Reviews 2010

Critical Approaches to Food in Children’s Literature

Critical Approaches to Food in Children’s Literature. Kara K. Keeling and Scott T. Pollard (eds.). New York and London: Routledge, 2009. 276 pages. $110 (hardback)

This is an excellent contribution to what has increasingly been called “food studies” – a discipline that for many might be viewed as curiously as “child studies.” Bring the two together and you have a wonderfully hybrid mix. Keeling and Pollard’s introduction is particularly impressive, showing that they have not just dabbled in this area (as one or two contributors seem to have done); they are thoroughly immersed in the anthropological, sociological and literary (let alone culinary) literature on the subject. And, over the course of sixteen chapters, there is a veritable feast of good things to digest. Some texts might be predictable (In the Night Kitchen, Where the Wild Things Are, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, The Tale of Peter Rabbit), but there are a great many less expected ones, and much that was new to me. Let me whet your appetites.

The book opens promisingly, but strangely, with Part II, “Reading as Cooking,” Part I having comprised the introduction. Jodie Slothower and Jan Susina write about “Literary Cookbooks,” which allow readers “to indirectly consume the book...a form of literary cannibalism in which you become what you eat” (36). Entertaining as this chapter is, it is – like Part I in fact – just a single chapter long, making us impatient for some main course to arrive.

Part III, though (“Girls, Mothers, Children”), turns out to be another entrée, this time of two chapters. Holly Blackford’s “Recipe for Reciprocity and Repression: The Politics of Cooking and Consumption in Girls’ Coming-of-Age Literature,” considers such texts as Laura Ingalls Wilder’s series, Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, Alcott’s Little Women, Burnett’s A Little Princess, but also less expected texts, such as Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Rosetti’s Goblin Market and Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate. She demonstrates how cooking can both acculturate girls, but can also be a marker of rebellion – as Jo March demonstrates. Lisa Rowe Fraustino, in “The Apple of her Eye,” looks more specifically at the role of the good mother, showing how closely she’s associated with providing sustenance in picture books. She astutely notes the parallel between sitting in a mother’s lap, being fed, and being read to, and notes that what the child digests in both instances tends to consolidate the dominant ideology, perhaps most overtly represented in Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree.

Part IV, “Food and the Body,” is tantalisingly one chapter longer, opening with Leona W. Fisher’s perceptive “Nancy Drew and the ‘F’ Word,” which examines “F” for Food in this series, noting that, before the 1990s, three square meals a day seemed the norm, such that, she calculates, the characters eat “between 4,000 and 6,000 calories a day, enough to sustain a professional athlete” (80). She wittily explores both this “F” and two others: “F” for “fat” and for “feminism,” noting the sense of female agency in the series. It was also rewarding for me to read that “In the 1940s wartime texts there is somewhat less mention of food, perhaps in deference to rationing” (79), which chimes with my own explorations of Blyton – though other commentators continue to imagine that there is more food during this period, precisely because of its actual lack.

Jacqueline M. Labbe writes about the moral dimensions of eating in such nineteenth-century children’s texts as Catherine Sinclair’s Holiday House, Rossetti’s Goblin Market and others. She examines how certain characters are seen as food, which demonstrates some form of corruption on their part and its attendant punishment (through consumption). Jean Webb takes this further, looking at how fatness becomes associated with negative character in children’s books about boys, moving from a discussion of “muscular Christianity” (where the lean and healthy look was the ideal) to its opposite, epitomised in Billy Bunter (though attributed to Charles Hunter, rather than Hamilton) and, later, in William Golding’s Piggy, from Lord of the Flies. This stereotype, as she notes, continues in more recent works, like Augustus Gloop in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Dudley Dursley in Rowling’s series. However, Webb also notes more recent changes, examining Catherine Forde’s Fat Boy Swim and Chris Crutcher’s Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes.

Part V, “Global/Multicultural/ Postcolonial Food,” is a solid five chapters long. Winnie Chan begins with an essay on Kipling’s “narratives of imperial boys,” whose main title, “The Eaters of Everything,” references the uncouth grey apes of The Jungle Books. As she argues, the imperialist project was backed up by strict rules on cuisine and etiquette, captured in Mrs Beeton likening “the mistress of the house” to “the commander of an army” (1861). Chan also quotes Jessie Conrad (Joseph Conrad’s wife), who wrote her own book on cookery, itself full of imperious prohibitions. Lan Dong then writes on Asian Americans and their food through two memoirs (one Chinese, one Japanese) in “Eating Different, Looking Different,” showing how foodstuffs and eating habits helped forge these children’s growing sense of identity.

Karen Hill McNamara’s “The Potato Eaters” forms quite a contrast, looking at representations of nineteenth century Irish Famine in children’s fiction. She mentions some startling statistics; for example, that the average man then consumed 70 potatoes a day, or over a million in 50 years. In 1845, Ireland’s population was 8 million; even now it is only 4 million, never having recovered from the famine and subsequent emigration (though 100 million people worldwide claim Irish ancestry). She shows that many modern books, even picture books, deal with the horrors of the Famine quite realistically, even drawing attention to the fact that there was food aid available; however, it never reached the starving – something that has clearly not changed much in the last 160 years!

Genny Ballard’s work shifts our focus to Latin American and Latino children’s literature, taking three picture books to explore how learning to cook is involved in girls’ development, and is a marker of power, of female solidarity. She explores these areas with sensitivity, avoiding clumsy wielding of patriarchal clubs. However, the extent to which these girls are simultaneously tied into positions of servitude (or not), could have done with more attention, I thought.

Richard Vernon moves us on to Brazil, showing how here, the work of one person, Monteiro Lobato, helped shape the critical edge of Brazilian children’s literature. Through his characters, Lobato “advocated independent thought, feminism, individual freedom mixed with national pride, and the scrutiny of cultural tradition” (182). This tradition continues with other writers, notably Ana Maria Bohrer, whose non-conformist work, “The Sugar-coated Girl” (A menina açucarada), provides the chapter’s focus. In contrast to the shift in English children’s literature, from the fairly reactionary works of its golden age to more edgy, critical works, Bohrer argues that Brazil, thanks to its founding father, has always had this more subversive tradition.

The final Part (VI), also five chapters long, has the rather clumsy title, “Through Food the/a Self.” It “looks at how food impacts [sic] various constructions and deconstructions of childhood identity and agency” (16). James Everett opens this section with “Oranges of Paradise,” noting the ambivalence of this fruit, which promises so much, “because the orange, as metonym, nicely encases the complex relationships among childhood and food and colonialism in Europe and its literature” (194). The orange shifts from being exotic, through increasing popularity, eventually reaching its “expiration date for its symbolic value” (ibid.). Everett then takes us through literary uses of the orange, starting with Maria Edgeworth’s “The Orange Man” (1796) and ending, beyond Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, at Patricia Polacco’s An Orange for Frankie (2004).

Elizabeth Gargano continues with “Trials of Taste,” which looks at “ideological ‘food fights’ in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time” (207). She brilliantly picks up on the centrality of food in this Cold War novel (1962), where L’Engle’s protagonists fight against a bland consumerist (and ultimately, communist) society bent on robbing them of their individuality. The new and handy “convenience food” is therefore particularly criticised for being against individual “taste.” Though not mentioned, M.T. Andereson’s Feed came to mind as an interesting text to juxtapose with this.

Robert M. Kachur examines Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, preferring to explain its immense popularity not in psychoanalytical terms (as others have done, seeing it as a regressive anal fantasy, or as an attempt by Dahl to reinstate the lost father), but in terms of biblical metanarrative – of paradise, the fall, and redemption – with the five Golden Tickets indicating the chosen few. In this reading, the Chocolate Room is Paradise, where the chosen ones can eat from anywhere except the chocolate river – a command that Augustus Gloop disobeys, resulting in the party’s banishment. In this reading, the Oompa-Loompas are Wonka’s angels. Charlie therefore becomes the Christ-like son, ascending at the end in the glass elevator. It’s a convincing reading, which also works well with the first film adaptation (1971), though less successfully in Tim Burton’s 2005 version.

Martha Satz examines Judi Barrett’s Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, arguing that it too suggests how we can reinvoke an Edenic state, where we are totally fulfilled and satiated. Like the fairy tale, Barrett’s picture book offers “comfort for loss of the primal state of ecstasy and for the problems of maturing and eventual death” (236). The grandfather, who represents impending death, shows how, through art and the imagination, this earlier state can be recreated.

In the book’s final essay, Annette Wannamaker looks at the use of food in Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants series, moving on her earlier discussion in Boys in Children’s Literature and Popular Culture (2007). This series of books is “consistently listed among the most challenged and censored … in the United States” (252) but, as she makes clear, the books depend upon children knowing the proper way to eat and speak in order for their disruptive humour to be effective. She also points out the books’ own status as capitalist artefacts to be consumed – and specifically, as books that celebrate a male-oriented universe – ending with this provocative statement: “Perhaps, when adults object to the Captain Underpants books, which depict conspicuous consumption as both pleasurable and subversive, it is because we are made aware of our own adult excesses” (254). It is a provocative essay but, as I’ve commented elsewhere, I wish that Wannamaker was aware of Rod McGillis’s work in this area (especially his essays, “Captain Underpants is my hero” [2002] and “Coprophilia for kids” [2003]).

All in all, this is an excellent collection, to be recommended in libraries everywhere (the cost puts it beyond most individuals, I fear). I have only two quibbles: the way the book has been sectioned, two parts being single chapters only; and the claim on the blurb that “This book is the first scholarly volume on the topic,” when Carolyn Daniel’s Voracious Children (to which the editors themselves allude) appeared in the same series just three years prior!

Works Cited

Daniel, Carolyn. Voracious Children: Who Eats Whom in Children’s Literature. New York and London: Routledge, 2006.

McGillis, Roderick. “‘Captain Underpants is my hero’: things have changed-or have they?” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 27.2 (2002): 62-70.

———–. “Coprophilia for kids: the culture of grossness.” Youth Cultures: Texts, Images and Identities. Ed. Kerry Mallan and Sharyn Pearce. Westport, CN and London: Praeger, 2003, 183-9.