Nodelman, P. 'Becoming
What You Eat.' The Horn book
magazine, 2006, 82:3, pp.265-271
Becoming What You Eat
Ihave eaten sardines and the occasional doughnut. I have eaten many potatoes—mostly fried. Fortunately for me, however, there’s no truth in the saying, “You are what you eat.” I’m not a sardine, nor a potato, nor yet a doughnut. Nevertheless, I’ve often been invited to think of myself as being these things or wanting to become them. “So you want to be a sardine,” says the opening of Chris Raschka’s Arlene Sardine (Orchard). It assumes I already want to be what I’m reading about—which, in the case of this sardine or of the potatoes in Toby Speed’s Brave Potatoes (Putnam) or the doughnut hero of Laurie Keller’s Arnie the Doughnut (Holt), is what I eat. This is strange. Why would I want to think of myself as being a sardine or a potato or a doughnut? Sardines are, surely, uncomfortably oily, and they live too close to their neighbors. Potatoes have too many eyes and not enough mouths or ears—or brains. Doughnuts have an empty hole at the very core of their being. Above all, doughnuts—and potatoes, and even sardines—get eaten. Yet many children’s books describe the lives of more or less edible beings in ways that clearly invite young readers to identify with them.
Nor is it just food. Children’s stories so often ask children to see themselves as talking ducks or bunnies or even potatoes that we simply take it for granted. Such stories exist, probably, because we tend to believe that children imagine the world as filled with beings like themselves—that it’s childlike thinking to give sardines consciousness, to believe that the doughnut you’re eating wishes to give you the pleasure of eating it, or the sidewalk you tripped on was deliberately out to get you. In my own experience, children aren’t always so egocentric—and in any case, it was Chris Raschka, an adult, who thought up the hopeful sardine, and Toby
Speed, an adult, who cooked up the brave potatoes. By presenting children with this world of sentient objects as a given, as what we believe they already imagine and ought therefore to enjoy, we265
266adults may well be teaching children how to be childlike—encouraging them to think in the ways we expect and, presumably, approve of for children.
Our ideas about identifying with literary characters—seeing ourselves as the sardines we read about—confirm that. As usually described, the process has two stages. First, you recognize that a character shares characteristics with you—that because you are small and bored, you can recognize yourself in the small bored rabbit in a story. Then, you follow along as something happens to the character that leads it to a realization and thus teaches it a lesson—a lesson that, since you identify, you take to be a truth about yourself. If the potatoes turn out to be brave, then so can you be. This process assumes that identification leads to a change in attitude— to learning.
At first glance, identification seems to be egocentric. Adults I talk with about literature often tell me that they don’t like certain texts because they can’t, as they say, “relate” to them. Sometimes they mean merely that they find the texts boring or confusing. Often, though, they mean they can’t understand the aspects of a text that diverge from experiences they’re already familiar with, or that they are unwilling to empathize with its characters, or that they can’t see the characters’ situations as relevant to their own lives and concerns. All these suggest the same strategy for responding to stories: reading them as if they were about ourselves. But literature can be about people unlike ourselves and still be entertaining, can give us rich insights into the lives of others as well as confirmation of ourselves. Furthermore, taking pleasure in depictions of The Other is something young children can learn— and the sooner, surely, the better.
In any case, identifying with a character is rarely if ever an act of self-confirmation. It almost always contains an invitation to change as the characters we identify with change—to become different from what we already are. Furthermore, the original step of making an identification with a character also involves learning and change. It’s an act of self-perception, a way of understanding what you are already: “I am small like the sardine. I am therefore sardinelike.” That’s why identification, doubly determined to convince us of someone else’s idea of who we should be, is dangerous. Consider, for instance, Raschka’s phrase “So you want to be a sardine.” It invites agreement: “Of course! You’re right! I do want to become a sardine!” In assuming readers are already hoping what it seems266
267to want them to hope for, this sentence appears to invite a thoughtless agreement with it and an acceptance of the surely questionable desirability of sardinehood. It hooks us before the rest of the book spells out the awful implications of being hooked.
Unless, of course, readers are able to resist the identification. Many adults would agree with the views expressed by an Amazon reviewer of Arlene Sardine: “What’s not okay here? Manipulation by the author to try and convince the reader that it was okay for Arlene to want to become a sardine.” While adults with views like these clearly haven’t accepted the invitation to identify themselves, they worry that less experienced readers will accept it and be endangered by it. They believe that identification ought to happen— for how else are we to socialize children into an acceptance of our view of who they ought to be?—and usually does. And that’s why youngsters need to be protected from the likes of Arlene Sardine.
If readers like the Amazon reviewer trusted their own refusal of Raschka’s invitation to sardinehood, they might consider another possibility—that there’s something fishy about this book, something that subverts identification. So you want to be a sardine? Frankly, no, I don’t. The strange assumption that I do makes me keenly aware that I don’t. Surely few people ever have. Surely, specifically, few children have. This might be less a book267
268to identify with than a book about the perils of identifying. There are clearly perils. While few of us might wish sardinehood on our young, there’s a long history of stories that make no bones about inviting children to identify with equally repressed and therefore repressive objects: little engines that learn to stay on the tracks or little fish that learn to stop wanting to be more than they already are. Furthermore, even if the engine discovered that tracks are an evil capitalist plot or the fish finally embraced change and became a bluebird, a young reader’s acceptance of the identification itself represents a form of repression, an identity molded to suit the needs and desires of others. I find myself wondering if inviting children to identify is always dangerous, even when its educational goals are ones we might approve of. If so, might there be ways we can arm young readers against the harm? Are there stories that ask for identification but also include elements that undermine it—as Arlene Sardine appears to do? Or can we discover reading practices that might create a safe distance even in stories that don’t appear to want to allow it? In search of some answers, I’ll look at a few stories that invite identification specifically with
269food. The most significant fact about food is that we do eat it. Cookies and parts of pigs and lambs get chewed, swallowed, devoured, destroyed. Any story inviting identification with food is inherently a horror story. Like all horror stories, like Dracula’s evocation of the fear of the alien invader, it is a confrontation with things we find frightening that allows us to confront and control our fears.
Many children’s stories are about eaters being eaten or being threatened with being eaten. Little Red Riding Hood brings food to her grandmother, but nearly gets eaten herself before she ends up enjoying lunch with a woodsman. The Gingerbread Man, baked in order to fill the role of a child for a childless old man and woman, runs away from childhood only to find the fate of all other gingerbread men, in the salivating mouth of a fox. In tales like these, young beings who reject parental or otherwise conventional adult ideas about who they should be or how they ought to behave risk becoming food for predators—their humanity or childlikeness rejected or denied in favor of bodily desires that then allow others to hunger for their bodies. Better, it seems, to be the obedient or provident child your parents see you as and/or want to mold you into than the defenseless and edible object you actually are. If these are horror stories, the horror is the acknowledgment of the innate vulnerability of human bodies. We are what can be eaten.
On the other hand, Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit steals food from Mr. McGregor’s garden, where his father was killed and put into a pie by Mrs. McGregor—and gets away with it, an act of resistance to being food that strangely defies his rabbit nature. In Frank and Devin Asch’s more recent book Mr. Maxwell’s Mouse (Kids Can), Mr. Maxwell, a fat-cat businessman—or more exactly, a fat businessman cat—celebrates his promotion by ordering a mixed green salad and raw mouse at the Paw and Claw restaurant. The mouse in question, unusually talkative for an entrée, seems quite happy with his status as food until he tricks the cat into slicing into his own tail and makes his escape. These brave child surrogates all develop mastery not by being protected from their own edibility by adopting others’ views of who they ought to be but by denying it and transcending it by themselves. But like Little Red Riding Hood or the Gingerbread Man, they can survive only if they have or develop an understanding of themselves as being dangerously edible, in need of protection by themselves or others. All these books express concern about the fragility of childlike bodies—their propensity for269
270being weak enough and, in their weakness, yummy enough to whet the appetites of hungry predators. You are indeed what others eat. You need protection from would-be eaters. In revealing how children can and do escape being eaten, these texts are reassuring— horror stories with happy endings. But they can reassure only those who accept the idea of their vulnerable edibility in the first place. Are children really so frightened of their own vulnerability? Why do so many adults want them to believe they are? Is it because we worry about their immature lack of consciousness of their need for our protection? Or is it, sometimes, because we worry that a mature perception of their own ability to fend for themselves might deprive us of our significance to them? It’s interesting that Peter Rabbit has to pay for his independent triumph with a stomachache and maternal pampering. We adults desperately wish children to believe in their vulnerability— to think of themselves as inherently foodlike. These texts are wish-fulfillment fantasies for adults.
In Arnie the Doughnut, Arnie refuses to be food, and ends up happily ever after as a pet—a “doughnut-dog.” It’s revealing that Arnie becomes a pet—a being both less than human and always humanized by those it lives with, a creature existing somewhere halfway between the animal and the human, the edible and the eater. For a lot of adults, that exactly describes childhood itself— the state of being more than the mere animal you were born as but not quite yet the civilized adult human you will become, a form of existence that both allows your divergence from adult standards of rationality and behavior and defines your need for adult supervision and control. For a lot of adults, children and pets have all too much in common.
Personally, I believe children deserve better. For all the charm and humor of Arnie the Doughnut, children are not doughnuts, and inviting them to think that they are as a way to keep them safe from their own supposed weakness is an expression of the adult power they need defenses against. They need to be suspicious of the process of identification. They need more Arlene Sardines. They need more books like Eric Rohmann’s Pumpkinhead (Knopf), in which Otho, born with a pumpkin for a head, achieves only a temporarily happy ending that does not stop him from being edible or turn him into something more normally human. His mother tells him, “‘You must be more careful, Otho . . . You know the world will always be difficult for a boy with a pumpkin for a head.’ And Otho found that suited him just fine.” Unlike Arnie, he doesn’t
271have to become something he isn’t in order to be happy—he just has to be happy about being what he already is, an edible being who eats other edible beings, a body and the personality more or less firmly attached to it, a paradoxical combination of an organic substance and a human ideal of childlikeness. For all the books in which doughnuts cease to be doughnuts and turn into something more safely like what parents wish their children to be, child readers need more tools to see beyond the habits of mind and the processes of reading literature that such books take for granted. They need, in other words, to learn to read critically. The more we help them to develop the tools to do that, the more healthy and nutritious will be the books they read.
Perry Nodelman teaches children’s literature at the University of Winnipeg and is the editor of CCL, the Canadian children’s literature journal. This article is adapted from his Gryphon Lecture, delivered on March 3, 2005. The Gryphon
Lecture is sponsored by the Youth Literature Interest Group at the Center for Children’s Books at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign.