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Food is Everywhere...even in Children's Books!!

This post was first shared on The Bookwallis Facebook page.


Food is ubiquitous. From growing it, to harvesting it, to buying it, to planning our days around it, to savouring it, to gifting or receiving permeates human lives.

It isn’t surprising then that we often find FOOD mentioned in children's books. As I read-aloud stories, I often come across references to food, even when the book is not food themed.

I find that these references offer us a wonderful opportunity for conversations about food. While these conversations should not take away from the theme of the story, an awareness of an opportunity present in a book, allows me to be ready when in the flow of the story, a reference to the food mentioned, attracts the attention of one of my students. It may also be something to draw the listeners attention to, on a re-reading or in casual conversations in the library or classroom. Food references are always attention grabbing, and offer me a wonderful opportunity of talking about our similarities and differences, casually, in the course of the story.

Image of picture book Ismat's Eid by Fawzia Gilani Williams

As I read aloud ISMAT’S EID to my elementary students, we came across the dish ‘Sheerkorma’, which Ismat’s mother Habiba was busy preparing. None of the children were familiar with this word, as here in the south it is known as ‘payasam’ and to those from up north as ‘kheer’. As soon as the children understood what the dish was, each one explained the version of payasam or kheer they love, or the one prepared most often in their homes. While some versions have vermicelli, others have rice, yet others ada, some made with sugar, others with jaggery...what stood out was the excitement at the thought of the dish and the openness to learn about a different version of the same dish.

While it may not directly impact their learning, I love that it creates the awareness that the thread of similarities across our different cultures and religions, is often stronger than the differences we see.

To illustrate my point, here are a few more examples:

Image of picture book 'Holes in the Sky' by Patricia Polacco

In Patricia Polacco’s HOLES IN THE SKY, as they lie on the grass looking up at the stars, Tricia’s Babushka tells her and her brother that stars are holes in the sky... “Soon I must go there, but I'll be watching over you both through those holes each and every night.” When her Babushka passes away, Tricia looks for a sign from her grandmother which would tell her that her Babushka was watching her. When she moves to a new city and meets Stewart, she meets his grandmother. There is so much about Ms. Eula that reminds Trisha about her Babushka. But it is the simple tradition of her Babushka’s, that of dabbing dots of vanilla essence behind her ears, which even Ms Eula does, that shows Trisha that Babushka is is not just in the sky, but is right in front of her, in the form of Ms. Eula.

These tiny kitchen traditions, either while cooking or eating or involving a food item, are all wonderful triggers to explore traditions within our own homes. Most often these are traditions we take for granted. By talking about them, we help our students develop mindfulness in everything they do.

“Muh meetha karo.” is something we often hear and do often on an auspicious occasion.

Flicking salt over our left shoulder, whenever salt is a good way to talk about superstitions with older children and encourage them to look into whether there is any truth behind them.

Image of picture book 'The Bee Tree' by Patricia Polacco

THE BEE TREE also by Patricia Polacco, takes us through the wonderful tradition of ‘tasting’ a book, by pouring honey on the cover. A tradition that Mary-Ellen’s ancestors followed to encourage their young ones to read.

“There is sweetness inside a book too!” he said thoughtfully. “ Such things...adventure, knowledge and wisdom. But these things do not come easily. You have to pursue them. Just like we ran after the bees to find their tree, so you must also chase these things through the pages of a book!”

In India too we have wonderful traditions before a child is first introduced to school. Friends shared a tradition of writing alphabets on grains of rice. Some have the ceremony done at home, others at a temple.

Children could be encouraged to share their traditions around learning and reading. It could be religious, cultural or unique to their families.

What are your traditions with regard to learning and reading? Please share them in the comments.

Image of picture book Chicken Sundays by Patricia Polacco

The children love their ‘Chicken Sundays’ with miss Eula. She makes fried chicken, collard greens with bacon and a host of other accompaniments for the perfect Sunday dinner. As Miss Eula sits down one Sunday, to a perfect Easter meal,she sighs with satisfaction and says, “Oh baby dears, I can die happy now. And after I’m dead, on Chicken Sundays, I want you to boil up some chicken - bones, gravy, and all - and pour it over my grave. So late at night when I’m hungry, I can reach right out and have me some.” When the children grow up and Miss Eula is no more, they keep their promise to her.

It may sound creepy, but how many of these traditions in memory and honour of our ancestors do we do in our everyday lives?

In my own community we make a bowl of ‘Atola’ a kind of sweet porridge made with new rice, beans, jaggery and coconut. A bowl is left out on the table on the night before All Souls day, the second of November, in the belief that the souls who are roaming around on that night will come and eat it.

In Chennai, my neighbours put food out for the Kaka (crow), who they believe are their ancestors.

By sharing them and talking about these traditions, we help acknowledge death as something most natural and help reinforce the respect we give to our ancestors, when we remember and honour them.

Image of picture book The Village with the Long Name by Asha Nehemiah

Asha Nehemiah’s THE VILLAGE WITH A LONG NAME, offered us the opportunity to discuss our favourite Indian sweets, with each child wishing that a van with their favourite sweet would get lost and stop by our school. Another saw Shekar’s tea shop and talked about their favourite ‘potti kadai’, the little shops in our neighbourhoods, or those we find when we travel, each one serving up just the delicacies we crave.

Errr….no Starbucks is NOT a ‘potti kadai’...even if people drink tea and biscuits and hang out. So what is the difference? Good discussions to have around multinational chains, homegrown brands and our tiny independent food entrepreneurs. Who should we patronise and why?

Image of picture book ' Last Stop on Market Street' by Matt de la Pena

In THE LAST STOP ON MARKET STREET, a grandma and her grandson take a bus ride to the last stop on Market Street. Along the way, grandma shows her little grandson how to appreciate all that they have.

“[CJ]...wondered how his nana always found beautiful where he never even thought to look.”

They do not have much, but yet the book poignantly tells us, the last stop is a soup kitchen, where they volunteer every Sunday...feeding people less fortunate than them. This is a wonderful trigger to discuss caring and providing for those less fortunate than us. What is a soup kitchen? Who goes there? What do they serve there? What does it mean to volunteer? Can I make a difference? Is hunger a problem? How can I help?

In this crazy world, our lives are unpredictable and ever changing. Many of us are living far away from family. It is the traditions we practise that are a source of stability and identity. Food traditions in particular are easily remembered, given food’s unique ability to bring people together and bring much joy.

As an educator, I look for ways to encourage my students to share their culture, and to start these discussions within their own homes. When these food discussions are brought back to the library/ group, we can offer our students a taste, a smell, a feeling of another culture, increasing respect and understanding between children from different cultural groups.

I do however believe that children should question traditions. Often there is reasoning and wisdom behind them, quite often, not. Especially with my older students, I prod them to question the reasoning behind, especially superstition.

Learning to touch deeply the jewels of our own tradition will allow us to understand and appreciate the values of other traditions.- THICH NHAT HANH

Books mentioned in this post are:

1. Ismat’s Eid Author: Fawzia Gilani Williams Illustrator: Proiti Roy

2. Holes in the sky Author and Illustrator: Patricia Polacco

3. The Bee Tree Author and Illustrator: Patricia Polacco

4. Chicken Sunday’s Author and Illustrator: Patricia Polacco

5. The Village with the Long Name Author: Asha Nehemiah Illustrator: Suvidha Mistry

6. The Last stop on Market Street Author: Matt de la Pena Illustrator: Christian Robinson

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4 comentários

We associate different food/fruit/vegetables with different regions or countries. It's fun to learn what came from where originally, such as potatoes, chilies, tomato, corn, sapotas all coming from Central and South America. I have seen books for adults explaining the journeys of what we eat, but are you aware of any books for children that include what comes from where and how they traveled?

There is also a recent title from Tulika that highlights food or agricultural products from different regions of India, in a fun way: Many Colours of Us!

JoAnne Saldanha
JoAnne Saldanha
01 de jun. de 2023
Respondendo a

There is a book for older children that I haven't read yet called 'History Dishtory'.

This is the first in a series of posts on food....look out for the rest which I will share over the next fortnight.


Membro desconhecido
01 de jun. de 2023

What a lovely post! A few of my favourites include: Granny Torelli Makes Soup by Sharon Creech.

Everything on a Waffle by Polly Horvath is another one. Thundercake by Patricia Polacco and the surprising addition of tomato to cake.

I like the point you make about food adding layers without becoming the main theme of the book.

JoAnne Saldanha
JoAnne Saldanha
01 de jun. de 2023
Respondendo a

Thank you for your comment and suggestion. I haven't heard about the first two you mention, but will look them up now...I love Sharon Creech's writing. And Thundercake, I must reread.

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