July 29, 2021

(+++) YUMMY?

The Adventures of Veggieman, Book 1: Food Fight. By Karla Farach. Illustrations by Rob Foote. Mascot Books. $15.95.

     It is possible to have too much of a good thing, just as it is possible (even more easily) to have too much of a bad thing. Karla Farach’s intentions in The Adventures of Veggieman are certainly a good thing, but on the basis of Food Fight, they are a little too far on the preachy side to be fully satisfying – even for the very young readers for whom the book is intended.

     The teaching element of the book is as laudable as it is obvious: kids should eat fruits and vegetables and, in Farach’s view, should never, ever, ever have junk food. There is no moderation here: potato chips, doughnuts, sugary drinks, hot dogs and similar foods are evil and 100% to be avoided; avocados, tomatoes, chickpeas and similar foods are 100% good and are the only things to be eaten. The clarity of the message is unexceptionable, but its preachiness is a bit much, not least because there is no explanation for any reason that any kids might ever want to eat any junk foods – in fact, the story focuses on a school whose principal, a bloated and grotesque Mr. Gummbo, is the one supplying all the bad stuff, in monstrous quantities, to the students. Apparently kids eat bad foods because grown-ups make them do so – a message that parents and other adults who encounter Food Fight may have some difficulty countering.

     Because The Adventures of Veggieman is cast in superhero mode, it is easy to say that it is not supposed to be “realistic” in any particular way and that its portrayal of the principal (the only adult human, or semi-human, in the book) does not mean anything. But because the book is designed to teach important nutritional lessons, Farach’s refusal to suggest that kids might actually like the taste of some things that are bad for them (especially in gigantic quantities) leaves parents and other real-world adults with a bit too much of an explanatory job.

     The superhero who comes in to make things right, Veggieman, is essentially the Jolly Green Giant of corporate-spokesvegetable fame, except that he looks a bit more like a broccoli stalk and sports a big “V” in green-on-green on his chest. But Veggieman cannot help the kids who are being victimized by Mr. Gummbo until one child, new to the school and appalled by the behavior of his hyper-energized classmates, seeks Veggieman out and asks for his help. “My job is to fight the evil forces of junk food wherever I find them,” Veggieman explains to Niko, promising to “bring order to your school” along with “health and vitality.” Veggieman accordingly assembles “a brigade of broccoli, carrots, and asparagus” and “a battalion of cabbages and kale,” along with the beautiful Aqualady (needed because kids should only drink water, never anything else), and they march past the hot-dog guards with their French-fry sticks and into the school.

     There is not much of a battle, but some elements of it are the most amusing part of Food Fight – such as the scene in which adorable gummy bears, here called “toxic candies” and drawn as un-adorably as possible, are quickly turned into “a squishy lump of messy sugar.” About that drawing: Rob Foote’s illustrations are the saving grace of Food Fight, lending the overly sober story a touch of wonder, amazement and, yes, humor – qualities that vastly help the message be, um, digested. For example, Foote figures out how to give carrots big mouths and teeth that they can use to rout the pointy-headed and panic-stricken corn chips arrayed against them.

     Even Foote’s abilities can only go so far, though. For some reason, during the battle, Niko happens upon a girl who is “standing in the middle of the playground, stuffing doughnuts, cupcakes, and cookies into her mouth” and swelling up larger and larger with every bite – and Foote makes the girl suitably grotesque. Farach’s narration has Veggieman assure Niko that “once she starts eating healthy foods, she’ll return to normal.” And that seems to be what happens just about instantaneously: after Mr. Gummbo is easily defeated (he runs at Veggieman, misses, slams into the wall and becomes “a pool of thick, slimy sugar”), the final pages show all the kids in school immediately becoming quiet, obedient, engaged, thin, healthy-looking and fully committed to consuming only fruits and vegetables forever. They are also much better-dressed than they were earlier in the book.

     Unsurprisingly, Veggieman concludes the book by telling the kids to “say no to harmful junk food, and say yes to healthy [sic: it should be ‘healthful’] foods that nourish your bodies and your minds.” And of course the kids, no longer influenced by the nefarious principal, all agree and cheer for Veggieman.

     If only things were that simple. Even superhero stories generally have a little more heft than this and are a bit less simplistic. Foote’s illustrations are so good that Food Fight will appeal (no pun on “a peel” intended) to very young readers, and to pre-readers to whom adults are willing to explain some of the overdone elements of the story. Quite obviously – in fact, somewhat too obviously – the Veggieman series will be well-meaning and will offer strong advocacy of more-healthful eating. But by implying that hot dogs, doughnuts and similar foods have nothing going for them at all, and that lentil soup and spinach will immediately be perceived by kids as tasting delicious and will immediately reverse any ill effects of eating all the bad stuff, Farach over-simplifies to such a degree that Food Fight in some ways undercuts its own admirable message.

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