Do you remember food from childhood books? Winnie the Pooh is synonymous with honey, Paddington with marmalade, the Famous Five with ginger beer. The tiger came for tea, the caterpillar was very hungry, and Narnia wouldn’t have been the same without tea with Mr Tumnus. Food functions as a symbol of togetherness. The OECD found that students who do not eat regularly with their parents are more likely to truant, that children were more likely to be overweight if they didn’t eat with their family at least twice a week (European Congress on Obesity 2014). In a topic close to my heart, researchers found that young children learned 1,000 rare vocabulary words at a family dinner, compared with 143 from a storybook reading (Catherine E Snow and Diane E Beals, 2006).
Three authors have cleverly woven food into their recently published family stories. Do have a look at each very different title.
A Library of Lemons by Jo Cotterill
A sad and touching middle grade story about ten year old Calypso. She lives with her father, and they are both grieving for the death of Calypso’s mother. Her father is suffering so much that his mental health deteriorates and he starts to obsess over lemons for a book he is writing on the History of the Lemon.
Calypso has been told by her father to nourish her inner strength – to show the world a steely exterior rather than exposing her emotions – so she nourishes herself with books and stories. In a compellingly poignant portrayal, Calypso’s Dad is neglectful because of his all-consuming grief, and the cupboards in the kitchen are starkly empty.
Although a loner, and Cotterill portrays this part of Calypso particularly well, leaving the reader feeling that solitude is not a black and white issue – there is loneliness and then there is wanting to be more solitary than others – Calypso does find a friend in Mae, and through her, a family, complete with family meals, and warm, giving parents who expose what is so severely lacking in her own home circumstances. The scenes with Mae shine with affection and are particularly engaging.
Jo Cotterill writes with emotional insight and tenderness in this well-crafted novel. From her clever perversion of the lemons – usually such bright, alluring, wonderfully scented fruits – she twists the metaphor so that the lemons are hidden and grow hard – revealing what happens when fruit is kept in dark places, and when emotions are left hidden in dark places rather than expressed and managed.
By contrasting darkness and light, inner and outer, family/friendship as opposed to loneliness, Jo Cotterill reveals how Calypso can come out of herself and forge a new way forwards for herself and her father. It’s compelling reading and draws on the point that there are always some adults on hand to help a child through such a crisis – from friends to a support network of child carers.
There are some good insights too about children wanting to please their parents and meet expectations, the benefits of writing as a way of venting emotion, and of course, as you will guess from the title, a liberal sprinkling of literary references, and a paean to reading and its comfort.
The characters feel well developed, the ending is not too saccharine – it’s uplifting but with a hint of realism that grief/depression cannot just be turned off like a switch. Easy to read, not too sentimental – this is a bittersweet novel. For age 9+ years. You can buy it here.
Caramel Hearts by ER Murray
A slightly older, much grittier read, Caramel Hearts tells the story of 14 year old Liv. Liv resides with her older sister while her mother recovers in a unit for alcoholics. Whilst her mother is away, Liv discovers a homemade book of recipes, written in her mother’s hand, and clearly at a time in the past of love and happiness. Liv endeavours to make the recipes within, in the hope that some of that love will come dripping back into her life. Sadly, at the same time, she has to contend with issues at school, lack of money, and her own anger, which comes flooding out of her at the slightest tension or confrontation.
This is such a character-led book that the reader feels invested in Liv from the start, which is important, as Liv doesn’t behave brilliantly. ER Murray’s portrayal of her – her inability to keep her emotions in check, even when necessary – her spontaneous and often not very well thought out decision making, and her wish to fit in, lead her to make some particularly unwise decisions, and yet she garners intense understanding from the reader precisely because she is so well-defined and so real in so many ways.
ER Murray is good at drawing the distinction between right and wrong, and yet at the same time, giving the reader those grey areas of discovery as teens grow and learn which path to choose.
There are some excellent scenes – and a particularly disturbing case of hardcore bullying, as well as the problems and uncertainty that go with being the child of an alcoholic.
Secondary characters are also nicely drawn – no one is completely good or bad – and, as with A Library of Lemons, there is a lovely supporting cast of adults who can help if given the chance – including a particularly wonderful dinner lady.
A love for food comes through of course – the recipes from the mother’s books are sprinkled throughout the text and seem easy to try, and there are references to music too.
The book is all about learning to stand up for what’s right – doing the right thing, but it makes no claims to provide easy solutions or quick fixes. As with the previous book reviewed, mental health – in this case, alcoholism, is dealt with carefully – it’s a long road, and there are no certainties.
Saying that, the ending is also uplifting – friendships are nurtured and thrive, food can be an equalizer, and forgiveness can be healing.
In the same way that A Library of Lemons toyed with darkness and light, this is sweet and sour – the joy that can come from finding a hobby/skill in the baking, the joy of sharing food with friends and family, and the sweetness of nostalgia for their mother in a more positive light, but also the sourness of doing the wrong thing, bullying, getting into trouble and not knowing how to get out of it. Age 12+ years. You can purchase it here.
Sweet Pizza by G R Gemin
For younger readers, with bite-size chapters, is the tale of Joe, a young boy growing up in Bryn Mawr, South Wales. Joe’s mother runs a café, inherited from her father and his parents – who were Italian migrants before the Second World War. The café is failing to make money, and the book follows Joe’s attempts to discover his Italian heritage and make the café great again.
As with the other books featured, food plays a strong role in this book, with Joe’s fascination with learning to cook, the other youths’ addiction to the unhealthy ‘chicken box’ takeaways over the road, and Joe’s cousin Mimi who visits from Italy, and seasons the town with her good looks, but also her belief in fresh ingredients, healthy eating and the healing power of a good meal.
The tone of this novel is hard to pin down – it’s written so starkly, so matter-of-fact and mainly through dialogue, and yet somehow Joe’s feelings do shine through. For this age group the sparseness of the language works quite well, and moves the plot along quickly, although personally I would have preferred some rounding of the parental figures’ characters and a little more detail and description, but saying that, this is an important book for the following reasons.
The backbone of the novel comes from Joe’s grandfather. During the course of the book he suffers a stroke and is hospitalised, but his recordings of his memories of wartime Wales are played as a backdrop throughout the story, and the warmth flows mainly from these recollections.
Joe learns, as does the reader, not only the facts about Italian migrants in Wales during the war – the terrible cost when they were interned during the war, but ultimately the kindness of the community that surrounded the immigrants in Wales.
The gradual realisation that history can teach us something, that having a thriving immigrant community can lend so much colour and vibrancy to a town, and that the kindness of a community can see people through hard times, is a valuable lesson to both Joe and young readers. It’s an interesting study to compare immigrant experiences then and now, and debate the meaning of patriotism, migrants, heritage, and community.
Gemin weaves food and taste throughout his book – from the Italian food to the Polish supermarket across the road, and the coming together at family mealtimes as well as the community (Joe interacts with bus drivers, the doctor’s receptionist, and a whole host of other figures who make up his town). There are also some well-handled incidences in which Joe’s mum is worried about her son’s weight, and steers him away from the greasy takeaways.
An infusion of opera and its stories pervades the text too, and the mouth-watering descriptions of the coffee aroma and bubbling tomato sauces leave the reader lusting after their own home-made Italian meal. Bravissimo. Age 8+ years. You can buy it here.