A Survey of Food Messages in Children’s Literature
Food in society has never simply been about nourishing our bodies. A wealth of beliefs, rituals, and behaviors surround food in every culture. As James, Kjorholt and Tingstad aptly state, “…food and eating practices are deeply implicated in the structuring of social, political and economic relations; in the ways good parenting is constituted; in the ways in which gender relations take place and in the everyday making of family life. Indeed, food and eating habits have been described as a total social phenomenon with significant meanings for a variety of different aspects of life. From the moment children are born, their responses to food and eating practices are shaped by the ways in which they interact with others” ( 2009: 3). In the last several years, children’s relationship to food has become a topic of national interest, particularly in light of the alarming rise in childhood obesity. According to the 2010 report from the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity, obesity in U.S. children has more than tripled, resulting in 1 out of 3 being considered overweight or obese (2009: 3). Other statistics are just as dire: 13% of calories for adolescents come solely from sugared beverages, and on average children consume less than 50% of the recommended daily allowance for vegetables, while a scant 1% of children completely meet governmental guidelines for nutrition (Task Force on Childhood Obesity 2010: 7,10; Fisher & Birch 1999: 1264). Given the statistics, says the report, “The current generation may even be on track to have a shorter lifespan than their parents” (2010: 3).
Much attention has been paid to the strong influence of parents, changes in modern lifestyles, and mass media. However, one area of study that has been largely ignored is that of the affect of children’s books on children’s attitudes toward food. Although perhaps not as influential as some other factors, children’s books are still an important part of young people’s lives, particularly school children, school being a place where books are still the primary media used for instruction and information.
The purpose of this paper is to examine a sample of current children’s books available in the U.S. to see what kinds of food messages are communicated through them to young children. The primary rationale for this investigation lies in the ability of books to influence children’s attitudes and beliefs. Although there has been little research related to the affect of books on children’s attitudes and behaviors about food (Byrne & Nitzke 2002: 211), research in other areas has shown that children’s literature has positively influenced students’ attitudes and behaviors toward children with disabilities (Cameron & Rutland 2006), in promoting positive attitudes towards math (Mink & Fraser 2005), and in decreasing stereotypes related to gender (Trepanier-Street & Romatowski 1999). This illustrates that children’s books can be powerful tools in shaping children’s ideas about the world around them, including how they view food.
Connected to this idea of the power to affect attitudes and behavior, is the role of parents in shaping children’s relationships with food. While there is a strong genetic component to obesity, environmental factors are significantly more influential (Horgen 2005: 124). Food habits are formed very early in life, primarily in the first six years (Byrne& Nitzke 2002: 211). Thus, parents play a strong role in developing their children’s food behaviors. One study found that parental modeling and home environment were key factors in whether school children consumed fruits and vegetables (Gross, Pollock & Braun 2010). Another study found that parental restrictions on certain foods actually increased children’s attention on and desire to consume these restricted foods (Fisher & Birch 1999). Given the amount of influence parents have, it is important how they present food and related ideas to their young children, and that includes the books they read to them.
Finally, the place of children’s books in schools provides a rationale for this survey of children’s literature. Books continue to be one of the primary pedagogical tools in schools, and are a cornerstone in the development of literacy (Martinez & McGee 2000). In addition, schools are increasingly being called on to help combat the rising rates of childhood obesity (Task Force on Childhood Obesity 2010; Wechsler, McKenna, Lee & Dietz 2010). These two factors make it important to consider how books are educating students in regard to healthy lifestyles, and the place of food in our society.
Despite the importance of this issue, surprisingly little research has been done on the subject. Only two studies were found in an extensive search for peer-reviewed research. The first of the two used modified fairy tales to teach preschoolers about vegetables, which increased the students’ consumption of vegetables when compared to the control group (Lawatsch 1990). A more recent research project investigated whether positive references to an unfamiliar vegetable in a book affected preschoolers’ attitudes and behavior toward the new vegetable. Results indicated that students who heard the book with a positive message about the vegetable were more willing to taste the unfamiliar vegetable than those who had not heard the message, or heard a negative one (Byrne and Nitzke 2002). Since then, little else seems to have been done related to this subject. Thus, this investigation can serve as a preliminary survey to help frame further studies in this area.
For this investigation, I reviewed 60 children’s books to examine food-related themes in them. I used several criteria to determine the books for the sample:
- Books particularly geared towards young children, from birth to second grade. I chose this target group, because, as already mentioned, this is the prime age for the development of food preferences and habits, and where books might most influence food behaviors.
- A variety of genres including fiction and nonfiction. The purpose and style of writing is very different between fiction and nonfiction, thus conveying food messages in different formats, with different emphases.
- More recently published books. I wanted to investigate current ideas about food in books, given the recent attention on children’s food habits and health. I did include a few classic children’s books, such as Green Eggs and Ham, because they are still very popular and widely read.
To collect the sample, I perused databases and librarian’s book lists, as well as library stacks, in order to find books that contained references to food. Once the sample was gathered from two local libraries, I reviewed the books, jotting down ideas connected to food that emerged from the written texts and illustrations. I then looked for any themes or messages that came up repeatedly. Through this process, I noted four main themes, as well as several underlying messages that surfaced in the majority of books. Following is a discussion of these ideas.
Food as a bridge/connection. One of the most prevalent themes is that of food being a connection through which various relationships are mediated. Food is the way community and solidarity is created and maintained, positive and caring relationships are reinforced, and peace is negotiated. For example, in The Bake Shop Ghost, peace is achieved when the main character communicates care for a cantankerous ghost by baking her a birthday cake. Food is also the bridge between cultures, where people can find commonalities, while simultaneously appreciating and celebrating difference. Everybody Brings Noodles tells the story of a multiethnic community where different ways of preparing noodles unite the neighborhood in a celebration of their commonalities and differences. Food also connects people to their own cultures, traditions and history, particularly through relationships with older generations who pass down these ideas through caring interactions with children, with food and food preparation bridging generation gaps. In Dumpling Soup, a little girl works together with her Grandma and aunties to make special Korean dumplings for the NewYear’s celebration, which the entire family sits down to eat together, her family’s culture transmitted and enacted through the process of preparing and consuming food.
Food as celebration. Another very prevalent theme is that of food being a necessary part of any sort of celebration. Indeed, preparing food together in community can be an act of celebration itself, as so joyously illustrated in Jamberry, when a little boy and his bear friend go to gather the berries to make jam together. In every book that includes a celebration, food plays a central role in the festivities. If food is missing, the situation has to be rectified in order for the celebrating to properly continue. A great example of this is Chicks and Salsa, where the party is canceled when it is discovered that the ingredients for the celebratory dishes are gone.
Food as identity. In many books, food is the vehicle through which children explore issues of identity. Children often are portrayed establishing identity and cultural pride through the medium of food, as well as negotiating balance between cultural tensions. In Jalapeno Bagels, a young boy is uncertain how to express both his ethnic heritages, solving the quandary with a food that represents both parts of his identity. In Apple Pie 4th of July, a girl comes to realize that she can be both Chinese and American, when she finds that people eat Chinese and “American” food at the same time. Food is also the method through which children can begin to explore autonomy and shape their own identities apart from their parents, as in Bread and Jam for Frances, where her parents give her the freedom to choose what she eats and develop her own preferences.
Food as an extension or expression of emotion. Food is the medium through which a variety of emotions can be expressed. Although a few books addressed negative emotions, the vast majority used food as a way to express positive emotions such as joy, respect, and love. For example, a grandmother soothes her grandchild’s fear of storms and shows her love through the baking of a special cake in the book Thundercake. Chato shows both love and loyalty to his best buddy when he throws the despondent friend his very first birthday party in Chato and the Party Animals.
Through these main themes and others, several messages about food also become clear, with the most prominent stating: “Being adventurous and eating a variety of healthy foods is fun!” The majority of children go through a stage where they are unwilling to try new foods, and frequently reject many foods. This phenomenon is termed neophobia, and is considered quite normal in early childhood (Benton, 2004: 860). Research indicates that repeated exposure to new foods, as well as positive role-modeling and variety increase the chance of children adding new foods to their diets. As Benton explains, “…parents should expose their children to a wide variety of tastes to encourage the acceptance of novel foods; that is familiarity with diverse flavours increases the readiness to experience novel tastes” (2004: 861). The majority of books seem to be aware of the research, and undertake the task of encouraging young children to try different, healthy foods. Fruit, a very early board book for babies and toddlers, does so by showing pictures of both common and more exotic fruits while teaching the corresponding names, ending the book with “Eat ‘em up time!”
Many of the cookbooks encourage healthy eating and variety by exposing children to new foods through cooking with them from a very early age. There are a number of cookbooks specifically designed to begin cooking with toddlers and preschoolers, such as the Mom and Me Cookbook. Research indicates that it takes as many as 10 exposures to a new food for children to accept it (Sullivan & Birch in Benton 2004: 861). Thus, reading about and cooking with different foods allows children to interact and become more familiar with the variety, increasing their chances of possibly trying and accepting the foods. Another way books encourage children to try foods is through making the foods “fun”, whether by creating fun, artistic shapes with them, as in Fun Food, or by creatively “morphing” them into something else, as Charlie does to get his little sister Lola to eat anything in I Will Never Not Ever Eat a Tomato. One interesting aspect of this focus on encouraging children to expand their food preferences is the widespread presence of global foods throughout the texts, both in cookbooks and other books. This early exposure to global foods is best exemplified in Chaat and Sweets, a baby/toddler board book that introduces little ones to snacks from India, and which is part of a series of board books on snacks around the world. In an odd and slightly unsettling twist on the message to embrace different foods, Burger Boy is a precautionary tale that encourages children to vary their diets by showing what happens when a boy eats nothing but burgers and turns into one.
Another prominent message in the texts is “Food is abundant, in endless supply and variety.” This message is communicated most clearly through illustrations, such as the abundant Sunday dinner at Grannie’s in Full, Full, Full of Love, where several kinds of meat, vegetables and numerous side dishes share the table with a couple of different desserts, and everyone eats their fill of this concrete example of Grannie’s love. Some cookbooks also reinforce this message of diverse abundance, with ingredients that include items such as mascarpone, coconut milk, and balsamic vinegar that until recently would not have been available to middle class families, and still wouldn’t be in many smaller communities (see The Toddler Cookbook).
The final prominent message in the books is related to where and how we get our food: “Food comes from plants and animals all over the world, in a benign process of growth and production.” Many nonfiction books are available that explain the lifecycles of various edible plants, the production of various food items, and how different ingredients from all over the world come together to create one dish. For example, in All in Just One Cookie, the author describes the different ingredients that go into making chocolate chip cookies, tracing their global origins and explaining the process the raw materials go through to become an ingredient. Some books focus on one item, such as The Pumpkin Book, which focuses on the pumpkin from seed to table, or An Orange in January, which lyrically describes how an orange gets from a tree into a little boy’s hands during winter. The Tortilla Factory shows the process of corn becoming tortillas. While it is laudable that there are more and more books that connect children to the food chain, and help them understand that food doesn’t just come from a grocery store, several are problematic, in that they do not portray the process altogether realistically, especially when it comes to animals. Farms are generally portrayed as small, pastoral, and idyllic. One book, Extra Cheese, Please! shows a loving family bathed in sunlight as they hold the milking machine together, in preparation for milking time. The book ends with a Norman Rockwellesque scene of a perfect farm, complete with contented cows grazing in a lush pasture with red barns as a backdrop. In other books, cute little happy animals play with their “friends” and drink milk from their “mom” with their “brothers and sisters” (Peepo! Farm, 2009), while chickens lay in the grass, and scratch around the henhouse, wandering freely (From Egg to Chicken). With the exception of two books, What Food is This? and Pork, none of the books connect the animals to the meat we eat, only to eggs, and milk. Granted, there are still some real farms that are small, family owned with grass fed, free range animals, and which represent one perspective on farming, but they are in the vast minority, so to portray all farming as such is a biased picture. To be sure, these books are for young children, and it would not be age appropriate to address many of the issues related to modern farming, but neither should the books idealize food production so that children grow up with yet another distorted vision of where food comes from.
Several other concerns also emerge in relation to the portrayal of food in the sample. One is that in about 20% of the sample, the foods featured in the books are unhealthy, such as cake, candy, nachos, and pie. The messages associated with these foods are still positive, thus creating positive connections to unhealthy foods and reinforcing the “goodness” of these foods. For example, in Paulie Pastrami Achieves World Peace, Paulie does so by distributing massive quantities of cupcakes. Thus, the positive messages associated with food can be used to reinforce unhealthy food choices, or encourage healthy ones. This mixed message seems to communicate society’s ambivalent relationship with, and positioning of, certain foods.
Another concern is that the majority of the books focus solely on positive aspects related to food. While it is wonderful to see the overall emphasis on healthy foods, and the positive place that food can have in our culture, in focusing almost exclusively on the positive, the books communicate an idealized, middle class worldview. Not everyone has an abundant variety of healthy foods to choose from. Most farm animals don’t live idyllic lives. Sometimes people of different cultures don’t get along, and food can be a source of tension, not connection. Again, it is important to acknowledge that these books are written for young children, and as such, must be developmentally appropriate. However, elementary school is not too young to address multiple perspectives on certain issues, so that children can begin to think critically about the world in which they live.
Finally, another issue is market branding and advertising to children through books. The food and beverage industry spends between $10 and $15 billion a year marketing their products to youth (Eggerton in Linn & Novosat 2007: 134). The majority of these products are energy dense, low nutrient items such as candy, fast food, and soda (Linn & Novosat 2007: 133, 134). Marketers use many different tactics and media, including links to popular movies, TV shows, and characters, product placement, contests, video games, websites, cell phone marketing, online social networking, and in-school marketing (Linn & Novosat 2007: 137-146). Advertisers also use children’s books. One of the most insidious ways marketers target children is through educational books that use their products in the texts, and as part of hands on activities. One of the most well known of these is The Hershey’s Milk Chocolate Fractions Book, where students learn about fractions by making them with Hershey bars. For the even younger set, there is the M and M’s Brand Counting Book.
Other advertisers also use connections to food to promote their brands. For example, marketers who are trying to create brand loyalty to certain TV channels, shows, or entertainment companies use cookbooks tied to popular characters. In some of the sample cookbooks, such as Cooking with Mickey Mouse and Friends, and C is for Cooking: Recipes from the Street marketers promote healthy foods, and encourage eating more fruits and vegetables, all the while reinforcing children’s loyalty and devotion to their characters. While it is good that Disney and Sesame Workshop promote a variety of healthy foods, the fact remains that they have ulterior motives that benefit them in creating brand loyalty to Disney and Sesame Street products from cradle to grave, which should give adults pause when thinking about using these kind of cookbooks. Nickelodeon’s cookbook, Stir, Squirt, Sizzle, is a very thinly disguised chance to promote their brand through favorite characters, while giving lip service to healthiness, such as substituting whole wheat bread for white. Most recipes are little more than instructions on how to combine several ready made packaged foods, and generally promote the high fat, high carb foods sometimes termed “kids’ cuisine”, such as pizza, macaroni and cheese, burgers, and fries. In the entire cookbook, there is only one recipe that has fruit as its primary ingredient, and one recipe for “non-potato” vegetables, which they suggest be dipped in a ranch-cheese dip.
Despite these criticisms, overall the majority of messages in the children’s books promoted positive relationships with healthy foods. The implication for these findings is that many children’s books can be a part of parents’ and schools’ efforts to encourage healthy eating, varied food preference, and other positive behaviors and attitudes regarding food. There are a number of limitations to these findings, however. The sample was only a very small percentage of the thousands of books available to children, and not all books are positive in their representations of food, as the above concerns illustrate. In addition, all the books in the sample came from libraries, possibly biasing the sample toward a higher quality of literature as opposed to what is broadly available through other outlets which may not be as discerning in the choice of literature they offer. For example, many of the book order forms offered in schools are a combination of some good literature with many TV/movie tie-in books or other branded items whose literary quality is questionable. In addition, in order to serve their communities’ beliefs and interests, libraries in different towns may have different sorts of books. Both libraries where the sample was collected are in the same small progressive town.
In conclusion, this survey of children’s literature and food serves as a starting point for deeper investigations and further research. This area of study is rich with opportunities to investigate issues of socialization, identity, community, globalization, food activism, media influence and much more. In addition, because of the dearth of research, more quantitative studies are needed to determine the influence of children’s literature on food preference and attitudes toward food in children of various age groups. This paper, then, offers an enticing challenge for further investigation in this area of food studies.
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Trepanier-Street, Mary L., and Jane A. Romatowski. “The Influence of Children’s Literature on Gender Role Perceptions: A Reexamination.” Early Childhood Education Journal. 26.3 (1999): 155-159. Print.
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CHILDREN’S BOOKS IN THE SAMPLE
(Note: Book citations followed by an asterisk are cited within the paper. Both the M&M and Hershey’s books were not part of the original sample, but were sought out as examples of marketing targeted at children through books. )
Anderson, Sara. Fruit. Brooklyn, NY: Handprint Books, 2007. Print.*
Aston, Dianna. An Orange in January. New York, NY: The Penguin Group, 2007. Print.*
Baer, Edith . This Is the Way We Eat Our Lunch: A Book About Children Around the World. New York, NY: Scholastic, 1995. Print.
Baird, Pat. Cooking with Mickey and Friends. New York, NY: Disney Press, 1998. Print.*
Barrett, Judi. Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs. New York, NY: Aladdin Paperbacks, 1978. Print.
Bastyra, Judy. Fun Food. Minneapolis, MN: Carolrhoda Books, Inc., 1996. Print.*
Butterfield, Moira. Pink and Curly-tailed (Pig). Thameside Press, 2000. Print.
Carle, Eric. The Very Hungry Caterpillar. New York, NY: Philomel Books, 1987. Print.
Child, Lauren. I Will Never Not Ever Eat a Tomato. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press, 2000. Print.*
Cooke, Trish. Full, Full, Full of Love. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press, 2003. Print.*
Degen, Bruce. Jamberry. First board book edition. Harper Festival, 1995. Print*
de Paola, Tomie. Strega Nona’s Harvest. New York, NY: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2009. Print.
DerKazarian, Susan. Fruits and Vegetables. New York, NY: Children’s Press, 2005. Print.
Dickmann, Nancy. An Apple’s Life. Chicago, IL: Heinemann Library, 2010. Print.
Dooley, Norah. Everybody Brings Noodles. Minneapolis, MN: Carolrhoda Books, Inc., 2002. Print.*
Durant, Alan. Burger Boy. New York, NY: Clarion Books, 2005. Print.*
Ehlert, Lois. Pie in the Sky. New York, NY: Harcourt, Inc., 2004. Print.
Flanagan, Alice. Raising Cows on the Koebels’ Farm. New York, NY: Children’s Press, 1999. Print.
Fowler, Allan. The Wheat We Eat. Danbury, CT: Children’s Press, 1999. Print.
Ganeri, Anita. From Egg to Chicken. Chicago, IL: Heinemann Library, 2006. Print.*
Gibbons, Gail. The Pumpkin Book. New York, NY: Holiday House, 1999. Print.*
Goodman, Susan. All in Just One Cookie. Greenwillow Books, 2006. Print.*
Gore, Sheila. My Cake. Milwaukee, WI: Gareth Stevens Publishing, 1995. Print.
Hausherr, Rosmarie. What Food Is This?. New York, NY: Scholastic Inc., 1994. Print.*
Henkes, Kevin. Lilly’s Chocolate Heart. HarperFestival, 2004. Print.
Hershenhorn, Esther. Chicken Soup by Heart. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2002. Print.
Hoban, Russell. Bread and Jam for Frances. Harper Trophy, 1964. Print.*
Karmel, Annabel. Mom and Me Cookbook. New York, NY: DK Publishing, 2005. Print.*
Karmel, Annabel. The Toddler Cookbook. New York, NY.: DK Publishing, 2008. Print.*
Katzen, Molly. Salad People and More Real Recipes: A New Cookbook for Preschoolers & Up. Berkeley, CA: Tricycle Press, 2005. Print.
Ketteman, Helen. Armadilly Chili. Morton Grove, IL: Albert Whitman & Company, 2004. Print.
Lewin, Ted. Big Jimmy’s Kum Kau Chinese Take Out. Harper Collins Publishers, 2002. Print.
McGrath, Barbara. The M&M’s Brand Counting Book. Watertown, MA: Charlesbridge Publishing, Inc., 1994. Print.*
McQuillan, Susan. C is for Cooking: Recipes from the Street. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2009. Print.*
Ogburn, Jacqueline. The Bake Shop Ghost. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005. Print.*
Pallotta, Jerry. The Hershey’s Milk Chocolate Fractions Book. New York, NY: Scholastic Inc., 1999. Print.*
Park, Linda. Bee-bim Bop!. New York, NY: Clarion Books, 2005. Print.
Paulsen, Gary. The Tortilla Factory. New York, NY: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1995. Print.*
Peterson, Cris. Extra Cheese, Please! Mozzarella’s Journey from Cow to Pizza. Honesdale, PA: Boyds Mills Press, Inc., 1994. Print.*
Pohl, Kathleen. What Happens at a Dairy Farm?. Milwaukee, WI: Weekly Reader Early Learning Library, 2007. Print.
Polacco, Patricia. Chicken Sunday. New York, NY: Philomel Books, 1992. Print.
Polacco, Patricia. Thundercake. New York, NY: Philomel Books, 1990. Print.*
Proimos, James. Paulie Pastrami Achieves World Peace. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company, 2009. Print. *
Rattigan, Jama Kim. Dumpling Soup. New York, NY: Little, Brown, and Co., 1993. Print.*
Reynolds, Aaron. Chicks and Salsa. New York, NY: Bloomsbury U.S.A. Children’s Books, 2005. Print.*
Rosa-Casanova, Sylvia. Mama Provi and the Pot of Rice. New York, NY: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 1997. Print.
Rosenthal, Amy Krouse. Little Pea. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books, 2005. Print.
Sanger, Amy Wilson. Chaat and Sweets. Berkeley, CA: Tricycle Press, 2008. Print.*
Schaefer, Lola. Pick, Pull, Snap! Where Once a Flower Bloomed. Greenwillow Books, 2003. Print.
Seuss, Dr. Green Eggs and Ham. New York, NY: Random House, 1960. Print.*
Sirett, Dawn. Peepo! Farm. New York, NY: DK Publishing, 2009. Print.*
Soto, Gary. Chato and the Party Animals. New York, NY: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2000. Print.*
Spilsbury, Louise. Pasta. Chicago, IL: Heinemann Library, 2001. Print.
Stadler, Alexander. Beverly Billingsly Takes the Cake. New York, NY: Harcourt, Inc., 2005. Print.
Stevens, Janet, and Susan Stevens Crummel. Cook-A-Doodle-Doo! New York, NY: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1999. Print.
Stir, Squirt, Sizzle: A Nick Cookbook. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books, 2004. Print.*
Stone, Lynn. Pork: Harvest to Home. Vero Beach, FL: Rourke Publishing, 2002. Print.*
Wallace, Nancy. A Taste of Honey. New York, NY: Winslow Press, 2001. Print.
Willems, Mo. The Pigeon Finds a Hot Dog!. New York, NY: Hyperion Books for Children, 2004. Print.
Wing, Natasha. Jalapeno Bagels. New York, NY: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 1996. Print.*
Wong, Janet. Apple Pie 4th of July. New York, NY: Harcourt, Inc., 2002. Print.*
Yolen, Jane. How Do Dinosaurs Eat Their Food?. New York, NY: The Blue Sky Press, 2005. Print