YUM! TUCK INTO FOOD IN CHILDREN’S LITERATURE by Margo Sorenson
We can’t seem to open up a newspaper, watch news on TV, or search the Internet without seeing an article about food–restaurant openings, a smashing new technique to roast kale (really?), the “farm-to-table” mandate from “foodies,” or a diplomatic dinner held for heads of state. What some of us may forget, or, perhaps, don’t always notice, is the inextricable place that food has in children’s literature. Whether the sharing of a meal creates camaraderie among the characters on the page, allows the characters to reflect on heartfelt memories, or acts as a rich background setting for the plot, food plays an integral part in many children’s books.
Experts tell us that food is ritual, memory, warmth, and bonding, besides being a way to learn about other cultures. Dr. Lisa Heldke of Gustavus Adolphus College, author of EXOTIC APPETITES: RUMINATIONS OF A FOOD ADVENTURER, says she sees food as an opportunity to learn about other cultures, and observes that “Food is a wonderful vehicle for conversation to happen.” Anthropologist Dr. David Sutton, in “Food and the Senses,” writes eloquently of the longing evoked in people by the smells and tastes of a lost homeland, which provide them with a momentary return to a time when their lives were not disjointed. He is a firm believer in the power of sensory synthesis of food and says that synesthesia is a reminder of why food and the senses should be considered together. Where better a place for this to happen than in children’s literature?
In TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, Harper Lee writes warmly about many Southern dishes: grits, collard greens, black-eyed peas, and others shared by the characters that help young readers explore a different time and place, key to understanding the deeper themes in the story. To introduce my eighth graders to that classic novel, a crock pot of grits was simmering on my desk, complete with butter and brown sugar, if they so chose, and with their first tastes, these “Surf City” Southern California kids were instantly transported to Maycomb, Alabama, listening to “Down Home.” They were ready to read and shed their current geographic locale and era in history.
Food plays an important part in many picture books, as well. In Ame Dyckman’s picture book, TEA PARTY RULES, the setting of a tea party and the scent of cookies create a whimsical friendship, surprising young readers with its heartwarming ending. Pat Zietlow Miller’s heartwarming picture book SOPHIE’S SQUASH builds a story around what not to eat – Bernice, Sophie’s squash! Laura Numeroff’s IF YOU GIVE A MOUSE A COOKIE and her later books center on food in a playful manner, giving young readers a new perspective on their favorite treats.
In many of my own books, food plays a critical role. In ALOHA FOR CAROL ANN (Marimba/Just Us Books 2011), the Hawaiian food shared with her by Carol Ann’s new friends helps create new friendships and makes her feel wanted, despite her being the new kid in class. Our family’s ten years in Hawaii and the delectable island favorites like spam musubi and mango bread found their way into the story to bond the characters together, just as they bonded our family with our new friends. In SPAGHETTI SMILES (Pelican Publishing 2014), Jake needs to find a new neighbor for his Uncle Rocco’s Italian restaurant so it doesn’t have to close and they can still read books together, and all the townspeople as a community enjoy the delectable food and the crazy antics like bowling with mozzarella balls to knock over olive oil bottles. This story was sparked in part by my recalling with clarity the images stirred up of my childhood in Italy by the scent of fresh tomatoes on the vine and olive oil sizzling in the pan. Eleven-year-old Tori in TORI AND THE SLEIGH OF MIDNIGHT BLUE (North Dakota Institute of Regional Studies, NDSU ebook 2014) grumbles about rolling lefse, the traditional Norwegian flatbread, for Bjorn, her widowed mother’s new bachelor-farmer beau, because lefse is meant for family, rolled in conviviality, creating a strong sense of connectedness to tradition, and she doesn’t want Bjorn courting her widowed mother–nor any other unwelcome changes in her life. Our own family rolls lefse together every year, remembering funny family stories and sharing traditions of long-ago. In FUNNY MAN (Perfection Learning Corp 2002), Derrick works at an Italian restaurant to earn money for football camp and finds that his proclivity for being a smart-mouth actually can help bring in more customers because of his ability to make puns about Italian food, helping people laugh and enjoy their meals at the restaurant.
As readers, writers, and teachers of children’s literature, by paying attention to the sensory aspects of food, we can have a deeper understanding of our lives and experiences. Being mindful of food in children’s literature–its sensory elements and the bonding it creates–can enlarge both our horizons and children’s horizons as we live life more thoughtfully. As you read or write your next children’s book, savor and revel in the moments that food creates!
Margo Sorenson is the author of twenty-nine books for young readers. Her most recent picture book is SPAGHETTI SMILES (2014, Pelican Publishing). www.margosorenson.com