‘A very famous editor once said to me: “Barry, tell them what they eat.”’
This is one of the delightful pieces of advice given by Barry Cunningham on writing for children. He doesn’t say who the famous editor is – Kaye Webb? – but I love this nugget for its apparent triviality, actually giving an extremely important message.
Picnics, Parties and Midnight Feasts
Food matters to children. It’s a big part of their everyday lives and if you want them to get lost in your story, better make sure you don’t let the action go on too long without feeding your characters. Yes, you can have scene breaks, but every now and then your readers will want to know what your hungry hero will be having for supper; even more so, if supper happens to be a fabulous party, or a midnight feast planned in the dorm. Enid Blyton totally got this: remember all those picnics enjoyed by the Famous Five, or the illicit night time snacks shared by boarding school girls in Malory Towers?
Bunbreak and Vicarious Scoffing
More recently J K Rowling began and ended many of the Harry Potter books with lavish feasts in which everyone ate their favourite dishes; and one of the brilliant details Robin Stevens puts into her Murder Most Unladylike series is the crucial part Bunbreak plays in the lives of her characters, in which the total absence of buns is irrelevant; it’s the different biscuits offered, depending on the day, that matters.
Much as I’ve enjoyed all the vicarious scoffing kindly supplied by the authors above, for me one children’s author towers above all the rest: C S Lewis. His evocation of the sheer sensuous pleasure of food – the smell, touch, taste, texture – is enough to both whet the appetite and satisfy it at the same time. I challenge anyone reading the Narnia books not to want to dive into the ‘very sweet and foamy and creamy’ hot drink the White Witch gives Edmund in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, or slake their thirst with the delectable fruit that refreshes the exhausted heroes at the end of The Last Battle (my inspiration for the feast in Elysium that Ante and her companions tuck into in Ante’s Inferno, as I wrote about here).
Not Just Children
So I’m absolutely with Barry Cunningham in this, except I’d say he doesn’t go far enough. It’s not just children whose mouths will water at descriptions of glorious nosh; it works for adults too. No one knew this better than Charles Dickens, whose books abound in depictions of food so tempting the reader can practically taste the ‘red-hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth-cakes, and seething bowls of punch, that made the chamber dim with their delicious steam.’ (A Christmas Carol). There’s a joyfulness in these lines, a delight in the simple pleasure of good things to eat, that makes the reader feel all’s well with the world. You know that at some point in the story, the characters will sit down and partake of all these yummy things.
Do Jane Austen’s heroines live on air?
Which is why I felt so sorry for the heroine in Autumn de Wilde’s new film of Emma. (If you haven’t seen it, do – it is beautifully acted and directed and designed, costumes and set beyond praise.) Wonderful feasts are repeatedly laid out – for weddings, Christmas, social gatherings – with marvellous looking Regency meats, trifles, jellies, cakes and baskets of strawberries – and poor Emma is never allowed to taste a thing. All around her people tuck in with relish, while she never even picks up her cutlery. It is difficult, of course, to look elegant while eating, and certainly wading into such irresistible things as macaroons is used to comic effect with Miss Bates and Harriet Smith – but I can’t help feeling that is a mistake. Call me a killjoy, but the subliminal message is that only clumsy, unattractive women eat; luminously beautiful ones like Emma Woodhouse don’t. They live on… what, air?
Jane Austen would have had no time for such nonsense. Food for her was a serious, practical necessity, something her heroine had as much right to enjoy as anybody else. Indeed, Emma’s tactful ploys to get round her father’s instinctive fear of over- feeding his guests is a running joke in the story.
How ironic, then, that in de Wilde’s film, food appears to have no value for Emma herself; nor does it seem to have occurred to the director that starving the heroine might be a problem. But speaking as a devourer – in more ways than one – of great classic fiction, driven by real, flesh-and-blood characters – it is, believe me.
(From an article first published on Authors Electric Blog.)