Roles of Food in MG/YA Fiction


List - Roles of Food in MG/YA Fiction. 

The Queen of Hearts, she baked some tarts
And wished the King away…

Ok, that’s not quite how it goes. Cath isn’t Queen of Hearts yet, either. I’m halfway through Heartless by Marissa Meyer, and I must have put on a stone and half just reading it. The novel’s strength is its use of description to build a magical world, and nowhere more so than in its description of food. Cath does not want to marry the King of Hearts. She wants to marry the court jester and open a bakery with her friend Mary Anne.

We are treated to descriptions of lemon tarts the colour of buttercups. Unbirthday cakes on crystal plates. A bakery window filled with gingerbread, pies and chocolate croissants….not to mention the tuna tarts frequently requested by the Cheshire cat.

While Cath’s goal is to open a bakery, food has largely been used to build a picture in the reader’s head. This got me thinking about the role of food in Middle Grade and YA. The terms ‘Middle Grade’ and ‘YA Fiction’ began as publishing terms. I use them here to define age-range although I have included a couple of books that were published before the terms were in use. It was easier to find examples of food in earlier children’s fiction, although the role of food in contemporary fiction seemed to be more interesting. Most food in earlier fiction was more like a real-life recount, with the only additional function to the text being to build a picture of the character’s world. I am aware that lavish descriptions of food by Enid Blyton have been attributed to rationing and post war austerity. It is possible that the more functional role of food in contemporary texts reflects an opposite trend – where food is so widely and readily available in the Western world, it takes description like Meyer’s for the reader to enjoy a description of food for its own sake.

Here are some examples I found of food in MG/YA fiction. Think I have missed something? Can you think of any other roles food can have in a story? I would love to hear.

A Night at the Frost Fair by Emma Carrol. (part of the Winter Magic anthology of short stories,).

Maya’s sister is given a brooch by their Grandmother, while Maya is given mouldering gingerbread. Here food propels our protagonist towards their adventure – shortly after she is given her gift, Maya finds herself at the Frost Fair. The gingerbread could also be a metaphor for the stories we inherit from our families. Maya learns that these are more precious than any other gift she could receive. 

Carrol uses contrasting descriptions of warm food and ice to bring her world alive.

What I Was by Meg Rosoff.

Finn traps crabs from a hut on the beach, which our protagonist finds on his cross country runs. ‘And I ate it, didn’t I? And wasn’t it delicious?’ says our public schoolboy protagonist. This might be metaphoric of how he keeps coming back for a taste of Finn’s lifestyle.
If food is metaphoric of the differences between the two characters, our protagonist narrows the gap – first he brings an elaborately iced christening cake, then sausage and bacon - but the gap will never be closed while there are school kitchens to raid.

The Sinclair’s Mysteries by Katherine Woodfine.

Lyon’s Cornerhouse is where our young detectives meet for tea and cake. It is a constant throughout the series, and I would suggest it signals that Sophie, Lil and the gang are on to the case. This might be a comfort to readers when serious crime has taken place within the narrative.

Note too that the conclusion of every case so far has been celebrated with food.

The Rainbow Opera by Elizabeth Knox

Dream hunters can access a geographical reigon that other people cannot. Before they can broadcast dreams, they must first catch them in ‘The Place’. As in What I Was, there is some focus on social class. This time food is used to illustrate the comforts Laura will have to live without if she is to survive as dream hunter. Dream hunters trek alone into this uninhabited region. Is Laura ready to swap the ice-creams and sugared almonds of Farry’s for the rice flour wafers carried into the place by dream hunters?

The Last Wild by Piers Torday.

It is difficult to talk about this without spoilers, so I’ll keep it brief. This is almost ‘unfood’, but food is certainly integral to the plot of Torday’s trilogy. Facto run everything – they even run the government – and they also supply formula which has replaced food. Kester finds the last animals left in the wild and learns more about Facto’s motives.

 The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by CS Lewis.

There are plenty of memorable moments involving food in The Chronicles of Narnia. Indeed, one of the first memorable moments in the series – and I always go by publication order – is Lucy’s tea with Mr Tumnus. What interests me more are the moments where food becomes allegorical.

The first is the Turkish Delight. Edmund’s Turkish Delight is one of the most famous foods in children’s literature. ‘He has the look of one who has been with the Witch and eaten her foods,’ says Mr Beaver, when Edmund betrays his brother and sisters. In mythology, the food of elf-land or Hades binds people to the realm. Edmund’s Turkish Delight casts a similar enchantment over him which makes him return to the Witch.

My favourite instance of food – of all time, real or imaginary – is Aslan’s Table. Set on the Island of Ramandu, it is replenished every sunrise at Aslan’s bidding for travellers who would seek to go beyond the end of the world to Aslan’s country. The knife with which the White Witch killed Aslan is laid upon the table, suggesting the table is allegorical of the Last Supper. It does not seem coincidental that Reepicheep -  who goes beyond the end of the world to Aslan’s Country - is the first to trust the food.  

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