Guest post by JoAnn Early Macken:I took part in a memorable Vermont College of Fine Arts workshop led by Marion Dane Bauer and Norma Fox Mazer. A tip I heard during a manuscript critique has stayed with me since then. My notes say, “Ground in reality before you can take off into fantasy—Madeleine L’Engle: start with food.”
I studied L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time to see what that quote meant. The book begins with Meg Murry in her attic bedroom during a storm, remembering a fight she’d had at school and worrying about rumors of a thief in the neighborhood. She goes downstairs to make cocoa and finds her brother Charles Wallace in the kitchen.
“I knew you’d be down,” he says. “I put some milk on the stove for you. It ought to be hot by now.
Charles Wallace, Meg, and their mother make sandwiches while talking about being different from others and feeling left out. When the mysterious Mrs. Whatsit appears at their door, Mrs. Murry invites her in and offers her a sandwich.
“I’ve had liverwurst and cream cheese; Charles has had bread and jam; and Meg, lettuce and tomato,” Mrs. Murry says. Food comforts people who can’t sleep for worrying and welcomes a strange guest.
The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien also begins with unexpected company. Gandalf and 13 dwarves visit Bilbo Baggins and put in their orders for raspberry jam and apple tart, mince-pies and cheese, pork-pie and salad, cakes, ale, coffee, eggs, cold chicken, and pickles. Food fortifies the travelers as they plan their long journey with the reluctant Bilbo.
In The Folk Keeper by Franny Billingsley, Folk Keeper Corinna draws off the anger of the fierce, ravenous, underground-dwelling Folk. She lists what they eat in her Folk Record.
“April 17—Levy Day
The Folk have eaten:
Food keeps the Folk, “mostly mouth . . . wet mouth and teeth,” at bay.
In all three books, food helps make a fantastic situation believable by giving readers something familiar to latch onto. Like music and clothing, food can help establish setting, not only in fantasy but also in contemporary or historical fiction or nonfiction. Food can be used to celebrate a victory, to mourn a loss, or to show love or appreciation. The way a character eats can show his or her personality and emotions: he or she can savor each bite or shovel food in without thinking. A character might gulp, slurp, pick at her food, wipe his mouth on his sleeve, or eat while driving. Look for references to food as you read, think about the functions they serve, and explore the ways you can show time, place, and your characters’ emotions by describing how and what they eat.
JoAnn Early Macken’s recent picture books are Baby Says “Moo!” (Disney-Hyperion, 2011), Waiting Out the Storm (Candlewick, 2010), and Flip, Float, Fly: Seeds on the Move (Holiday House, 2008). JoAnn graduated from Vermont College of Fine Arts in July 2000. She writes and teaches in Wisconsin, and she blogs at TeachingAuthors.com. If you have any questions or comments about her post or Vermont College of Fine Arts, you can contact JoAnn at [email protected]