Or, You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby… Carrots
If you haven’t read Mini Grey’s article on Picture Book Den titled Fury at the Farm, then do so. It’s about the representation of farms in picture books and how they shield the realities of factory farming from view. We grow up seeing farms as paradises where the animals live in harmony. And it got us thinking about food and farming in children’s books, and especially those that show where food comes from.
A simple online search throws up various reports of children not knowing where food comes from. Mostly reaction pieces by tabloids, but there have been a few surveys over the years. The most recent and reliable one I found was by the British Nutrition Foundation in 2017. You can read an article about it here. It’s a shame cheese doesn’t come from plants, but what children do or don’t know isn’t something to get angry or laugh about. It’s something we need to ask of ourselves and society as a whole. These surveys highlight many things we take for granted, though.
There is also the element of honesty. Certainly, where our food comes from links with animal rights. We do need to take care when discussing the how and why. How much detail do they need? I suppose it’s the same when addressing death, or any other sensitive topic. So, I’m not going to say you should be talking about abattoirs with children, and animals are only a part of the wider picture. What I can do though, is show you some books which show readers where the food they eat comes from.
Coincidentally, a book fell into my lap called The World That Feeds Us (Words & Pictures). It’s a book which shows how farming can be sustainable and environmentally kind. Feeding an increasing global population and an increasingly unpredictable climate are not friends. With our current technology, one has to make way for the other, and Team Industry is winning. The book is honest about the impacts of industrial farming on the planet and explains how alternative, though more traditional, methods are kinder to Mother Earth. So what does it tell us about where our food comes from? Actually, it probably tells us more about where our food should come from. From farms free of chemicals, as local as possible, and where people treat animals with dignity.
As Mini Grey suggests, food and farming in children’s books tend to show us what we’re aiming for as a society in terms of farming. This book is exactly that, and it reminds me that we need to be constantly asking ourselves, “Is there a better way of doing this?” Using technology is one way to help produce higher yields of crops. Utilising space, such as using rooftops and growing plants via hydroponics.
Something more reflective of what the majority of the world is like is Food and Fair Trade (2017) from educational publisher Wayland. Economics plays a huge role, and perhaps we don’t discuss it with children that much, if at all. Consumers demand lower costs, but producers need to make a profit. Consumers also want out-of-season food but don’t want to increase their carbon footprint. Again, these things are not friends. This book presents the facts about how our food gets to us and all the problems that go with it. There’s rarely a simple solution, and I think you learn that the older you get.
So far, I haven’t got to the basics. And you can rely on the EY and KS1 books to do this. The Follow My Food series by Scallywag Press has bright illustrations and clear information. Shelly Hen will certainly teach children where eggs come from. Not just chicken eggs, either. The extra details at the back will extend readers’ knowledge too. Milly Cow shows an image of a milking machine attached to a cow, followed by cartons of milk on a supermarket shelf. Readers don’t need to know what comes between, just where it’s from. Granny Pip also mentions seasonal fruit and how it is better for the planet.
What happens in between is really interesting. Lunchbox the Story of Your Food (Walker Books) is one to get for more detail on this, especially on the manufacturing side of things. Chocolate bars, bread, cheese, apple juice. All of these are made through a process… with machines, contraptions, and skills. I love a diagram. Throw in labels and arrows, and I’m anyone’s! The illustration of a row of dairy cows, I thought, was showing a “reality”. Something picked up by the survey mentioned earlier was a confusion of how carrots grow. Luckily there’s a nice diagram here.
Now. We do need to talk about meat. Nonfiction books seem to skirt around the issue or not mention it at all. Pig (Hachette) is an educational EY/KS1 book with troughs of info and photographs of these wonderful happy creatures. And a frank photograph of sausages on a BBQ. I don’t know why other nonfiction books can’t be as straightforward. Nonfiction is about presenting facts so children can learn and develop opinions for themselves. We can be honest without being inappropriate. If talking about killing an animal for food is taboo, then doesn’t that say something about whether we should be killing them at all?
From what I’ve read, books mention meat in regard to its environmental impact. Fiction is good on the ethics side. Probably because it involves emotion, although this shouldn’t be the case as it’s a philosophical issue. Albi the Glowing Cow Boy by Georgia Byng explores the experience of cattle farming from the point of view of the cows. The harsh reality that faces male calves will be eye-opening for some readers, I’m sure. Byng questions how Spain treats bulls for ‘entertainment’, and it will make you wonder about the word ‘livestock’. Charlotte’s Web did this in the 50s. Did many children stop eating Wilburs in the subsequent years after reading it?
This Book is Cruelty Free by Linda Newbury is a comprehensive look at animal rights across all aspects of our lives, including the food on our plates. I was about to say for year 6 and up, but why? Doesn’t that conflict with what I was saying earlier about being straightforward and honest? However, this book does have a section on slaughtering; the very word conjures horrific images. Apply the honesty/appropriateness equation here! Food and farming in children’s books does need careful consideration.
Where our food comes from is not only interesting, it’s something all age groups can discuss. And in as much detail as you want. Debated too. And debatable topics are complex topics. Even the initial question needs unpicking: does the ‘where’ mean the country? The animal or plant? Sea or land? Factory or nature? Supermarket or grown in a garden? So, if you hear a child say a certain food comes from the supermarket, you can say, “well actually it does”, “but also…”, “if…”, “when…”, “although…”.
Nikki Gamble talked to JB Gill about his book Ace and the Animal Heroes: Big Farm Rescue.