Bruce's cake and James' giant peach: food in kids' books

Quentin Blake's illustration in The Twits
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Reading Roald Dahl as a child was utterly disturbing. I was terrified of The Witches’ pea soup which turned people into mice, I didn’t like the sound of Bunce’s goose fat-filled doughnuts and sedative laced raisins used to poach pheasants in Danny, the Champion of the World seemed a little violent. I was kind of intrigued by the Twit's worm spaghetti. Eating habits in Dahl’s novels defined the morals of his characters; the greediest characters were the nastiest, the hungriest characters who savoured their food the most had the biggest hearts. Charlie saved up to buy that fortuitous bar of Whipple-Scrumptious Fudgemallow Delight while Augustus (who nearly ate his golden ticket) stuck his big head into the forbidden chocolate river. Overworked James savoured the terrific giant peach, the BFG suffered eating slimy snozzcumbers to protest eating children, while Miss Trunchbull tortured poor Bruce (Bruce! Bruce! Bruce!) with his favourite food.

In children’s literature, food is often used to define characters; children understand food, it is all their world contains for the first few years. Imaginatively disgusting food evokes repulsion; delicious, forbidden feasts on sugary foods are what dreams are made of. As kids we snuck around kitchen cupboards to find hidden chocolate (in the absence of chocolate, glace cherries and icing sugar sufficed), we stayed up till midnight to feast on saved up snacks and didn’t tell our parents when Nan snuck us sugar cubes at lunch. We were denied treats if we didn't behave, we were told that some things are ‘bad’ for us, which made us want it even more.

Children’s authors can’t relate to readers in the way other fiction does; children don’t know about falling in love, they don’t need to read about death or sex, nor do they need to reminisce or therapise through pondering their difficult teenage years. Food is their only metaphor; they understand why Tiger needed to come for tea, they empathise with the Hungry Caterpillar’s unfulfillable hunger. The alluring Turkish Delight in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe makes Edmund feel ‘...quite warm now, and very comfortable'; how else could an author depict the ultimate temptation? Children are indulgent humans who are curious about the one thing that was always verified; there’s always more delicious food to try.