Catherine Olver is a first-year PhD student, researching environmental anxieties and magic in contemporary young adult fantasy.
If you’ve visited Cambridge town centre in the past few days, it’s hard not to be infected by the atmosphere of jubilant students cycling around and shouting triumphantly, done with exams. May Week is almost upon us, we have a run of sunny days to play in, and an abundance of green spaces which were surely created for picnics. A glass of prosecco, anyone? Strawberries and cream? To fuel our philosophical conversations, naturally…
According to Woody Allen, ‘all great literature is about sex and death.’ Which presents something of a problem when writing literature for children, since those are pretty much the two things that writers are not allowed to include. At least, not without being very sensitive and/or symbolic. Enter, the strawberries. Or the raspberries. Or my personal favourite, the blackberries.
During Karen Coats’ talk at the 3rd Cognitive Symposium, hosted here in the Faculty of Education last term, I was struck by a poem from Karla Kuskin’s collection Any Me I Want to Be (1972). It’s called ‘The Strawberry’ and here it is, in its entirety:
I liked growing.
That was nice.
The leaves were soft
The sun was hot.
I was warm and red and round
Then someone dropped me in a pot.
Being a strawberry isn’t all pleasing.
This morning they put me in ice cream.
It’s a perfectly crafted poem, but I’m glad I wasn’t exposed to it as a child. J.M. Barrie and Philip Pullman between them gave me complexes enough about growing up. I suppose the metaphor in Kuskin’s poem is meant to soften the emotional impact. Actually, I feel it makes it worse: as if the coldness and the grave-like pot aren’t suggestive enough of death, we know the strawberry is about to be eaten! So instead of the fear of death that haunts adult literature, the child reader gets the fear of growing up and the fear of death, all tangled up.
Not that it’d be any better if we knew the fruit would escape being eaten. Seamus Heaney’s ‘Blackberry Picking’, from Death of a Naturalist (1966), has the same two stanza structure, with a long one portraying the richness of the berries on the bushes and the gluttony of the children picking them, and a shorter second one on what happens once they’re picked:
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.
This isn’t a poem explicitly aimed at a child audience, but it features a child speaker and is helpfully flagged by the Poetry Foundation website as ‘good for children’. I find the last line somewhat devastating. Faced with a pile of berries, the child’s hope for the future fails him. Will he even manage to hope next year, or will he have graduated into the bleakness of adulthood?
Heaney’s poem is also uncomfortably sexual. My year seven class was scandalised when a prospective teacher taught it to us, dropping heavy hints about the real meaning of the children’s ‘lust for | Picking’ and eating sweet ‘flesh’, their stained tongues, their sticky palms and their hands ‘peppered | With thorn pricks.’ Unfortunately, the interviewee teacher took our class’s initial silence for difficulty understanding what she meant, and tried to drop these hints even more heavily. The hints fell into a silent bath of fermenting awkwardness. She did not get the job.
The prize for the least pleasant berry-scene I encountered before reaching my teenage years has to go to Alec insisting on hand-feeding Tess strawberries in Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles. However, it is closely followed (based on the embarrassment I felt) by the moment near the end of Pullman’s Amber Spyglass when Lyra has been sexually awoken by Mary’s story of various men feeding her marzipan, and she feeds Will a red fruit.
“I’m hungry,” Will said.
“Me too,” said Lyra, though she was also feeling more than that, something subdued and pressing and half-happy and half-painful, so that she wasn’t quite sure what it was.
They unfolded the cloth and ate some bread and cheese. For some reason their hands were slow and clumsy, and they hardly tasted the food, though the bread was floury and crisp from the hot baking-stones and the cheese was flaky and salty and very fresh.
Then Lyra took one of those little red fruits. With a fast-beating heart, she turned to him and said, “Will…”
And she lifted the fruit gently to his mouth.
I was ten, and I suspect I went as red as the troublesome fruit while reading. I understood that Pullman was trying to redo the Adam and Eve thing. But Lyra and Will were only two years older than me, and I trusted them to be pretty sensible… and yet they’d skipped first base and second base and every base I’d ever heard of, and gone straight to the erotically feeding each other berries stage. As far as I’m aware, that particular stage isn’t common enough in teenage relationships to have received a number, but the number would be high.
So, that’s a selection of the juicy berries that find their way into children’s hands. I’m certainly not saying that sex and death shouldn’t be subtly included in children’s literature. I’m just objecting to the use of berry symbolism. It makes growing up an inevitable and rotten fate; it makes physical pleasure cringe-worthily creepy.
Which is a pity—because I really like berries.