Go deeper: Food in children’s books

What would it be like to swim in a river of chocolate? What would you do if you stumbled upon a sumptuous feast, only to find it was pretend? Explore the temptation and magic of food in books.

Food in children’s books is so much more than the fuel that keeps you alive. It might have mysterious powers to make you grow and shrink, like the cakes and bottles in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865). It might be rare and delicious enough to tempt you to betray your family, like the White Witch’s Turkish Delight (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C S Lewis, 1950), or to steal what isn’t yours. This happens often in fairy tales, as when Hansel and Gretel break off bits of cake and sugar from the witch’s house, or Goldilocks tucks into Baby Bear’s perfect porridge.

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Hansel and Gretel and other stories, illustrated by Kay Nielsen ('Hansel and Gretel', 'The Juniper Tree' and 'Rumpelstiltskin')

Two blonde children stand in the foreground, back towards the viewer. They face into a sinister dark woodland. A cottage with a small garden of green trees and flowers is in front of them. The cottage appears to be made of baked goods.

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Usage terms Hansel and Gretel and Other Stories, illustrated by Kay Nielsen (1925), reproduced by permission of Hodder Children’s Books, an imprint of Hachette Children’s Books, Carmelite House, 50 Victoria Embankment, London imprint, EC4Y 0DZ.

Stealing of this sort is dangerous, though, and the eater might risk becoming the eaten – like Peter Rabbit’s unlucky father, who is caught eating vegetables in Mr McGregor’s garden and put into a pie (although this doesn’t stop Peter following his dad’s example; The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter, 1902).

The Tale of Peter Rabbit

The cover of Beatrix Potter's 1902 edition of The Tales of Peter Rabbit.

Potter deftly brought to the page closely-observed details of animals’ lives.

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Even when food is stolen, manners remain important. Take the example of The Elephant and the Bad Baby by Elfrida Vipont and Raymond Briggs (1969). The Bad Baby, riding along rumpeta rumpeta rumpeta on the back of an Elephant, says ‘Yes’ to everything the Elephant offers him: an apple, a biscuit, a pie, a lollipop… However, he ‘never ONCE says please’, much to the horror of the sweetshop lady, the barrow boy and the grocer who chase them down the road. But it’s only the Baby who is called bad, not the Elephant; so is it more of a crime to forget your Ps and Qs than to steal? Despite the rudeness and shoplifting, this is a story with a happy, food-focused ending: everyone gathers at the Baby’s house for pancakes with lemon, sugar and jam, once the Baby has finally remembered to say ‘PLEASE’!

As much as you want

Being allowed to eat whatever you want, and as much as you want of it, is another idea that children’s books often play with. In real life, health, money, what you’re allowed to eat and the limits of your stomach all have to be considered – but not in books, where you can fill yourself to bursting with imaginary food without paying for it, making yourself sick or rotting your teeth.

In Enid Blyton’s Land of Birthdays, at the top of the Magic Faraway Tree, you can wish for your own birthday tea – orange jelly, strawberries and cream, chocolate biscuits and treacle pudding – while the birthday cake itself appears by magic, and grants wishes of its own (The Faraway Tree series, 1939–51). At Hogwarts, the boarding school for witches and wizards, feasts also appear magically on the tables: steak, sausages, mashed potatoes, chocolate gateau and treacle tart, with roast turkeys at Christmas and enormous pumpkins at Halloween (Harry Potter series by J K Rowling, 1997–2007). And in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, everything is edible, from the peppermint-flavoured grass to the swirling chocolate river (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl, 1964). These glorious feasts are especially tempting because the children enjoying them have often been hungry at home – Harry Potter’s unkind relatives often deprive him of meals, and Charlie Bucket’s family are desperately poor. The contrast between Charlie’s thin daily cabbage soup and the creamy richness of the chocolate waterfall makes the factory seem even more heavenly.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: manuscript drafts and Roald Dahl's chocolate wrapper ball

Roald Dahl's chocolate wrapper ball

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Usage terms © The Roald Dahl Story Company Limited, image courtesy of the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work.

Simple comforts

Delectable fictional food doesn’t have to come in banquet form, either. Simple foods, representing the warm, loving reassurance of home, can also be mouth-watering to read about. In Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows (1908), the usually boastful and bouncy Toad, imprisoned in a damp cell for stealing a motorcar, is filled with such despair that he can’t bring himself to eat. His jailer’s daughter, feeling sorry for him, coaxes him with some hot buttered toast and tea – the smell of this straightforward but delicious food ‘simply talks to Toad’, reminding him of his home and his friends, and of the person he was before his imprisonment. Eating it gives him new courage – and restores his conceit.

The Wind in the Willows: Letters from Kenneth Grahame to his son, Alastair (‘Mouse’) Grahame

Letters from Kenneth Grahame to his son. Double page spread. The letter describes how Toad is in prison and is made toast and cheered up by two women who work in the prison.

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Reading about food can be transporting, making you desperate to try imaginary dishes, inventing their tastes in your own mind. But you can sometimes have too much of a good thing, even in fiction. In Roald Dahl’s Matilda (1988), when Bruce Bogtrotter steals a slice of Miss Trunchbull’s special chocolate cake, the fearsome headmistress forces him to eat an entire colossal gateau. The Trunchbull’s punishment backfires – rather than being sick or begging for mercy, Bruce manages to devour the entire thing, heroically winning against the tyrant. The description of his battle with the cake might leave the reader feeling slightly queasy, though (especially the enormous burps Bruce lets fly mid-gorge). And in Little Badman and the Invasion of the Killer Aunties (2019), by Humza Arshad and Henry White, the main characters slowly realise that having all their teachers replaced by local Asian aunties, who feed them chocolate bars, butter chicken and gulab jamun instead of teaching them any lessons, isn’t actually as good as it seems. (As the children get slower and rounder, the aunties’ sinister agenda begins to reveal itself…)

Disgusting food

Fictional food isn’t always delicious. Sometimes it can be disappointing, even inedible. Tom Thumb and Hunca Munca, the characters in Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Two Bad Mice (1904), go on a destructive rampage after they attempt to eat a feast of dolls-house goodies, only to discover that they’re made of painted plaster.

The Tale of Two Bad Mice by Beatrix Potter

Double page spread from The Tale of Two Bad Mice by Beatrix Potter. Page 29 show a colour illustration of the two mice trying to cut into a roast ham which was on the dining table in the doll house.

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Roald Dahl doesn’t just celebrate fabulous food, either. He thoroughly enjoys evoking the grotesque and disgusting too. In The Twits (1981), cruel and hideous Mr and Mrs Twit like to eat Bird Pie, complete with sad little feet poking up through the pastry. Awful Mrs Twit puts worms in Mr Twit’s spaghetti, and is overwhelmed with horrid glee when he devours them. In George’s Marvellous Medicine (1981), George mixes an extraordinary potion out of everything from paint to powder to animal pills, causing his beastly grandma to grow right through the roof. And who could forget Boggis, Bunce and Bean, the farmers in Fantastic Mr Fox (1970), who feast on doughnuts stuffed with goose livers, or consume only eyewateringly strong cider?

While the food we eat in reality can’t change our size or enchant us, it still has the power to transport us – to remind us of the people who first made it for us, or the places we’ve eaten it before. So perhaps it’s not surprising that, whether disgusting or delicious, unusual or everyday, the foods we read about in children’s books tend to stay vivid in our memories, even perhaps shaping some of our adult tastes and responses. A passage featuring a sumptuous feast, a magical sweet or cordial, or a simple, comforting meal might make adult readers yearn for a taste just as hungrily as it did when they were children.

  • Imogen Russell Williams
  • Imogen Russell Williams is a literary critic specialising in children's books, and writing for The Guardian, The Metro and the TLS. She is the author of two non-fiction books for children, The Big Book of the UK and The Big Book of Slimy Things, and a collection of poetry for adults.

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