The Carnivalesque in Children’s Literature

Children’s literature academic Maria Nikolajeva categorises children’s fiction into three general forms: prelapsarian, carnivalesque and postlapsarian.

This post deals with the second category: stories in which characters temporarily take over from figures of authority and often make mischief, but control their own worlds for a time. These stories don’t conform to classic dramatic structure, which is why some picture books in particular seem completely off-the-wall and immune to what we generally understand as ‘the rules of story’. Carnivalesque characters don’t go through any kind of character arc, there’s no big struggle (as such) and nobody learns anything. Just as comedy goes by a different structure, so too, does the carnivalesque picture book. The carnivalesque story has quite a bit in common with comedy structure — it can only ever be short (i.e. picture book length). There isn’t enough in it to sustain a full-length novel, say.

BASIC STRUCTURE OF A CARNIVALESQUE PICTURE BOOK

Jessie Wilcox Smith, 1908. Carnivalesque stories start in a place of boredom.
  1. An Every Child is at home. There are sometimes two children, a boy and a girl. There is often just one child, coded as slightly lonely and bored, in want of a fantasy playmate.
  2. The Every Child wishes to have fun. That’s why carnivalesque stories often start in a place of restriction or boredom.
  3. Appearance of an Ally in Fun. (The Cat in the Hat turns up.)
  4. Hierarchy is overturned. Fun ensues. The adults are no longer in charge! The normal rules don’t apply.
  5. Fun builds! Somehow the author must think of a way for the fun to get wackier and wackier.
  6. Peak Fun! The best carnivalesque stories are displays of imagination even beyond a child’s wildest dreams. The carnivalesque story takes the reader beyond what they can imagine themselves. The hardest part of writing a carnivalesque picture book is finding an original way to end it.
  7. Return to the Home state. Normal and safe hierarchy resumes, with adults in charge.

I have just described your typical carnivalesque picture book for preschoolers. However, full-length novels and films for older readers do contain elements of the carnivalesque, if not hewing closely to that picture book carnivalesque story structure. Any young adult story which ‘disturbs the universe’ is carnivalesque, sometimes very darkly.

Any story about a woman who overturns the restrictions of patriarchy is also carnivalesque witch stories, stories of pregnant women who ignore taboos around pica to eat what they like… These stories are also carnivalesque.

As you may have already deduced, the carnivalesque story is related to the tall tale, which gets wackier and wackier, and then wackier again.

Medieval Festival, by Fritz Baumgarten  (1883-1966)
Medieval Festival, by Fritz Baumgarten (1883-1966)

DEFINING CARNIVALESQUE

In a carnivalesque story, the lowest in societal hierarchy — in the medieval carnival a fool, in children’s books a child — is allowed to change places with the highest: a king, or an adult, and to become strong, rich, and brave, to perform heroic deeds, to have power.
[…]
The necessary condition of carnival is the reestablishment of the original order, that is, return to normal life. Carnival is always a temporary, transitional phenomenon—so is childhood. Like the carnivalesque fool, the child can temporarily, by means of magic or his own imagination, become strong, beautiful, wise, learn to fly, trick the adults, and win over enemies. The end of carnival means return to the everyday, but the purpose of carnival is not only entertainment, but a rehearsal of a future moral and psychological transformation.

Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time In Children’s Literature

To borrow ten dollar words: The ‘carnivalesque’ children’s story features a plot in which child characters interrogate the normal subject positions created for children within socially dominant ideological frames.

In simpler language: A child breaks free of the rules, has fun for a while, then returns home. The carnivalesque plot is basically a home-away-home plot, even if the child never literally leaves home e.g. The Tiger Who Came To Tea, or The Cat In The Hat, in which fun walks in the door. In the Dr Seuss example, it is the mother who returns home, but the children have nevertheless been on a journey (of the imagination). The Desire of the children in these stories is simply to have fun for a while. They often start in a state of boredom.

FUN AND ITS FLIP SIDE: A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE WORD

Although the carnival looks like unmitigated fun, it is socially sanctioned and controlled, originally by the church. (In case you need a word to describe flip side of this: ‘abject’, which describes the taboo and whatever should be repressed.)

Originally, carnivals were particular festivals with unique rituals that mirrored and inverted the essential elements of religious meaning.

“Christmas/Yuletide laughter” was a time people were permitted to laugh. At Easter it was known as “Paschal laughter”. This was originally a pastoral phenomenon, inextricably linked to a Christian phenomenon, designed by the church to cheer up the congregation. (A good word to use for rituals of this era is ‘Christianized’ — ‘adjusted to Christian beliefs’.) Paschal laughter was first mentioned in texts in the early 1500s. The priest would tell jokes from the alter to cheer everyone up. (Maybe this is related to April fool’s jokes.) At all other times people weren’t permitted to laugh in church. Laughter and ridicule were to a certain extent legalised and tolerated on other holidays as well. That’s why the rich body of parodic literature from the Middle Ages is connected to celebrations and holidays.

Carnival tales are best considered to have two sides. These tales celebrate the two most significant stages of human existence: birth and death. In stories for adults, the events of the story are seen as a rebirthing and a reaffirming process for the renewal of society. Think of a body in two different ways: One is to do with birthing and dying. The other is conceived, generated and born. Creation or destruction, one or the other at any given time.

In religious terms, one is seen as a vessel (a temporary state before salvation), the other is corporeal and organic. This is why churches focus on saving the soul. (This view of bodies has been historically terrible for women. Men also have bodily functions, but with women’s grotesque and confronting childbirth or regular bleeding, women’s bodies are a constant reminder that humans are corporeal, not magical.)

THE FIRST CARNIVALESQUE STORY

In the Hebraic tradition, it’s probably the Adam and Eve story: the ‘adult children’ prance about in an Arcadia, and do something they know they’re not supposed to do — eat an apple. They’re trying to discover where the boundaries lie.

John Milton seemed to like that story, too, with Paradise Lost — a poem about the ‘arch transgressor’ Satan. Milton was himself transgressive. He was anti-clerical, a radical heretic and a political revolutionary.

In Hellenic myth we have Prometheus and his transgressive bestowal of fire upon humanity.

In both the Hebraic and Hellenic traditions, the ‘birth of imagination’ came from an act of rebellion against the divine order of things. In Western culture, transgression and imagination are strongly linked.

THE CARNIVALESQUE AND SHAKESPEARE

Shakespeare is just one example of a storyteller who has played with the carnivalesque. For instance, all the spells and enchantments in William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream create a carnivalesque atmosphere for the lovers in which the normal rules of life just don’t apply.

THE FOUR TYPES OF CARNIVALESQUE

Mikhail Bakhtin was a Russian critic and philosopher. Bakhtin’s ideas are an evolution of the work of Francois Rabelais. For Bakhtin, the carnivalesque concerns everything that middle-class people with good manners don’t talk about, the lower part of the body, farts, pigs, untidy and unclean environments and anything which reminds us that humans are just another type of animal.

Mikhail Bakhtin’s four categories of the carnivalesque world:

  1. Familiar and free interaction between people: Unlikely people are brought together. They interact and express themselves freely.
  2. Eccentric behaviour: Unacceptable behaviour is welcomed and accepted. A character’s natural behaviour can be revealed without the consequences. (The idea that there’s a wild inner person behind a thin veneer is a Freudian way of looking at psychology.)
  3. Carnivalistic misalliances: Everything that may normally be separated reunites. Heaven and Hell, the young and the old, the powerful and the low-status, the rich and the poor, humans and animals etc.
  4. Sacrilegious: Carnival allows for sacrilegious events to occur without punishment. These plots are creative theatrical expressions of manifested life experiences in the form of sensual ritualistic performances.

CARNIVALESQUE TALES FOR CHILDREN

Though Mikhail Bakhtin had four categories, John Stephens divides carnivalesque texts for children into three main types:

  1. Those which offer the characters ‘time out’ from the habitual constraints of society but incorporate a safe return to social normality (of which Where The Wild Things Are is one such example). Adults tend to be not present to intervene.
  2. Those which strive through simple mockery to dismantle socially received ideas and replace them with their opposite, privileging shortcoming over strength (Babette Cole’s Prince Cinders, Anthony Browne’s Willy The Wimp, Fungus the Bogeyman by Raymond Briggs)
  3. Those which are more recent, and perhaps British in origin, consist of books which are endemically subversive of such things as social authority, received paradigms of behaviour and morality, and major literary genres associated with children’s literature (Out Of The Oven by Jan Mark and Anthony Maitland, Wagstaffe the Wind-up Boy by Jan Needle).

Carolyn Daniel, in Voracious Children, explains that texts that transgress adult food rules generally fall into either the first or third of these types. For more on the importance of feasting in children’s literature, see Sex Equals Food In Children’s Literature.

It’s all related to this concept of carnival, which points earthwards rather than heavenwards. Eating and other bodily functions are to do with Bakhtin’s “material lower body stratum”.

CORPOREAL DISCOMFORT

Gross-out books are also a subcategory of carnivalesque tales, focusing on bodily functions. During childhood we learn to come to terms with how the body works, which parts are private. (There is still a dearth of literature which affords the same level of comfort with menstruation compared to the other bodily functions. That said, I wouldn’t like the ‘gross out’ treatment for menstruation, because of a long history of taboo and disgust around women’s body.)

Series such as Diary of a Wimpy Kid are not gross-out books per se, though characters like Fregley seem to revel in it. There are regular scenes in which Greg Heffley is disgusted by the human body, for instance when he visits the local pool. He is of course terrified of impending puberty.

The PhD thesis by B.F. Haynes (2009): Elements of Carnival and the Carnivalesque in Contemporary Australian Children’s Literature. The work of Paul Jennings and Andy Griffiths comes up again and again. These two authors have ‘focalised the role of bodily functioning as narrative device’.

The time for gross-out books is limited to a very narrow window of childhood (and some kids never enjoy them at all). What does this turn into? Well, discomfort with living in a body doesn’t disappear. In young adult literature it simply takes a different form.

The Bakhtinian concept of the medieval grotesque — a dark focus on the corporeal — combines easily with the carnivalesque in adolescent literature because of adolescents’ extreme anxieties about their physical bodies.

Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe

As stand-out examples, Trites offers the works of:

  • Judy Blume
  • M.E. Kerr
  • Hadley Irwin
  • Richard Peck

Each of these authors ‘could be read as jesters parodying the adolescent body.’

FEATURES OF CARNIVALESQUE CHILDREN’S LITERATURE

  • is playful
  • is non-conforming
  • opposes authoritarianism and seriousness
  • is often manifested as a parody of prevailing literary forms and genres often has idiomatic discourse
  • is often rich in language which mocks authority, even though swearing is taboo in children’s literature (for example Dahl’s use of ‘pulled a pistol from her knickers’)
  • often stars a hero who is a bit of a clown or a fool

Maria Tatar has pointed out that children’s characters often begin from a place of boredom:

Look closely at children’s books and you will find that the heroic child often begins as a bored child, a child faced with the challenges of coping with the tedium of everyday life. … Oddly, the bored literary child often touches magic by falling asleep and dreaming about places like Oz, Wonderland, or Neverland. In real life, relief comes in the form of a setting rather than sleep.

Maria Tatar, Enchanted Hunters

Which — again — goes against much advice to writers — to create go-getter characters who want something specific and then go for it. Carnivalesque characters are different. They are generally just a stand-in viewpoint character for the child reader, with no real distinguishing characteristics of their own except for a fun body type (an animal in clothes, a rogue pet etc). These children have no more distinguishing characteristics than your average picturebook moose.

However, carnivlesque main characters can also have highly individuated characterisation. It depends on what the storyteller wants the book to be. Is it a story about pure fun (less individuated) or is it a story in which the character learns something (more individuated, starting out with shortcomings).

COMMON CARNIVALESQUE CHARACTER ARCHETYPES

The fool is a useful character in a carnivalesque tale.

  • The fool is most often gendered male.
  • The fool is free to speak the truth as he sees it but in turn usually reflects those believes of the society he mocks.
  • In the upside-down setting of the carnivalesque, the fool provides the opposition to established order.
  • The fool provides laughter for everyone. Laughter negates authority. Bakhtin said that the fool ‘speaks the laughing truth’. (You can probably think of real life examples of people with large platforms, who alternate between ‘speaking the truth’ and also saying outlandish things.)
  • The fool’s message might be farce, satire or parody.
  • As you can see, the fool is rarely made of pure stupid. This character is almost mandatory in any successful comedy. Seinfeld’s Kramer is alternatively naive and also lives outside mainstream society and is therefore able to see some of its absurdity, revelling in fun inside his own apartment by setting up a wonderland replete with spa pool and so on, focusing heavily on his stomach (food). In SpongeBob Squarepants, Patrick is alternately flat out wrong about basic truths but as the story requires he is able to point out a lot of truths to SpongeBob, who is a different kind of naive. In Kath and Kim, Kath quite often has a handle on the real situation and is able to give pretty good advice to the younger women in the show, namely Sharon and Kim.
  • Bakhtin has broken the particular stupidities of the fool down into further subcategories:

Of course, every fool needs his ‘straight man’, so the King archetype is equally necessary in carnival. Another take on the King archetype is the Lord or Abbot of Misrule — the leader of youth groups who were important in organising processions, competitions etc.

Misrule doesn’t have to be a ‘fool’ — jesters and clowns are related archetypes.

CARNIVALESQUE OBJECTS

Carnivalesque characters are often given props with which to have fun. In Where The Wild Things Are, the saucepan becomes a crown, which highlights the absurdity of the props of hierarchy. Speaking of Max…

WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE

carnivalesque wild things

Where The Wild Things Are is [the first kind of carnivalesque text in three important ways: Max’s behaviour is oppositional to normal socializing expectations; the ‘wild things’ in the illustrations are grotesques, and thus in essence parodies of the natural creatures usually encountered during a wilderness adventure; and the book clearly belongs to the ‘time out’ group, in that Max’s adventure is formally a parenthesis in his relationship with his mother. Roger H. Ford (1979) has suggested that the main characters in several of Sendak’s books are modelled on the folk-tale Trickster figure, dominated by selfish appetites and emotions, given to practical jokes, capable of heroism and generally unselfconscious. Max’s entry into the land of the wild things, whether we regard it as a dream or an act of the imagination, enables him to enjoy a time of unconcerned spontaneity free of the social constraints which define his behaviours in the world as ‘mischief’. Max’s attempt to construct a site for fantasy play in the opening illustration involves causing damage to property, as is foregrounded by the grossly oversized hammer with which he attempts to drive a huge nail into the wall. His second act of mischief is to attack the family dog with a kitchen fork, an actual breach of proper conduct going beyond the quasi-‘hanging’ of his teddy bear included in the first illustration. Max, then, still deeply immersed in the solipsism of childhood, has not yet learnt the first principle of freedom—that freedom of action is bounded by the rights of others. Carnivalesque texts, by breaching those boundaries, explore where they properly lie and the ideological bases for their determination, but without always necessarily redrawing those boundaries…The grotesque in this book is comic and droll rather than frightening, though this was not always perceived when the book was first published. …By giving comically grotesque forms to inner fears, the illustrations image the defeat of that fear. Moreover, Max is always in control. Swanton (1971) offers this as one reason why children do not find the book frightening.

Language and Ideology in Children’s Fiction by John Stephens

John Stephens explains that the carnivalesque story is used not to question the values of the official world (that children being rude to their mothers needs to go punished before they are allowed to eat dinner), but to ‘define the values which may be at most implicit in some of the puzzling actions performed by those in power. In this respect, it is important to see that Max’s return and his mother’s gift of ‘supper’ are not causally linked but contiguous, since each is unconditional.’ Other authors of the era were writing quite different stories re parent/child power. For example, E. Nesbit. Stephens points out that modern books are not necessarily any better than Nesbit’s were, in that regard.

PIPPI LONGSTOCKING

Pippi Longstocking, Swedish favourite, is the ultimate carnivalesque character, and a rare female example. Ramona Quimby, Junie B. Jones and various new female stars of chapter books and middle grade are filling a bit of a hole there, but I have heard literary agents lament that they have all but disappeared by the time the reader advances to young adult literature. If carnivalesque female characters exist, they tend to be the main character’s best friend.

Pippi Longstocking, Swedish favourite, is the ultimate carnivalesque character.
Pippi Longstocking, Swedish favourite, is the ultimate carnivalesque character.

CURIOUS GEORGE

You’ll notice in the picture below, carnivalesque children’s characters are often depicted in mid-air, mid-mischief. By the way, the inverse of a carnivalesque character is the underdog. Readers also love underdog characters, so long as they break free of that status.

Flying is a carnivalesque (fun) thing to do.

The Symbolism Of Flight In Children’s Literature

THE CAT IN THE HAT BY DR SEUSS

The O.G. of carnivalesque picture book characters.

In The Cat In The Hat, Theodore Geisel (Dr Seuss) slyly revealed that discipline and anarchy live on opposite sides of the same street. (Cheersome fact for writers: Though fun to read, it took a year and a half of struggle for Geisel to write.)

The Cat In The Hat is the ultimate carnivalesque character
The cat grins at the reader in complicity. Let’s have fun together!

PETER PAN AND WENDY

The Darling Children, like their more anxious counterparts in The Cat In The Hat, move from the orderly routines of a space ruled by their mother to rowdy antics and alluring adventures in a setting that bears a distinct resemblance to the way we imagine the mind of a child.

BUGS BUNNY

The stand-out carnivalesque character from retro cartoon world would be Bugs Bunny, who is all about fun and over-turning whatever social hierarchy is in place.

Bugs Bunny ultimate carnivalesque character
What’s he poking fun at? Authority, no doubt.

NOT ALL CARNIVALESQUE IS FUN

Now I’ve given you all those examples of laughing, prancing characters, remember what I said above about the dark flip side of carnival.

The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier is not a fun novel. Yet we use this story as a young adult literature example of the carnivalesque. When the main character decides not to sell chocolates, he is rebelling against the authority of an institution. This ultimately leads to his downfall. Perhaps a good way of summing up the carnivalesque is simply ‘disturbing the universe’.

Henri-Julien-Félix Rousseau, Carnival Evening, 1886
Henri-Julien-Félix Rousseau, Carnival Evening, 1886

In fact, the carnival is a way for people — including children — to come to grips with scary things.

Children are frequently involved as subjects and players [in carnivals], and not only during Halloween. Guaranteeing their survival is a central part of the story, and different festivities face up to dangers that can assail from any number of directions—sickness, animal predators, witchcraft, devils, cannibals, ogres, succubi, fire and flood and famine. The magical attempt to secure safety takes two predominant forms: either the participants impersonate the danger itself, as in the carnival masks and fancy dress of Halloween, and thus, cannibal-like, absorb its powers and deflect is ability to inflict harm; or they expose themselves and by surviving the ordeal, prove their invulnerability.

Marina Warner, No Go the Bogeyman

Mothers In Children’s Literature

Mothers are either held up as paragons of selflessness, or they’re discounted and parodied. We often don’t see them in all their complexity.

Novelist Edan Lepucki contemplates motherhood

The only time you truly become an adult is when you finally forgive your parents for being just as flawed as everyone else.

Douglas Kennedy

It is partly a children’s book convention that you write from the kids’ point of view, so you cannot be entirely fair to the parents as well. If you are going to write about children of twelve and thirteen who have totally understanding and marvellous parents, there’ll be nothing to write about.

Gillian Rubenstein
Early Peter Pan cover. Peter Pan considers mothers very overrated.

The subject of mothers is apparently very sensitive for Peter [Pan]: “Not only had he no mother, but he had not the slightest desire to have one. He thought them very over-rated persons”. This is rather a puzzling statement, since Peter’s desire is to have Wendy as his mother. But the desire is extremely ambivalent, and the Lost Boys can only speak of mothers in Peter’s absence, “the subject being forbidden by him as silly”. “Now, if Peter had ever quite had a mother, he no longer missed her. He could do very well without one. He had thought them out, and remembered only their bad points.” We know that Peter ran away the day he was born, because he heard his parents talk about what he was to be when he became a man, which was not his intention: “I don’t want ever to be a man…I want always to be a little boy and have fun”.

From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature by Maria Nikolajeva

Frances Spufford writes that characters in fairytales are symbols.

A character in a story exists in particular before it exists in general. A wicked stepmother is a woman before she is a symbol of what a child might fear in motherhood. The story of Snow White therefore says things about gender, and the encounters of daughter, stepmother, father and lover, before it can become a picture of a psychological process.

The Child That Books Built

The following notes draw heavily from the Kid You Not Podcast, Episode 11

The mother in children’s literature is generally ambivalent and ambiguous.

Mothers are all slightly insane.

J.D. Salinger

SANCTIFIED MOTHERS AND EVIL STEP-MOTHERS

The idea of motherhood in Harry Potter and the Other Mother of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline represent two very different but very typical representations of the mother in kidlit. In HP, the concept of the mother is sanctified; the mother died to save Harry’s life. She leaves lingering protection in his veins so that evil characters cannot touch him.

Gaiman’s mother in Coraline is a reworking of a fairytale mother: Stepmothers are used to displace the child’s anxieties and unpleasant feelings for the mother. It’s less threatening for a child to be crossed or abandoned by a step-mother than by a birth mother. Bad mothers tend not to be biological mothers, at least on a surface reading of them.

In young adult literature in the 1940s and 1950s through to the 1960s, parents were assumed to be always right. John Rowe Townsend writes in Written For Children:

In The World of Ellen March, by Jeanette Eyerly (1964) […] a teenage girl, knocked off balance by her parents’ impending divorce, concocts a childish plan to reunite them by kidnapping her little sister. The plan misfires, of course; Ellen is reprimanded by Father for foolish, irresponsible behaviour and realizes that she must “grow wiser, or wise enough to order her own life properly rather than try to make over the lives of her parents.” In other words, the burden of adjustment is on her, and she is at fault for not having the maturity and stability to deal with the situation her parents have placed her in.

John Rowe Townsend
ellen march

But by the end of the 1960s it was no longer assumed in children’s literature that parents are always right.

In John Donovan’s I’ll Get There, It Better Be Worth The Trip (1969), the hero’s mother is a heavy drinker; his father has remarried, and “when we see each other everything has to be arranged.” Davy’s love goes to his dog and the male friend he’s made at school. In The Dream Watcher, by Barbara Wersba (1968), the hero’s parents are living together, but the father is a pathetic death-of-a-salesman figure and the mother is a dissatisfied, self-indulgent woman who has destroyed her husband and could easily destroy her son.

Written For Children, John Rowe Townsend

But Rowe Townsend writes that the most despicable parents of all in YA are the parents in the books by Paul Zindel. Zindel’s characters tend to be all the same across his work — the teenagers were similar and the parents were all awful.

In the eighties, parental iniquity was no longer a major theme. None the less, parents had been toppled from their former pedestal, and there was no way of putting them back.

Written For Children, John Rowe Townsend
Illustration by Martha Sawyers, for the book "Eighth Moon" mother daughter
Illustration by Martha Sawyers, for the book “Eighth Moon” mother daughter

What Makes For A Good Mother?

The bar for good mothers — in fiction as in life — is high. At least, for human ones.

That cat had six letters, and each litter had five kittens, and she killed the first-born kitten in each litter, because she had such pain with it. Apart from this, she was a good mother.

Doris Lessing, Particularly Cats

This observation is far from new, but we’re far more forgiving of animal mothers than of human mothers. What has only recently begun to be talked about is that we are also far more forgiving of human fathers, in part because the job of fathering is so new — it was not so very long ago that ‘to father’ meant to provide the sperm and to provide, offering mentorship as sons grew older. I’m sure there have always been outstandingly paternal examples, but it’s the cultural idea of Fatherhood that I’m talking about.

Marieke Hardy sums it up when describing her own mother:

She was — and remains — a very good mother; open to any and every discussion, and a proponent of creative, generous living at all times. Though she’s never been one of those women described as ‘born to parent’. There’s an expectation that these delightful nurturing instincts set certain females apart from their sisters, draw a line in the sand of compassion that may rarely be crossed. A propensity for tea parties, a ‘way’ with dolls, tending to a scabbed-up knee with concerned frowns: these are the character traits of a very pleasant somebody born to make babies. Those failing to similarly measure up are spoken of in mean-spirited, disparaging terms. ‘She’s not very motherly, is she?’ remains, as a character appraisal, on a par with ‘She takes a while to warm up’ and ‘I just think she really enjoys the music of Jack Johnson.’ Display an iota of awkwardness when playing with a child and you are dismissed, pitied, slotted into the stiff-backed category of Cruella de Vils or wicked stepmother types who would rather skin puppies than do anything so maladroit as nappy changing.

You’ll Miss Me When I’m Dead

THE FAIRY GODMOTHER

This is the ‘white’ side of the mother — the side who is protective, generous, devoted and gentle.

Fairy Godmother

MOTHERS AND PICTUREBOOKS

Desire for the mother is at the heart of much of the literature of childhood, particularly in books for young children. [Picturebooks] evoke the body of the mother and early states of desire.

Roni Natov

The modern world manifests an overwhelming human yearning for wholeness, oneness or integrity, a yearning apparent in oral appetites, sexual desire, religious fervour, physical hunger, “back to the womb” impulses [and] death wishes.

Sarah Sceats

It’s striking to see that the mother in old comics — especially French and Belgian ones — will be a part of the domestic space, but not acknowledged in the language of the text. In these stories the mother is a chattel. In many picture books this is also the case. This normalises traditional motherly roles. The reason she is in the background is because she provides the comfort and security, almost metonymous for the home (much as a kitchen can be), and therefore important in the home-away-home pattern. The more discreet her presence, the more ideological the idea that mothers belong in the home.


THE ABSENT MOTHER AND THE STRANGELY PRESENT MOTHER

This fairytale split is replicated even in very modern stories, including Harry Potter. There is another thing to do with parents: Get rid of them completely. Pippi Longstocking could not have had her adventures with the interference of parents, and neither could most of Enid Blyton’s characters. Pippi does have a father and in one book he features as King of the Cannibals. But she couldn’t have a typical mother. The mother is generally the more anxious, controlling side of the parents, with the father being more distant. Mrs Darling in Peter Pan is far more worried than Mr Darling about what is happening to the children. But adventures can more readily happen with the father present in the background.

Counting by 7s
Twelve-year-old genius and outsider Willow Chance must figure out how to connect with other people and find a surrogate family for herself after her parents are killed in a car accident.

We still view motherhood as mandatory and fatherhood as voluntary.

Levin, co-founder of The Parents Village

Linguists have noticed that when turned into verbs, ‘to mother’ means something very different from ‘to father’.

THE DEAD MOTHER

Death is another kind of absence. This time, the mother is not absent because she’s not worth mentioning but rather the direct opposite: The dead mother is the ultimate absence that is a presence. In most books this is the case, and definitely in the Harry Potter books. The parents may as well be alive.

Jacqueline Wilson provides plenty of examples of absent mothers, e.g. Double Act.

Mimi by John Newman is another example. The mother’s absence is the epicenter of the whole story. The father is there in body but doesn’t step in to fill the domestic gap, until other mothers turn up and force him into the role of parent.

In Neil Gaiman’s Fortunately, The Milk, the working mother is required to leave the family home at the beginning of the story because she needs to attend a conference. She fills the freezer with meals and tells the father to remember to stock up on milk, as that’s the only thing she hasn’t been able to micromanage before she leaves. Once she is gone, the children run out of milk, presumably because the father is useless. However, the father redeems himself because while he is out buying milk he has a remarkable adventure. This story relies on the stereotypes that working mothers are hyper-organised and men with working mothers for wives hide behind their newspapers and let her pick up the slack at home. It is yet another story in which the mother must be disappeared before the father can have some real, carnivalesque fun with his own children.


WHY ALL THE DEAD MUMS?

There’s something inconceivable about losing your mother, yet it’s all over children’s literature. Death of mothers in fairytales made sense; it was prudent to prepare children for death because it happened so frequently, but now the number of dead mothers in children’s stories is disproportionate.

See also: Why all the orphans in children’s literature?


THE RULE THAT MOTHERS MUST LOVE THEIR CHILDREN

Drugs, alcohol, sex: These plots are all plentiful in YA fiction, but mothers who do not love their children? This may be the last taboo. Children often hate their mothers, but not the other way around.

The Illustrated Mum, also by Jacqueline Wilson, is another book about an absent mum but only because she doesn’t come home to sleep at night. This is a source of intense anxiety for the narrator. The mother lives with bipolar disorder. This is one of the most powerful of Wilson’s books. The children take it upon themselves to look after the mother. It plays on so many anxieties you have as a child. The mother doesn’t take care of the children and is unpredictable. She can be compared to the fairytale type of mother in Coraline. But ultimately, the mother in The Illustrated Mum does love her children. This is important: No matter how hopeless/useless/hated the mother in children’s literature, she pretty much always loves her children. The Tracy Beaker series (also by Jacqueline Wilson) also features a mother with mental illness.

In Tallahassee Higgins by Mary Downing Hahn, the mother leaves the little girl in the care of someone, leaves again, comes back and so on. There’s always the presumption that there is something wrong with the mother’s mind, rather than that she is a bad person. She is simply dysfunctional as a person. Tracy Beaker is slightly different in that you never see the mother. Tracy’s mother doesn’t do anything awful; she is simply not there.

A good example of an outright evil person who is also a mother is Mrs Coulter in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. It is revealed quite early in the series that her mother is a distant/cold/unpredictable person. She is evil, a child killer, a bit of a witch. But gradually in the third book there is a Sleeping Beauty type of twist in which she starts taking an interest in her daughter. She does love her child, rescuing Lyra from the guillotine. In the end she does sacrifice her own life to save her child. Again, a very bad person still turns out to be a good mother.

Mrs Coulter has something in common with the Other Mother in Neil Gaiman’s Coraline — both are Stepford wife tropes who have literal robotic elements. In Coraline the mother is gradually revealed as being a metallic, robotic insect on the inside. Lyra kisses Mrs Coulter on the cheek and her lips taste metallic afterwards. Later when Mrs Coulter gets angry at the journalist she emits the smell of burning metal.

Another truly bad mother is the mum in A Solitary Blue by Cynthia Voigt (1983). This is the tale of four children abandoned by their selfish mother in a carpark. But again, the mother does love her children. She simply can’t look after them. The main character Geoff deifies his mother in her absence. The story ends with Geoff accepting that she is who she is and he decides to have nothing to do with her. His relationship with his mother can be read as almost inappropriately sexual. As in The Illustrated Mum and Northern Lights, the mother is considered beautiful and glamorous.

Another rare example of a mother who leaves her son can be found in the film Lean On Pete.


THE TROPE OF WAITING FOR AN ABSENT MOTHER

Bambi is a classic example of this: Bambi waits for his mother but she never comes back. Instead, his father turns up.

See also the Missing Mom trope at TV Tropes


TYPES OF MOTHERLY SACRIFICE

First is the literal sacrifice of the mother’s own life, more common in fantasy than in realistic fiction.

Then there is symbolic sacrifice in which the mother sacrifices her life as an independent woman. There’s an interesting genesis to this. If we consider the young female characters who give birth during their teenage years in the course of YA stories, the young mothers, upon popping out babies, tend to suddenly develop this overwhelming maternal instinct. Twilight is a good example of this. Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman is the same. All the young mothers normalise the maternal instinct. Melvin Burgess’s Junk goes even further in this regard. The baby offers a redemption from the lies she has been living. She realises she has to get out of prostitution and living on the street. Pregnancy is now a salvation. This is a strong statement about the maternal instinct.

See the following papers:

From Basketball To Barney: Teen fatherhood, didacticism, and the literary in YA fiction by Helen Bittel, which is about the popular subgenre of YA — the teen pregnancy and parenting novel.

Stories of Teen Mothers: Fiction and non-fiction by Cynthia Miller-Coffel

The sacrificing mother is related to the ‘smothing mother’, often represented in children’s fiction by children who are overfed/overweight. This mother has no fulfilment of her own — she lives for and through her children.

Augustus Gloop from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Augustus Gloop from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

In the book, Dahl blames the mother for failing to curb Gloop’s appetite: ‘And what I always say is, he wouldn’t go on eating like he does unless he needed nourishment, would he? It’s all vitamins, anyway.’

Dudley Dursley from Harry Potter
Dudley Dursley from Harry Potter

Mrs Dursley’s overbearing, infantalising love is the counterpoint to Harry’s complete lack of motherly love.


TABOO TOPICS EVEN TODAY

Abortion is rarely postulated in young adult literature. But here is a Goodreads list of young adult books in which a character actually goes through with an abortion (rather than simply considers it).

As for breastfeeding, given how it is to be encouraged, and how much of it is presumably going on in homes, there is remarkably little of it going on in Western picturebooks. In films for kids out of Hollywood, it is actually taboo. This is what makes the breastfeeding scene in Wolf Children quite transgressive to a Western audience. At one point we even see the areola. I have not once seen that in a picture book for Western children.

Wolf-Children-Breastfeeding
from Wolf Children, the movie

MOTHERS AND FOOD

Food, especially sweet, rich food, often metaphorically represents the body of the mother in popular culture and that the desire for such food includes a subconscious yearning for the restoration of the primal relationship with her.

Carolyn Daniel, Voracious Children

If you read carefully, you’ll notice that a lot of stories feature male protagonists with nurturing mothers who provide food. Note that in Where The Wild Things Are, for instance, Max returns to his room and there is a meal waiting. (Note that it’s still hot.)

You can find an example of a mother giving maternal comfort to a girl in Phillip Pullman’s Northern Lights, when Ma Costa folds her great arms around Lyra and presses her to her breast. Generally, though, girls in children’s literature don’t derive quite the same amount of comfort from motherly types as boys. Carolyn Daniel speculates:

  1. Maybe girls aren’t thought to need mothers so much as boys do
  2. Maybe because girls are thought to become mothers themselves one day they’ll again be able to experience the mother-child relationship (albeit from the opposite side).

I’m going to add that there’s probably some weird homophobic stuff going on there, too. And also the female maturity principle.

It probably goes without saying, but the breast stands in metonymically for the mother.

Good mother = food/love/comfort

Bad mother = lack of food/lack of love/lack of comfort

Mothers in stories use food as a means of power exchange. Good mothers provide eaters with sustenance/power/energy. In exchange, good mothers are content with the emotional satisfaction she receives from providing the food. (And never complains about having to cook it all.) But the smothering mother provides food that poisons the eaters. She drains them of vitality/power/subjectivity. Instead of feeding, she absorbs this energy from the child. An example of that is the mother figure (actually the aunt) in Tom’s Midnight Garden, who is a great cook but provides Tom with far too much rich food. He feels imprisoned inside their small house, in quarantine because of measles, and doesn’t appreciate the food.

RELATED

An article about the transformation of the mother in American-Mexican lit by Megan Parry

Roles Of Mothers In Disney Media from Wikipedia

Which Disney Mom Are You Most Like? one of those stupid quizzes, from Poptastic

10 Best Bad Mothers In Literature (for adults) from The Telegraph

A list of Parent Tropes at TV Tropes

It’s Not All about Snow White: The Evil Queen Isn’t that Monstrous After All a paper by Cristina Santos

TOP TEN WORST PARENTS IN TWEEN LIT BY AMY ESTERSOHN

13 Reasons Why Clay’s Mother Is The Fucking Worst from BuzzFeed. I agree, even as a mother myself, that Clay’s mother as depicted by the Netflix show was excruciating.

11 of the Best Moms in Children’s Literature from Brightly

mothers are that way

Food And Sex In Children’s Literature

Carl Larsson banquet

Food plays an important role in children’s literature, and is one difference between mainstream literature and literature for children. Food means all sorts of things throughout literature — sometimes it symbolizes good, other times evil.

Harriet The Spy Food quotation

Why All The Food in Children’s Literature?

The feasting fantasy in children’s literature is a particularly good vehicle for carrying culture’s socializing messages: it acts to seduce readers; through mimesis it “naturalizes” the lesson being taught; and, through the visceral pleasures (sometimes even jouissance) it produces, it “sweetens” the discourse and encourages unreflexive acceptance of the moral thus delivered. Hence, while ostensibly pandering to hedonism, a feasting fantasy frequently acts didactically. 

Voracious Children: Who eats who in children’s literature? by Carolyn Daniel
Bunyip Bluegum Without food everything is less than nothing

Here are a few things to bear in mind when you come across food in literature:

  1. All food in literature is symbolic, since made up people don’t actually need to eat anything.
  2. In Western philosophical thought (e.g. Freud), everything inside/edible is aligned with the self and is good. Everything outside/inedible is aligned with the other and is bad.
  3. Inside/self = mind/reason, outside/inedible = body/passion. This also leads to a whole nother discussion about phalluses that I’d rather erase from the history of Western thought, thanks. (It pits the masculine against the feminine in a way that supports an unhelpful gender binary. Also, femininity = thinness = mind over matter.)
  4. The ultimate ‘bad eater’ is the cannibal = the antithesis of humanity.
  5. Food is obviously culturally specific. Bear in mind that in the West, our list of acceptable proteins is quite narrow. A lot of this comes from the food rules as described in Leviticus. (Sheep, pigs, cattle, chickens = OK. Pretty much everything else = NOT OK.) In Jewish culture, no pigs either. Hindus, no beef.
  6. Some animals are accorded a sort of interim status similar to humans. In kidlit, dogs.
  7. Food fantasies were especially prevalent in England during the Victorian era (due to underfeeding of children) and during the world wars (due to rationing).
  8. Relatively expensive ice cream and chocolate products tend to be marketed at adult women whereas cheap sugary products are marketed at children, but in literature, children get to eat the expensive ones.

Some classic and well-known children’s books are famous for their celebration and proliferation of food and mealtimes:

The Wind In The Willows

Wind In The Willows food picnic illustration by Michael Hague
Illustration by Michael Hague
Many stories of Enid Blyton, such as the Famous Five Adventures and the Faraway Tree trilogy

“Soon they were all sitting on the rocky ledge, which was still warm, watching the sun go down into the lake. It was the most beautiful evening, with the lake as blue as a cornflower and the sky flecked with rosy clouds. They held their hard-boiled eggs in one hand and a piece of bread and butter in the other, munching happily. There was a dish of salt for everyone to dip their eggs into.

‘I don’t know why, but the meals we have on picnics always taste so much nicer than the ones we have indoors,’ said George.”

Enid Blyton, Five Go Off in a Caravan

The symbolic meaning of food which we see in Arcadia children’s books is present in travel instructions too. It has been noted that in no other children’s books do the characters eat as much and with such relish as in Enid Blyton’s adventure novels. In adult formula fiction, this corresponds to excessive drinking and sexual exploits. The reader partakes in behaviour which is not wholly accepted in our society, an initiation into the “other” and the forbidden.

Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature

If you’ve ever read something about how to improve your memory for lists of objects, you may be familiar with the advice to play with size. For instance, if you’re heading to the shops and you need to buy apples, imagine a massive apple on top of the hill behind your house.

I believe picture books featuring oversized items are utilising the same quirk of the brain: massive items are memorable.

When it comes to massive food, the story conveys abundance. Examples:

Pippi Longstocking

Pippi Eating Food
from the cancelled Studio Ghibli animation project

Nikolajeva explains that we need to understand food in mythology before we can understand food in children’s literature:

According to most mythologists, meals in myths and folktales are circumlocutions of sexual intercourse, but we can reconstruct this meaning only partly from the existing texts. When folktales were incorporated into children’s literature, their motifs changed further, to suit pedagogical purposes, so that the original meaning has become still more obscure. It is therefore essential to understand what food represents in myth and folktale, before we can interpret its meaning in children’s fiction.

Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time In Children’s Literature

We are told:

The most important role of food in myths to accentuate the contrast between nature and culture. The origin of food is in nature, but it is used within culture, and it is the result of the transition from nature to culture. Thus food neutralizes this basic contrast.

Cultures are made up of many different kinds of oppositions (own/alien, male/female, home/away, sacred/profane and so on). The opposition between ‘own and alien’ tends to be especially connected to food in ancient cultures. Whatever we eat is natural and genuine; whatever others eat is alien, unnatural and unclean. This can be seen in a the big three religions. In Judaism and Islam followers are not allowed to eat certain foods. Christians have rules about Lent.

So what’s the first step when cultures start to become civilized?

Richard Scarry mealtime
Food and Christianity

Unlike most of the world’s religions, Christians are able to eat anything. Christians are omnivorous. This is reflected in children’s literature.

  • The imagery of eating pervades the very language of the culture, its beliefs and its rites
  • It provokes anxiety about impurity — an anxiety that used to be partly contained for Catholics, by minor rules of abstinence, such as no meat on Fridays and fasting before communion, but is no longer.
  • The taboo on cannibalism — on eating your own kind—offers the apparently unbreakable standard of propriety and hence ethics. Yet it is always being broken though performance and metaphor, thus plunging the system of discrimination between the good and bad eaters into continual disarray.
  • Eating and being eaten inspires one of the most common games adults play with babies. (Animal noises, gobbling — this is used in Gremlins to comic effect when the Gremlins say ‘yum yum!’)
  • It’s instinctive to growl and grit your teeth and curl your fingers, as instinctive as kissing or crying.
  • Faire barbo is a French expression which refers to the ancient game of clenching your teeth and grunting and making as if to claw at a little baby in fun.

Marina Warner’s take on literary cannibalism is related but a little different. Whereas Nikolajeva highlights the link between ‘eating and being eaten’, Warner highlights the link between eating one’s children and giving birth to them as another kind of ‘cycle of life’. In The Juniper Tree, the ‘birthing’ and ‘eating’ symbolism is braided all the way throughout the story. The boy gets to live on through the father. The false mother is expelled and the true father is validated. The result is a patriarchal triumph of a sort not seen in the earlier Kronos version — the female is erased entirely — the father is both birther and nurturer in the end. The family itself is reborn. Biology is negated. The dead mother has no body (and nor does the evil step-mother).  The father’s link to his children is solid — and ‘link to one’s own children’ is the one thing men have never been able to take away from women, even in the most repressive and patriarchal of cultures. Instead we see it done in stories.

In short, a tale such as The Juniper Tree is all about a deep-seated question regarding family relationships:

  • Who do children belong to? To mothers or to fathers? How can they belong to both?
  • Who has control of the child’s identity?

The culture of primogeniture comes in here, too. This is the custom of leaving all the family wealth to the eldest child. This happened in my own extended family just one generation ago, so it’s hardly dead. It tends to happen in farming families, in which the farm would otherwise be dismantled if the assets were divided among multiple children. The idea behind primogeniture: The boy who inherits the farm provides for his extended family. (In practice this may not happen.)

Political activist Thomas Paine was against the culture of primogeniture and had this to say about it:

Aristocracy has never more than one child. The rest are begotten to be devoured.

The link between primogeniture and cannibalism is a fascinating one — metaphorical cannibalism.

Now for eroticism. There’s a fine line between love and hate. For more on that listen to the Real Crime Profile podcast with Laura Richards, a British criminal profiler and feminist activist who does a lot of work around coercive control. For women (more rarely a man), the people most likely to kill us are men who say they love us.

In that vein, Nikolajeva posits that cannibalism in storytelling can function as a sign of extreme love:

when a man (more rarely a woman) eats up his beloved, in order to own her completely. Here is once again a parallel between food and intercourse, oral and sexual satisfaction. In some myths, parents devour their children out of great love.

Nikolajeva isn’t using the term because it’s a recent concept, but she is describing ‘coercive control’.

When Women Eat Children

Think of the folktales in which a witch eats the children, or tries to. Most of the time, the children get away. Marina Warner points out that in Greek myth, there are no examples of women eating their children. Not on purpose. Nor are they duped into it. This seems a bit of an anomaly, because Greek women of myth engage in plenty of infanticide. Ancient Greeks obviously thought of mothers eating children quite separately from other methods of murder. Consider the act of eating one’s child as a kind of inverted birthing. Ownership via incorporation. This idea lingers in modern stories about giants and cannibal fathers.

From the Grimm collection, a good example of child-eating women is Hansel and Gretel. Closely related is Baba Yaga. In these tales, cannibalism symbolises death and resurrection — and a near death experience is a vital part of story structure. It comes at the end of the big struggle stage, right before the anagnorisis.When someone almost eats you, that makes for a pretty good big struggle. Or maybe someone almost eats your children. There’s only one thing worse than someone else eating your children — and that’s being tricked into eating your own children, a la the Juniper Tree tales. Again, though, these women never actually get to eat the children. She is always easily duped. The trickster children get away.

Cannibalism and Sex

Hannibal Lecter is the standout example of cannibal eroticism. But what about in stories for children? Fairytales were not for children until the Grimm brothers bowdlerised them, so bear that in mind. (It was Charles Perrault who introduced the sex-cannibal link to Little Red Riding Hood, in a wry, knowing way.)

Fairytales are about all the various initiation rites, and these rites include sexual intercourse.

The sacred food [of myth] is developed into a magical agent in folktales: bread, milk, honey, apple, beans etc. As compared to myths, folktales have lost their secret sacred meaning. Folktales collected and retold for children have often acquired the opposite meaning. It is therefore necessary to go back to myth to clarity the function of food in fairy tales, often connected with prohibition against incest. Food as a part of a trial appears in many fairy tales; the hero takes food from home when departing on his quest. Many folktales reflect the dream of Cornucopia, described as a magical mill, tablecloth or bag. Food can also be a means of enchantment, when the hero is transformed by eating or drinking something.

— Maria Nikolajeva

I believe Nikolajeva is talking about food as cycle of life, which is what Marina Warner was talking about vis a vis The Juniper Tree pattern of tale. Warner also says that in these early myths, cannibalism functions as a motif to dramatise the struggle for survival within the family.

Marina Warner sees cannibalism — overall — as a metaphor for the internal states and private knowledge.

Mythic cannibals who started off as sexually indifferent grew more sexual over time. A good example of that is Polyphemus (the Greek guy with the eye in the middle of his forehead).

The Hierarchy of Cannibals

In fairytale there’s a distinction between eating someone raw or ‘as carrion’. Even better than that, cooking them is the most genteel kind of cannibalism. Sushi is one step down, followed by eating them as carrion, in which you are the worst kind of beast.  (But if you are tricked into eating your own children, you’re absolved, and in fact you’ll get them back and live happily ever after.)

For the word lovers among you:

  • Anthropophage — someone who eats humans
  • Omophage — someone who only eats their own kind. (Well, I guess that’s okay then…)
  • Infantiphage — someone who eats babies

Basically, there’s no sex in traditional children’s literature, so we have lots of food instead.

In The Rhetoric of Character In Children’s Literature, Maria Nikolajeva describes this function of food in literature by summarising Forster (1985), though numerous others have said similar:

In fiction [food] mainly has a social function; food “draws characters together, but they seldom require it physiologically, seldom enjoy it, and never digest it unless specially asked to do so”. … For all that Forster denies the characters of mainstream fiction the joys of food, they are all the more explicit in children’s fiction. … Food in children’s fiction is the equivalent of sex in the mainstream. Still more important is that for child protagonists, food is the essential link between themselves and the surrounding adults who have the power to provide food or to deny it. Food symbolizes love and care or lack thereof. A number of well-known children’s texts, from Hansel and Gretel to Where The Wild Things Are, rotate around this theme. Last but not least, food in children’s fiction is, much more often than in the mainstream, used for characterisation. James Bond may be characterized through his passion for “shaken, not stirred,” but we are more likely to remember Winnie-the-Pooh through his passion for “hunny”.

Marina Warner has this to say, after describing early childhood games in which the parent pretends to eat the child, or tuck them into bed as if putting them into an oven:

The same impulse can arise in adult love-making, but orality there is not usually accompanied by monster faces or jaw-snapping and munching sounds. In sex, the eating fantasy does not often twist and turn through comic exaggerations and parodic beastliness. As Adam Phillips has commented, ‘If…kissing could be described as aim-inhibited eating, we should also consider the more nonsensical option that eating can also be, as Freud will imply, aim-inhibited kissing.’

The interplay of these two ways of connection sometimes tilts, in the changing representations of poetry, play, images and songs, towards eating, sometimes towards kissing; in today’s climate, the public emphasis falls on food. Food may stand in for sex, the oral gratifications perhaps interchangeable at a psychic level, but in terms of shared, overt expression, the promised satisfactions of food eclipse mutual exchanges of kisses and caresses. And these satisfactions include power over the hungry, control of the consumer.

— No Go the Bogeyman

Since sex and death (violence) are intertwined in mainstream stories, it is food and death which are intertwined in stories for children.

Jonah and the Whale
Jonah and the Whale

In traditional (mythic) stories, food has its own particular symbolic function:

Food is an indispensable part of the initiation rite, since it is closely connected to death and resurrection. Death in a rite of passage is often represented by the novice being eaten up by a monster (Jonah and the Whale is an example), which during the rite itself is staged by the novice entering a cave or a hut (for instance the famous Russian hut on chicken legs, inhabited by Baby Yaga). Resurrection is represented by the novice being invited to participate in a meal in the Otherworld, the realm of death. By accepting food from the Otherworld, the hero gains passage into it (the Holy Communion is a remnant of this archaic rite, as is the Jewish Sabbath meal). The Russian folktale hero Ivan replies to Baba Yaga’s threats of eating him up:”What is the good of eating a tired traveller? Let me first have some food and drink and a bath.” He pronounces himself ready to accept witch food and go through a symbolic purification.

From Mythic to Linear: Time In Children’s Literature by Maria Nikolajeva

by Rima Staines
illustration of Baba Yaga by Rima Staines

I’m reminded of Spirited Away, in which Chihiro must eat a berry in order not to disappear. When her parents eat food from this Otherworld, they turn into pigs, becoming part of this Otherworld.

Spirited Away Eating The Berry

FOOD AS A LINK BACK TO THE HOME

When the character of a children’s book departs from home (a necessary part of initiation), food can serve as a link back home. Since food emphasizes affinity, “own” food, food from home is especially important. It is also important that the mother packs the food and, as in folktale, supplies it with her blessing. This security of home, represented by food, is to be found in all types of children’s fiction, including adventure books, where home is treated more like a prison.

– from Mythic to Linear: Time In Children’s Literature by Maria Nikolajeva

FOOD AS A TRIAL

Since food from home gives security it can also function as a trial. When protagonists meet other characters, they are often invited to a meal or are encouraged to share their food with strangers, who become friends and helpers. In both cases, shared food is a sign of union. Food becomes a token of belonging together in a quest or struggle, or belonging to a particular group, good or evil. It can also be a passkey into the Otherworld, as in Alice In Wonderland. Finally, it can enchant, corrupt and even destroy.

– from Mythic to Linear: Time In Children’s Literature by Maria Nikolajeva

Edmond drinks hot chocolate and eats Turkish delight offered by the evil witch. He is now under her spell.
Edmond drinks hot chocolate and eats Turkish delight offered by the evil witch. He is now under her spell.

…this was enchanted Turkish Delight and…anyone who had once tasted it would want more and more of it, and would even, if they were allowed, go on eating it till they killed themselves.

—The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe

If that’s not a symbol for the evils of drug addiction, what is? In fact, C.S. Lewis was influenced by The Arabian Nights, in which sherbet and Turkish delight are evil confections. C.S. Lewis himself disliked these foods as a child, which together form his reason for using Turkish delight when painting young Edmond as the Judas of the story.

On the other hand, Lucy has shared food with Mr Tumnus:

During her first stay in Narnia, Lucy is invited to tea with Mr. Tumnus, the faun. He promises her “toast—and sardines—and cake”. Indeed, on the table there is “a nice brown egg, lightly boiled, for each of them” [Nikolajeva explains that during the war, eggs were rationed.] and then buttered toast, and then toast with honey, and then a sugar-topped cake.”

—Nikolajeva

Did C.S. Lewis realise that what he was doing was the kidlit equivalent of sex? Nikolajeva thinks he probably did know, but propriety prevented him from admitting it in his essay “On three ways of writing for children“.

CS Lewis Sex Food

A shared meal—which we all know in its refined form as the Holy Communion—is the foremost symbol for affinity. Lewis was well-acquainted with mythology. The faun is the first person Lucy meets in Narnia. Our previous experience of stories prompts us that food comes from the good. Thus we immediately assume that the faun is a good creature. As it is, it is not totally true, since the faun is running the White Witch’s errand and tries to deceive Lucy. At the same time, the shared meal prevents the faun from turning in Lucy to his ruler. When you have broken bread with someone, you are committed. A shared meal is a covenant.

—Nikolajeva

Later, the meal with the Beavers continues the affinity, showing the Beavers are friends.

“I must bring you where we can have ea real talk and also dinner”…everyone…was very glad to hear the word ‘dinner’.

mid_beavers

In The Child That Books Built, Francis Spufford writes of the religiosity of C.S. Lewis, which obviously had an influence on his work:

Lewis took a completely orthodox but rather marginal point of Christian doctrine, and made it central to his belief. It was axiomatic that no sinful act could bring the sinner any substantial reward. You might be tempted by the idea that the sin would bring you a full, overflowing pleasure, but when you actually succumbed, you’d find out that all you got was flat, empty sensation. The apples of Sodom taste of ashes. This happened because sins were parodies, or perversions, of the legitimate pleasures God had ordained for human beings. In that case, reasoned Lewis, if you resisted sins in this life, every pleasure they held out delusively to you now, would be supplied in reality and in overwhelming abundance in the greater life to come. Every pleasure, though we might no longer recognise them as sexual once they have shed their mortal connections with biology.

BAKHTIN’S MATERIAL BODILY PRINCIPLE

In the book Language and Ideology In Children’s Literature, John Stephens writes of so-called interrogative texts — texts which question authority, and introduces the concept of the material bodily principle:

The interrogative texts of children’s literature allow a significant space for what Bakhtin termed ‘the material bodily principle’ — the human body and its concerns with food and drink (commonly in hyperbolic forms of gluttony and deprivation), sexuality (usually displaced into questions of undress) and excretion (usually displaced into opportunities for getting dirty).

MEALS AS A MEANS OF CIVILIZATION

Stephens continues:

Meals and feasts, for example, are an important part of human culture, and have a unique and significant role in children’s literature. Official meals, that is, meals conducted at times and places determined by adult authority, reinforce the existing patterns of things and social hierarchies, and assert certain values as stable, normal and moral. An early reference in Five Children and It to the children being ‘caught and cleaned for tea’ discloses, despite its jokiness, the prevailing attitude that meals are part of the process whereby children are civilized and socialized in order to take their place in adult society. Katz has observed that the practice of using meals as a measure of a child’s adjustment to the social order is especially pronounced in English children’s literature. The carnivalesque children’s feast — whether ‘midnight feast’ or birthday party or food-fight — celebrates a temporary liberation from official control over the time, place and manner in which food is consumed. In Five Children and It, where food is of central concern to the main characters without being carnivalized, the baby is allowed to be revolting at mealtimes but a somewhat arch distance is maintained when the older children, compelled to eat invisible food, regress to primitive methods.

Five Children And It Cookies Cover

THE CONNECTION BETWEEN ANIMALS AND FOOD IN CHILDREN’S STORIES

Charlotte's Web cover

The focus on animals and their nature may explain a[nother] common feature of children’s texts, especially those intended for younger readers. Their characters are often centrally concerned with questions about food. In well-known fairy tales, Little Red Riding Hood brings food to her grandmother but is threatened with becoming the meal herself, and Hansel and Gretel become possible meals after they nibble parts of the witch’s house. Meanwhile, Peter Rabbit has his dangerous adventure because he can’t resist Mr. McGregor’s vegetables even though his father was made into a pie by Mrs. McGregor. And In Where The Wild Things Are, Max is sent to his room because he threatens to devour his mother, discovers that the Wild Things want to eat him up because they love him, and is drawn back home by the smell of good things to eat.

Eating is less central in longer works of fiction, but it’s still an important subject. For instance, Charlotte’s Web focuses attention on descriptions of Wilbur’s slop. Charlotte’s methods of killing her food, and Templeton the rat’s pleasure in the feast available at the fair.

In these and many other texts, the fact that human beings eat creatures that once lived but were too weak to protect themselves suggests some ambiguity about the degree to which one is a human eater, like one’s parents, or an animal-like food, like the “little lambs” and “little pigs” adults so often tell children they are. The focus on eating raises the question of children’s’ animality in an especially intense way.

The Pleasures of Children’s Literature by Reimer and Nodelman

GASTRONOMIC UTOPIAS

The dream about the Land of Plenty—Cocayne or Schlarafflenland—has haunted humanity for many centuries. One of the earliest literary descriptions of this paradise is to be found in the German Hans Sachs’s verse from mid-16th century. 19th-century German picture books especially depicted travels into elaborate lands of sweets and cakes, with the inevitable didactic consequence of stomach ache.

Twentieth century children’s writers are much more liberal in their Schlaraffenland variations. The most famous contemporary tale of Schlaraffenland is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The title itself may be seen as an allusion to early children’s books about gluttony. As in many such books, the story starts with a description of poverty and hunger. […] The big family does not starve, but “every one of them…went about from morning till night with a horrible empty feeling in their tummies.” […] The description of the Schlaraffenland matches the traditional stories: rivers and waterfalls of hot chooclate, trees and flowers of “soft, minty sugar”, a pink boat made of “an enormous boiled sweet” […] It is almost inevitable to assume that Roald Dahl read a good deal of Schlaraffenland tales as a child.

Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature

See also: The Wind On The Moon for another well-known story of gluttony.

the-wind-on-the-moon
In this story, sickly interest in food is a natural sign of immaturity. The girls are too young to have control over their bodies and still less over their emotional needs.

Wish fulfilment fantasies about food in abundance go back to antiquity.

Food is everywhere in the Bible. From the Forbidden Fruit to the Last Supper and from the Manna in the Desert to the Feeding of the Five Thousand the Good Book is obsessed with diet. It is set in a land of milk and honey but one also faced with famine; a place of feast and fast, of drunkenness and self-denial, and of marvellous showers of bread from the skies and the transformation of water into wine. Sacrificial banquets, with bread, oil, alcohol and meat are offered to the populace, with slices reserved for the priesthood and the choicest cuts saved for the deity. Women do the cooking. Many are honoured with culinary names; that of Rebecca, mother of Joseph, means ‘cow’ and the title of Rachel, matriarch of the Twelve Tribes, can be translated as ‘ewe’.

From The Serpent’s Promise by Steve Jones

HUNGER IN CHILDREN’S STORIES

Nikolajeva explains that children have a subconscious fear of hunger, which can be used to good effect in stories.

Death as such is an abstract notion for most young readers. Hunger on the other hand is something everyone has experience, at least on a very modest scale. To be hungry, not to get food, is a tangible threat. However, it can also be translated into more symbolic notions. Hunger [can be] hunger for love and warmth.

Children of earlier eras were rarely fully satiated. As an example, this is typical food for children in the 1700s, from the menu of a London foundling hospital (orphanage):

  • gruell for breakfast
  • potatoes for lunch
  • milk and bread for supper on Monday
  • milk porridge, boiled mutton and bread on Tuesday
  • broth-rice milk, bread and cheese on Wednesday
  • gruel, boiled pork and bread on Thursday (And this was in pork season).
  • milk porridge, dumplins, milk and bread on Friday
  • Gruell, hasty puddings and bread and cheese on Saturday
  • Broth, Road pork and bread on Sunday (the climax)

This menu is basic, but far better than many children got.

THE IDEOLOGY OF FAMILY MEALTIMES TOGETHER

The overriding image of a happy family round the table has remained static, fixed in the culture, as something that should happen, something that is essential to the wellbeing of the family and the nation. This is prevalent in all kinds of different media. Many Happy Returns of the Day, for example, an iconic Victorian painting (1856) by William Powell Frith, demonstrates the importance of ritual and celebration in family life, gathered together and marking occasions of private meaning. Such imagery plays a crucial part in naturalising the family meal in the same way as certain types of meals or recipes are handed down the generations and thus create tradition, nostalgia and a sense of belonging.

Cowpie, gruel and midnight feasts: food in popular children’s literature

This particular ideology may influence how things work in your own family. This post from advice columnist Captain Awkward highlights the ways in which a family can construct a narrative about What Tight Families Do, and also the problems this can lead to when adult children develop different diets.

If you take a look at various photography projects, like What Dinnertime Looks Like Around The World, you’ll get a more accurate view of how families gather for dinner.

HUNGER AND FOOD AS EMOTIONAL JUXTAPOSITION

Nothing says ‘nonchalant’ like wolfing down food. There’s no better way to make a baddie look truly psychopathic than to put him in a middle of a gruesome scene then have him pick up an apple and eat it. All the normal characters — and perhaps the audience — have churning stomachs. Yet the psychopath in question doesn’t bat an eyelid.

In this case, the juxtaposition is between the horror and the banality of satisfying a literal hunger, at the bottom of the hierarchy of needs. This most literal belly-filling hunger can also serve as a metaphor for other types of hunger: Perhaps the villain has a hunger for killing sprees or blood.

The insertion of food can also be used in different ways in fiction.

FOR COMEDIC EFFECT

‘And I like your shoes.’

He tilted his foot to examine the craftsmanship. ‘Yes. Ducker’s in The Turl. They make a wooden thingy of your foot and keep it on a shelf for ever. Thousands of them down in a basement room, and most of  the people are long dead.’

‘How simply awful.’

‘I’m hungry,’ Pierrot said again.

from Atonement by Ian McEwan

MORE ABOUT FOOD IN FICTION

Food In Science Fiction: In future we will all eat lasers, from NPR

From the gingerbread house to the cornucopia: gastronomic utopia as social critique in Homecoming and The Hunger Games by Sarah Hardstaff

Fictional Characters With Food Issues from Book Riot

Food Riot, their sister website lists The Best Cakes From Children’s Literature. (Contrast this with my post on Stock-Yuck in Picture Books.)

The second half of Episode 61 of Bookrageous is about food in fiction. The hosts make reference to an article called Cooked Books’ which was in the New Yorker a few years ago. The author of that explains that there are four types of food in books.

  1. the writers for whom dishes are essentially interchangeable, mere stops on the ribbon of narrative, signs of life and social transactions rather than specific pleasures
  2. the writers who dish up very particular food to their characters to show who they are. Proust is this kind of writer, and Henry James is, too.
  3. the writers who are so greedy that they go on at length about the things their characters are eating, or are about to eat—serving it in front of us and then snatching it from our mouths
  4. and then there are writers, ever more numerous, who present on the page not just the result but the whole process—not just what people eat but how they make it, exactly how much garlic is chopped, and how, and when it is placed in the pan

Which of these types of food writing is most common in children’s literature? Has this changed over time? Can you think of children’s authors who fit each of the four categories?

Biblioklept has compiled a list of Literary Recipes.

Header illustration: A watercolour of a banquet by Carl Larsson