Saturday, 21 April 2012

Food in children's books

can be a tricky subject. I blogged some time ago about the attempt to turn The Very Hungry Caterpillar into some sort of politically correct nonsense. Picture books are filled with things like birthday cakes and jam sandwiches - and why not? Small children do not usually want to read about the sort of food they often do not particularly like. Carrot? Peas? Spinach? Cauliflower? Broccoli?  Bread is fine and you might get away with cheese, especially if you are talking about mice. "Vegemite", the Australian equivalent of "Marmite" got a boost with the book "Possum Magic" by Mem Fox.  Sausages are usually welcome - especially if cooked outside by the children. Icecream is definitely on the list and, for some, yoghurt.
It really does not change much for older children. Enid Blyton's books mention food often. It is usually of the sausages and icecream and birthday cake variety although young Lucy-Ann in the "of Adventure" series has, if I remember correctly, a penchant for "tinned pineapple". When the books were written that probably was a particular treat.
Food can of course be used in evil ways. Edmund is seduced with Turkish Delight in "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" - enough to put me off Turkish Delight at the time. I still do not like it. He was a nasty child too.
But there are other references to food that are just as memorable and far more pleasurable. There is the reference in Cynthia Harnett's "The Woolpack" to the hot "griddle cakes" and burned tongues that had to be cooled with "ewes' milk". It is a homely scene and contrasts sharply with the life that the young hero, Nicholas, leads at home.
In "Pauline" by Margaret Storey there is a reference to "bread buns that Aunty Madge had made herself". They are eaten with blackcurrant jam you sense has also been made by this stay-at-home mother. In "The House in Hiding" the book opens with Ian and Sovra eating "marmalade tart" or rather, Ian is, Sovra has finished her piece and is impatient to get on with things. Nevertheless you once again sense that the tart is homemade, their background is secure. Things can happen because of it.
Harriet, in Noel Streatfeild's "White Boots" is given another piece of cake "with pink icing" although "she had really meant to have a biscuit with chocolate on it". By denying Harriet the biscuit her friend Lalla's Aunt Claudia is shown to impose her will on everyone simply by failing to inquire what Harriet would prefer.
John Owen in William Mayne's "A swarm in May" shares a second supper with two of his teachers in the school kitchen - omelette "like the prehistoric moon" (which sounds more like scrambled egg) and toast. It is an extraordinary scene in many ways, a glimpse into the close relationship between staff and students in a choir school - something that would not exist in a larger school.
The omelette that Geneva cooks in Anne Barrett's "Songberd's Grove" is an entirely different thing. It is a work of art. Martin has never seen anything like it. He is used to what might be described as the "good, plain cooking" of his mother and the tins and packets of his Aunt Emmeline. The omelette, in payment for the bread and cheese they have eaten but intended to replace, leads to help with the bullies but it also indicates that food can also be an art form.
And it is perhaps that we see in one of the most glorious descriptions of food in a children's book. In Elizabeth Goudge's book "The Little White Horse" Maria has invited a number of people to afternoon tea.
Far more people than she expects arrive but Marmaduke, who is - among other things - the cook, tells her she is not to worry. He is prepared. The list he gives her of the food he has prepared is enough to fill a busy tea shop twice over. It is magnificent. You just know that it has to be a case of living "happily ever after".

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