alexandra alger


Food in Kids’ Books

The MC in my new manuscript likes food. It’s not her defining characteristic or anything, but she lives in Brooklyn, New York’s foodie-est borough. You have to try really hard (or be a two-year-old) to avoid good food in Brooklyn.

Middle-grade characters known for a food they like or dislike: It’s a rare breed. There’s only one character who pops into my head immediately: the grumpy, quirky heroine of Harriet the Spy, who ate a tomato sandwich (white bread, mayo) for lunch every day. When I read Harriet back in the day, I was as revolted as author Louise Fitzhugh probably wanted me to be. Tomatoes were like lettuce to me: watery, tasteless. What was the point in eating them? There were no organic Heirloom tomatoes trucked in from upstate farms in the 1960s, when Harriet the Spy was first published, or in the ‘70s, when I was growing up.

Then there’s the poor giant in Roald Dahl’s The BFG, who subsists on snozzcumbers, probably the foulest vegetable (real or not) in children’s literature. Sophie the orphan can’t even swallow one bite. “‘It tastes of frogskins,’ she gasped. ‘And rotten fish!’ ‘Worse than that!’ cried the BFG…’To me it is tasting of clockroaches and slimewanglers!’” (I looked that up, in case you were thinking I had amazing recall.)

There may be others. Overall, though, I’d say that food has not been a big motif in kids’ books for the simple reason that it hasn’t been a big focus for kids. It can be a source of enjoyment (Yay, pizza!) or conflict (Mom insists you eat breakfast, but you’re late for the bus; a mean kid at school makes fun of your lunch). But traditionally—both in life and fiction—eating is something done in between activities; it’s not an activity in itself.

That’s changing a bit. Kids are way more sophisticated about food than they were even ten years ago. More and more, they have tastes that span the globe. They eat fish tacos and Bánh Mì pork sandwiches and sushi and Pad Thai. Last week, the Wall Street Journal published a story on the American child’s expansive palate. According to the Journal story, households with children under 18 are twice as likely as households without children to have eaten Korean, Indian, Thai, Hispanic or Caribbean in the last three months.

Have children actually become more adventurous eaters than their parents? That would be quite an extraordinary thing. If the Journal is onto a real trend, I’m guessing we’ll see increasing numbers of fictional characters with foodie sensibilities.

We’re already being introduced to a few characters who know their way around a kitchen. Gladys Gatsby, the protagonist of Tara Dairman’s Four Stars (2014), is a budding chef; Moses LoBeau, of Sheila Turnage’s Three Times Lucky (2012), steps in when needed to run the breakfast service at Miss Lana’s café (she comes up with a menu she can handle—“a full line of peanut butter entrées”). A kid chef with a TV show—that’s coming next. I’ll be looking for it.

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