family · food · overeating

RIP Eric Carle, or the conundrum of food in children’s books

CW: discusses diet, weight stigma

The other day, famous children’s book author Eric Carle passed away. I was a bit sad, since The very hungry Caterpillar is a firm favourite in this house at the moment (picture proof below). The tiny human is still too small to understand the text, but he loves looking at the pictures and sticking his tiny fingers into the holes the caterpillar makes into the different foods it eats.

A baby kneeling on the floor, playing with a copy of the book “A very hungry Caterpillar” by Eric Carle.

The Internet was awash with lovely stories about Eric Carle, like this one about how he helped a woman find her missing cat. So the story of an interview he gave The Paris Review about getting into a fight with his publisher over the hungry caterpillar’s diet fit right in: apparently, Carle had not wanted the caterpillar to have a tummy ache after its epic binge fest just before its metamorphosis, but his publisher insisted that the consumption of that much (and, on top of that, unhealthy) food be followed by some kind of punishment.

The only problem: the interview was quickly debunked as a parody. It was part of an April Fool’s issue of The Paris Review. Like many others, I was sad to hear that. Which begs the question: why? Why did it get so much traction in the first place?

I mean, I get it. Even before reading this, I’d always felt a bit sad the caterpillar doesn’t get away with just enjoying its feast. But I hadn’t given that feeling any conscious thought. Now I want to explore it. I’ve done much less structured thinking than my fellow bloggers on here on the issue of weight stigma, body shaming, and how these link with eating, so I’m a bit worried I won’t find the right words here. But let me try.

I think it has to do with an underlying awareness that our relationship with food and eating is fraught, and a wish that it weren’t so. Shouldn’t innocent children be entitled to a story in which a caterpillar gets to give in to its instinct of eating? After all, it needs to, so it can transform into a beautiful butterfly. Instead, our poor caterpillar is loaded with all the fraught feelings adults have around “overeating” and food, and the twisted ways in which we project these feelings onto our kids. Sam has written about this on numerous occasions.

The issue of the fake interview and the reactions it got perfectly illustrates what Sam calls “our romantic ideas of children as ‘natural eaters,’ on the one hand, and as out of control eaters, wantons, on the other” (here). On the one hand, we think the idea of a caterpillar overindulging in a range of foods including cherry pie and a lollipop – like a child might – is cute. On the other, there has to be a teaching moment in this, because we don’t want our children to “overindulge” (and become overweight). And at the same time, the idea that the author himself did not want to include the punishment, but was forced to do so by the publisher, reinforces exactly that dichotomy: wouldn’t it be nice if food were innocent for children? Oh no, but it can’t be! There has to be a punishment! Because what if The very hungry Caterpillar ends up encouraging kids to engage in unhealthy overeating, contributing to what is often framed as an ‘obesity pandemic’? We can’t have that! Somebody (the publisher) has to play the bad cop and stop it (but what a spoilsport).

In this narrative, Eric Carle, the beloved author, takes the side of the “innocent” children, the strict publisher the role of a disciplinarian imposing an unwanted but necessary consequence. Just like with food. Ugh. It’s all quite twisted and there’s a lot of projecting and wishing things were different and we all had a more “innocent” and “childlike” relationship with food.

But the whole thing only goes to show that in our society, food is anything but innocent or something to be enjoyed freely. It has to be regulated and judged. That makes me sad too, and I almost want to change the story for my son before he is old enough to read it himself and demand the “correct” version. Maybe next time, I’m going to tell the part following the caterpillar’s dinner party like this: “That night, he felt quite full. The next day was a Sunday again, and the caterpillar was a little hungry again. He wanted a small snack, so he ate through one nice, green leaf. After that, he wasn’t hungry anymore.” Sound good?

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