the plan was to time the book's launch to the release of the "Fast Food Nation" film, but the latter has been delayed until at least late summer or early fall. "The kids we're targeting probably won't be old enough to see [the movie]" anyway, said Megan Butler, a spokeswoman for publisher Houghton Mifflin Books for Children.
The marketing budget for "Chew on This" is huge: At $250,000, it's up to 50 times the typical figure for a nonfiction children's book. Yet that's small change compared to the money food and beverage marketers spend promoting just one product.
To fuel sales for the initial 75,000 first editions, also a large figure, Houghton-Mifflin has set a 10-city tour in major cities, including appearances at schools and book stores and on network TV morning shows. It also will run print advertising in The New York Times "Book Review" section, National Geographic for Kids, Mother Jones, trade and institutional publications and Web sites, as well as a 7,500-unit postcard run for distribution at author events, conferences and bookseller events.
Experts think "Chew on This" may resonate with kids. The target age for the book is one "where you can really have an important influence on them and they're old enough to be thinking more critically about all this and understanding the intentions of marketers and how things work in the world so they can make their own choices," said Kathryn C. Montgomery, professor of communication at American University. "It's also an age with a huge amount of marketing flooding every aspect of their lives."