chocolate in kids’ books: fantasy or fallacy?


Um, some of you may have noticed that I’ve been a teeny bit obsessed with chocolate lately.

I’ve been dipping my nose in chocolate history and folklorepsychoanalyzing my relationship with chocolate, and trying hard to swallow my guilt. I’ve also been reading some well-known chocolatey fiction written for kids. 

Friends, I’ve detected a disturbing trend. 

Remember how I tried to figure out where my guilt came from? 

It could have been books!

Granted, I can’t remember exactly what I was reading back in the Pleistocene Period, when I was 8 or 9. But recently, I did re-read A Snout for ChocolateThe Chocolate Touch, Chocolate Fever, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It’s pretty hard to miss these titles if you’re a kid between the ages of 6 and 10, and like every other human being on earth, inextricably drawn to anything chocolate.

First off, all these books are fantasies. Makes sense. Chocolate is the stuff of fantasy, at any age. It’s also something everyone covets. Who doesn’t dream of having as much chocolate as they like, without any dire consequences? So, in all these stories, chocolate is held up as the ideal prize, the desirable object, definitely something to shoot for.

And, in all these stories, the characters with a strong love for chocolate are held up as examples of what not to do. They all have to learn their lessons about being greedy, and what happens when you love something too much.

Take A Snout for Chocolate, by Denys Cazet (HarperCollins, 2006). In this early reader (ages 4-8), Grandpa decides to entertain his poxed grandson, Barney, with a funny story about the time he was a firefighter and had to rescue obese, haughty Mrs. Piggerman, whose snout gets stuck to a frozen box of chocolates. Grandpa uses a hairdryer to melt the ice, so that Mrs. Piggerman can be pried from the refrigerator and lugged outside by five or six firemen. Grandpa says it would have been much easier to move the refrigerator.                     Cover Image

Just a funny story about a fat pig who ate too much? Or the eternal stereotype of the fat woman gorging herself on bonbons? When Grandpa first enters Mrs. Piggerman’s house, he sees candy wrappers strewn about and mutters, “Uh-oh, someone is off their diet.” Then when the firemen enter her kitchen, all they see is her huge backside. Too much chocolate is to blame for her size and predicament.

The Chocolate Touch, by Patrick Skene Catling (Morrow, 1952), and Chocolate Fever, by Robert Kimmel Smith (1972), both geared for early middle grade readers, feature similiar themes. In Catling’s book, a take-off on the King Midas legend, John Midas is greedy about all candy, but chocolate in particular. One day he finds a silver coin and wanders into a candy shop, where he buys a small ball of chocolate wrapped in gold foil. When he finally tastes it, he declares it to be the most chocolatey chocolate ever.

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But from then on, everything he touches turns to chocolate — his toothpaste, his pencil and notebook, all his food. Chocolate becomes the ultimate curse when he kisses his mother and she turns into a lifeless, chocolate statue. He rushes back to the candy shop and is told he must choose between losing his chocolate touch or his mother. Though he dreads the thought of any more all-chocolate meals, he has finally realized his selfish greed and begs for the return of his mother. 

In Chocolate Fever, Henry is similarly obsessed with chocolate, but Kimmel Smith tries to debunk a few anti-chocolate myths by stating early on:

It didn’t make him fat.
It didn’t hurt his teeth.
It didn’t stunt his growth.
It didn’t harm his skin.
Most of all, it never, never gave him a bellyache.

Still, Henry pays the price for his undying chocolate love when he breaks out in brown spots all over his body, which even smell like chocolate. The doctors are flummoxed but fascinated and treat Henry like a circus freak. Afraid and tired of being being poked and prodded, Henry runs away, is picked up by a kind trucker, and gets hijacked by some thieves, all the while learning lessons about moderation, courage, and prejudice. The cure for chocolate fever? Vanilla pills. The message? Chocolate = bad. Vanilla (or any other flavor) = good.

Finally, I looked at one of my all-time favorite children’s books, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl (Knopf, 1964). Hands down, this is THE ultimate chocolate fantasy, geared for upper middle grade readers. Dahl’s descriptions of his chocolate factory paradise never lose their appeal or deliciousness. Who wouldn’t love a chocolate river, invisible chocolate bars for eating in class, a craggy fudge mountain, or chocolate being sent to you through your television?

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But in Dahl’s book, the main character, Charlie, is not a chocolate glutton. He is, in fact, a poor boy living in a small house with his parents and two sets of grandparents. They have very little to eat and survive mostly on cabbage soup. His bleak, Dickensian existence garners so much sympathy from the reader, that when he gets the final golden ticket enabling him to visit Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, we are more than overjoyed. It also helps that Charlie appears to be unselfish, mannerly and very humble.

Not so, Augustus Gloop, another golden ticket winner. He is the token fat boy in the story, whose only hobby is eating, especially chocolate bars. When he contaminates the river of hot chocolate by lapping it up like a dog, he gets sucked up a glass pipe, and does not reappear again until the story’s end, thin and repentant. Once again, chocolate gets punished.

But why not Charlie? Because he’s perfect in every way. He is the only child who does not meet an unsavory end, like Veruca Salt, the spoiled brat, who gets thrown down a rubbish chute by a hundred squirrels; or Violet Beauregarde, who turns into a huge blueberry because of her gum chomping obsession, or Mike Teavee, who gets sent out of this world by T.V., shrinks, and gets stretched a little too much.

I love Dahl’s sardonic wit and wild imagination, and understand his desire to instill lessons to be learned in the story. Though Charlie truly loves chocolate, he never had the chance to become greedy about it, since he only ate one chocolate bar every birthday. All the other children in the story are used for Dahl’s moralizing, and Charlie emerges unscathed, as he inherits the factory from Mr. Wonka at the end.

Does this mean that only deprived, humble children deserve chocolate? We get the impression that once Charlie and his family move into the factory, they will subsist on candy. No punishment for them, though, they’ve suffered enough already.

Children love these books. They laugh at Dahl’s wacky characters and can sympathize with both John Midas and Henry Green. They can see the consequences of greediness and excess from a safe distance. Those are all good things. But I wonder about the use, time and again, of fat kids being associated with chocolate, especially the image of a fat female pig. With all these satiric fantasies, chocolate is the common scapegoat, as it’s been for the last six decades. It’s very easy to internalize chocolate’s negative connotations without even realizing it. 

Women, especially, seem especially vulnerable:

I’d really like a piece of chocolate, but I really shouldn’t.
I’ve had a hard day; I deserve some chocolate.
Something this delicious has got to be sinful.
A minute on the lips, forever on the hips.

The ultimate fantasy still seems to be the ultimate punishment.

Well, I tell myself, no wonder. 

Chocolate, forgive us.


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