Food in Children's Literature


Food, glorious food! From cakes that say ‘Eat me’ and Willie Wonka’s chocolate-milk cows to the little hungry caterpillar’s excessive appetite and false feasts offered by dangerous despots, food is abundant in children’s literature.


Raising questions about plenty versus scarcity, sensuality and control, the excess of food in these texts and the persistent link between food cultures and childhood can be traced back to medieval folklore about magical lands of plenty, where the rivers flow with milk and honey, drumsticks hang from every tree, pancakes make delicious roof tiles and roast pigs walk around with forks in their backs. Called the Land of Cockaigne in English, tales of this magical place were prevalent throughout Europe in the middle ages.

It’s easy to see how these ideas and images have been preserved in children’s literature. In this resource, we will look at the ways in which food symbolism in children’s literature functions, tracing its origins in medieval desires for a world where no one would ever go hungry again and where the greedy could gorge to their heart’s content. Alongside this central theme, this resource also introduces and explores central ideas and debates in children’s literature criticism.


The aims of the activities are as follows:

• Activity 1: reflect critically on your own childhood reading

• Activity 2: identify food symbolism in an example from the visual arts

• Activity 3: carry out a close comparative reading of food details/scenes from sources across a broad historical range

• Activity 4: carry out a close comparative reading of food details/scenes from contemporary children's literature

Resource activities


This activity introduces some of the key debates in children’s literature criticism, including the difficulties associated with defining children’s literature and the problems caused by the power imbalance between adults and children. The task involves re-reading your own childhood favourites with a selection of questions to guide you towards a critical reading.


Food Symbolism

Many subgenres of children’s literature place a high level of importance on visual images such as illustrations, book covers and endpapers; therefore the study of children’s literature often uses ideas from the study of the visual arts. This activity invites you to apply visual literacy skills in interpreting an artist’s response to the Land of Cockaigne stories. 



This activity looks at the role played by the representation of the feast. Feasts in children’s literature – and in lore and literature more generally – can be used to communicate a multiplicity of meanings, both positive and negative. The task requires reading and comparing extracts from a range of literary sources which feature descriptions of feasts.


Themes of Food Symbolism

This activity provides an overview of some common themes of food symbolism in children’s literature along with a sample analysis extracted from a presentation given by a junior academic. The task centres on two slighter longer extracts than in the previous activity; it also includes information on the context of the extracts to help inform your response.


Reflective questions

To answer and record these questions you will need to have an account and be logged in.

Task 1

What are the key arguments, concepts, points contained within it?

Task 2

What are you struggling to understand?

What could you do to improve your understanding of these concepts/terminology etc.?

Task 3

What further questions has this resource raised for you?

What else are you keen to discover about this topic and how could you go about learning more?

Can you make any links between this topic and your prior knowledge or school studies?

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