A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.

My Favourite Fictional Feast

An enchanting focus on food, glorious food is one of the loveliest things about a lot of children’s and YA literature. Where in many cases adult lit will talk about a meal, or even set a scene while one is taking place, without giving any details of what the characters are actually eating (with some notable exceptions, like the marvellous Joanne Harris) in young adult and children’s books the writer is more likely to suspend the plot for a little while in order to provide a full page of description of every delightful repast, and then reluctantly edit it down to a mere two or three of paragraphs later on.

When I saw this week’s topic I instantly thought of famously foodie writers like C.S. Lewis (whose description of the soft boiled eggs, sardines on toast and cake provided by Mr Tumnus for Lucy still makes grown adults drool) and Brian Jacques, author of the Redwall Series (who said that one of the most frustrating things about reading as a child was when authors wrote about feasts without describing the food). But then the memory of another literary food description struck me, and I realised that fictional feasts, in the hands of a cunning author, can be about even more than food…

My favourite fictional feast, then, must come from Tamora Pierce. Ms Pierce is famous for her action-packed, diverse, Feminist stories. But back when I was eighteen, re-discovering her work for the first time since I was about eleven, and learning to my joy that she’d written a whole shed-load of new books which I’d never read before, I didn’t know any of that. I didn’t know about the debate on diversity and white-washing which was slowly gaining pace in among YA circles. I didn’t know that Tamora Pierce was an activist and ally.

I just knew that I loved her storytelling and wanted to read everything she’d written.

So there I was, midway through the Circle of Magic books, which had a setting a little bit akin to the ancient silk roads, with characters from a whole variety of cultures and backgrounds, and with a whole variety of skin colours. I’d vaguely noted this, but I don’t think it had really penetrated my thick skull. I was pretty much still imagining all the characters as ‘like me’ – and gleefully skipping over descriptions of their differing races so that I could find out What Happened Next. And then this:

“Her back cramped. She needed to stretch. As she stood with a groan her sensitive nose, caught the enticing smell of food. Someone had left a tray on the table with a pitcher of juice, a plate of couscous and chicken, a cup of spicey chickpeas, and a platter of unleavened bread. Using her fingers she scooped up couscous as the people of Bijan and Sotat did and jammed it into her mouth.”  

Not unnaturally, I thought: Nom. And then I thought: WOW. Suddenly and for the first time, it was real to me that the characters I was reading about – whose lives I had become so deeply involved in – were different from me. That their world was different to mine. When they were working hard and someone brought them a snack on a tray, it wasn’t a ham sandwich and an apple. It was unleavened bread and couscous! And I realised what a brilliant way this was for authors to get through to readers like me who had a sort of ‘Whatever I Just Want To Know What Happens Next’ shield in place. Food is a universal language.

Of course, it doesn’t always work. When I wrote Daughter of the Flames – a multicultural fantasy set in a matriarchal culture of dark-skinned people which has been invaded and occupied by a pale-skinned, militaristic, patriarchal people – I lingered lovingly over all the details of the world that I was creating, but most especially the food. This didn’t stop one respected review journal from writing that the book’s setting was ‘standard Medieval Europe’ even as they praised the descriptions of spiced goat stew and black cherry jam. Some people are *determinedly* oblivious.

But for the rest of us… well, if you enjoy fictional feasts as much as I do, then why not let them take you all around the world?


(Note: the quoted section comes from Daja’s Book).



This entry was posted on December 9, 2013 by and tagged , , , , , .

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