Last week the Centre for Childhood Cultures reading group discussed the role and representation of food in children’s literature and media. Of course, C.S Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe had made a lot of us want to try Turkish Delight when we were young, and we collectively shuddered at the ways children are punished for gluttony in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory — but one subject which quickly came up and really caught my attention was that of children as food.
It’s a pervasive theme when you actually start to think about it. Here are some examples:
- The oysters are eaten by the Walrus and the Carpenter in both Lewis Carroll’s poem, and in Disney’s animated film version of Alice in Wonderland (where they are definitively coded as children)
- Hansel and Gretel are almost eaten by the witch, who in turn dies in an oven
- Little Red Riding Hood is eaten by a wolf – and in some versions she is not cut out again
- There are child-eating giants in Roald Dahl’s The BFG
- In ‘Jack and the Beanstalk,’ the giant threatens to eat Jack and grind his bones to bread
- In a nursery rhyme/campfire song, Cecil the Caterpillar eats his entire family (including his baby) before vomiting them back up again
- Vampires, like those in Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight saga – the exception being Sesame Street’s The Count who, despite fan theories, does not appear to eat any of the children who feature on the program
- Nemo’s siblings in Pixar’s Finding Nemo are all eaten by a barracuda (assuming fertilized eggs count?)
- The food Jelly Babies. They feature in a sequel to the film Johnny English, but moreover, the concept of eating confectionary infants is bizarre enough to warrant inclusion on the list, especially as the first Jelly Babies were instead known as ‘Unclaimed Babies’
The long list of child-eaters in children’s fiction or other media can be further broken down by asking some simple questions:
Are those doing the eating feeding on their own babies or other people’s babies? Are they:
- Cannibals – for example Cecil the caterpillar who not only eats his own species but his own family. Furthermore, do witches eating humans count as cannibalism?
- Interspecies child eaters – such as the Wolf in Little Red Riding Hood
Do they eat the whole or do they only eat part of the child?
Vampires only drink blood whereas the giant in ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ states he will ‘grind your bones to make my bread’ which might suggest a more nose-to-tail. The witch in ‘Hansel and Gretel’ appears to have been planning on preparing and cooking the children much like one might handle a roast chicken so presumably she would only have eaten the cooked flesh rather than their bones and innards. Though, she might have saved their bones to make a good stock.
We discussed the various reasons why child-eating might be so pervasive in children’s media – a potent mix of stranger-danger, carnivore safety, societal power dynamics, or a reminder of child mortality. Perhaps in some instances the theme exists only as something that was guaranteed to frighten children consuming such media (pun intended!)! There is no easy or overarching answer to the amount of child consumption in children’s media, however, one thing is very clear: I will never look at Jelly Babies the same way again.
About the author: Charlotte Slark is an AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Partnership (CDP) Student at QMUL and the V&A Museum of Childhood. Her research examines the social and cultural history of the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood from 1974-2010. Her research interests are museums, structural inequality, class, and bureaucracy.