July 12, 2018


Fruit Bowl. By Mark Hoffmann. Knopf. $17.99.

     One of the cleverest educational picture books in some time, and one whose subtext about inclusion and exclusion is itself worth thinking about, Mark Hoffmann’s Fruit Bowl is above all a lot of fun to look at: the illustrations, of fruits and vegetables with expressive eyes and entirely-appropriate-to-the-situation appearances, are what will draw pre-readers and early readers (ages 3-7) to the book. But there is much more to it, and that “much more” is what will bring adults to Fruit Bowl to read it to or with young children.

     The basic setup is a standard one that could happen in any home (well, any home with talking produce). After a shopping trip, the fruits need to be placed in a bowl on the counter and the vegetables need to go in the refrigerator. An unseen child asks the fruits how they are all doing and gets a chorus of replies: “Peachy keen,” “All good,” “Awesome,” and so forth. And all the fruits climb up a little ladder into their bowl as the child talks to them: “Looking good, lime!” And up the ladder comes the tomato as well – only to be turned away and told to go to the refrigerator, despite his protestation, “But I am a fruit.” No, says the child, and the apple comments, “You’re being kind of saucy,” while the banana remarks, “You’ll have to split.”

     The tomato is determined: reading a book, he exclaims that he can prove he is a fruit, and he starts talking to the residents of the fruit bowl about what makes them fruits in the first place. This is the educational element of Hoffmann’s book, presented simply and elegantly: fruits start out as flowers, and they have seeds inside – and, sure enough, that describes the tomato. The taste of fruit is not an issue, the tomato explains when told he is not sweet: after all, cranberries are not sweet, and no one claims they are not fruits. Still unconvinced, the kitchen denizens all go on a search for Old Man Produce to get a definitive answer. They eventually discover the shriveled senior, who gives a rather silly and inconclusive speech but, when asked directly if the tomato is a fruit, replies yes. So the tomato heads for the fruit bowl on the counter – and, umm, it turns out that there are “other vegetables that are fruits in disguise” as well. And that starts a parade from the refrigerator to the countertop bowl, featuring a green pepper, an eggplant, a squash, and other happy-go-lucky characters that are used as vegetables in most homes but that are really, by definition, fruits. In fact, this part of Fruit Bowl is likely to be at least as big a surprise to parents as to children.

     The book ends with all the fruits, the ones traditionally known that way and the ones traditionally thought of as vegetables, snuggled together in the bowl on the counter, while the vegetables inside the refrigerator peek out of the crisper where they are kept and ask, “Why don’t we get our own bowl?” That is a perfectly reasonable question – one that can lead parents to talk with kids about the right way to store and preserve food, whether or not specific produce items are biologically fruits or vegetables. In fact, Fruit Bowl can open a whole set of fascinating discussions and explorations for parents and children. Really, does it matter if something is “officially” a fruit or vegetable, or is it all just a labeling issue and one of traditional use that counts? It would be nice if parents could give kids a single, simple way to tell the difference between fruits and vegetables, such as the “fruits contain seeds” statement that is part of the tomato’s reasoning. But alas, things really are not that simple, since strawberries’ seeds are on the outside, blueberries come from flowers but do not contain seeds, and grapes do not stop being fruits just because they can be bred to be seedless. A little research is clearly in order after consumption of the tasty lessons of Fruit Bowl. And the book itself is delicious enough to encourage further exploration.

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