On Food and Children’s Literature
Guest blog by Athira Mohan
Right from the delightful midnight feasts of Malory Towers, the fresh strawberries and clotted cream from the farms foraged by the Famous Five, the irresistible chocolate wonders from Willie Wonka’s chocolate factory, one can very easily associate their childhood reads with certain gastronomic delights that would have had stood the test of time.
Food stands for many things in children’s literature, of which the most popularly employed is the creation of a space that stands outside the realm of adult control. The food items that normally appear in children’s literature are either too sweet, or of a nature that do not permit regular consumption. In that sense, it also throws open a world of infinite possibility and wonder. But many a time, food is also used as a trope to introduce the concept of multiculturism to the child reader, which helps them realize the need to be kind and understanding to the other.
A rich and variedly cultured country like ours that contributed to the very nascent developments of the genre have had little to offer in the later stages, probably owing to the European hegemony that dominated the field. This is precisely where the authentic efforts of publishing companies like Karadi Tales, who furnish Indian stories for children, comes in.
What did the Monster Child Eat Today? by Sampurna Chattarji, quirkily illustrated by Vibha Surya, narrates the tale of a girl who imagines herself to be a monster who gorges on lice-crispies and Egyptian mummies. Children are very often attracted towards the repulsive – a psychological trait which has been established. One is reminded of Bill Watterson’s delinquent favourite, Calvin, of the eponymous Calvin & Hobbes, who relishes broccoli readily once he is told they are pickled brains. The book is perfect for a 5-8 age group, who will undoubtedly be fascinated by our protagonist’s gastronomic adventures. As the unwritten rule goes, our Monster Child has a ravenous appetite, and she eats her way through a variety of Indo-western items, a particular trait of urban Indian childhood.
A book that deserves much acclaim is Thukpa For All by Praba Ram and Sheela Preuitt, illustrated by Shilpa Ranade. The book is narrated from the perspective of Tsering, a blind boy who feels his way through the Ladakhi landscape, to invite his neighbours and friends for a meal of Thukpa. The book is listed in the 2019 IBBY catalogue of Outstanding Books for Young People with Disabilities. Representation is a valid question in the Indian scenario, where even at the present times, certain cultures and topographies escape public attention in art and literature. The motive of children’s literature should be very much political, which is a dire need of the present times. The book undoubtedly gives the child reader an insight into the Ladakhi culture, their linguistic and cultural traditions. Learning becomes such a pleasurable activity when it is narrated through the engaging story of a family that cooks Thukpa, the noodle soup, not just for them, but for their neighbours as well. The neighbours bring them goodies like buttered tea, apricot jam and spinach, which are shared among them. The book comes across as a pleasurable read, a kind of warm and fuzzy children’s book with marvellous illustrations, but it does not stop there. For the uninitiated, it throws open a possibility to understand India better, through food. The book also introduces Ladakhi phrases like ‘Jullay’ and ‘Me-Me’, with an attached glossary. It also furnishes a recipe for the Ladakhi Thukpa, which can be cooked by the family, which introduces a hands-on visceral experience to the already fulfilling reading experience.
[Fuelled by food and comforted by the profundity of children’s literature, the author is ploughing her way through her doctoral research in Children’s Literature]