alexandra alger


Archive for the tag “Roald Dahl”

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.

Favorite Fictional Orphans

I’m creating a character who’s parentless, a modern-day orphan. Her role models aren’t actual, real orphans (I don’t know any of those, a fortunate thing) but the long line of memorable fictional ones.

As a child I always cleaved to the orphans. Not because they’re free of parental constraints–just the opposite! I got heart palpitations at the thought of complete freedom from parents (no doubt because my parents were insanely controlling). That’s why I had to keep reading. I had to make sure these poor orphans were going to be all right.

Who are my favorite orphans? I know I’m forgetting a few, but this is a good start. In no particular order:

James, James and the Giant Peach, by Roald Dahl (as if there is any doubt who authored this). I wanted to reach into the book and hug James—and then adopt him. Who could not root for James, whose parents die in a freakish accident and who is forced to live with his horrible (if deliciously horrible) aunts before having the most extraordinary adventure (practically) in all of children’s literature?

Anne, Anne of Green Gables, by L.M. Montgomery. I loved Anne’s hot temper, being a hot-tempered redhead myself (and not recognizing a tired cliche). I loved her soulfulness, and her way with words. Of course, Gilbert kept me reading, too. Lucy Maud was clever to give Anne such an appealing antagonist.

Mary, The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnet). I didn’t like Mary, or this book, for many years. Mary was such a sourpuss! In that heartless way of children, I refused to give her break for being an orphan and alone in a strange, nearly empty house (these English and the way they ignored children!). But she grew on me, especially when she straightened out her whiny, self-pitying cousin, Colin.

Silvia and Bonnie, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, by Joan Aiken. Bonnie isn’t an orphan at first, but for most of the book her parents are missing and presumed dead, so as far as I was concerned, this was the story of two plucky orphans. What these two have to endure! When Bonnie’s parents go on a long trip, they leave the girls in the hands of a cousin, who turns out to be an imposter, an evil woman who takes over the house and sends the girls to an orphanage. How are the girls to escape—and to where? I read breathlessly.

Bod, The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman. Bod, short for Nobody, is anything but. He’s the kind of boy a girl can’t help liking—the kind of boy who would try to figure out a way to provide a headstone for a witch who was both drowned and burned. He has all kinds of ograveyard skills, like Fading and Dreamwalking, and is clever enough to take down the man who killed his parents. Which reminds me of someone else….

Harry Potter, of course, the most famous orphan of all time (sorry, Oliver Twist and Huck Finn). He’s the only character on this list whose quest is rooted in the brutal murder of his parents. He learns more about his dead parents than most orphans do, and with knowledge comes pain and regret. James and Lily Potter may be the only fictional parents whose loss I actively mourned.

My character will come to mourn hers, but she’ll also find unexpected joy. I’m a sucker for a happy ending.

Post Navigation