Sweets and sweetshops in children’s literature – a personal pick and mix by Catherine O’Flynn

Published on: 13 November 2019 Author: Catherine O’Flynn

Author Catherine O'Flynn's tells us about her new book Lori and Max, growing up in a sweet shop and tells us her favourite confectionery emporiums in children's books.

Catherine O'Flynn and Lori and MaxCatherine O'Flynn and Lori and Max

Sweets and sweet shops loom large in both my life and my writing. I grew up in my Mom and Dad's sweet shop, working behind the counter from an early age: weighing out quarter-pounds of sweets for the older customers or putting together bespoke 10p mix-ups for local kids.

I was (and remain) quite judgmental about confectionery choices. I'm always on my guard around those who favour a chocolate lime.

Sweeties, and anyone selling them, sometimes get a bad rap in children's literature. All too often, candy is used only as a gaudy bait to lure soft-headed children into terrible traps. When it came to writing Lori and Max, my first novel for children, I tried to redress the balance. I made one of my lead characters a true sweetie aficionado and placed a thinly disguised version of my parents' sweet shop at the centre of the mystery.

I'm doing all I can to rehabilitate the role of the sweet shop owner in literature.

Hansel and Gretel – The Brothers Grimm

This is really where the rot starts with the anti-candy propaganda in children's books. Even within the brutal and breathtakingly cruel world of fairy tales, Hansel and Gretel takes some beating. What could be more soothing at bedtime than a tale of two children abandoned by their father and kidnapped by a cannibalistic witch?

The evil witch, of course, uses sugar to lure the children, but I always felt her liberal use of gingerbread was a high risk strategy. It taught me an important lesson, though – a loathing of ginger will always keep you safe from cannibals.

(An honourable mention here too for the undisputed king of candy entrapment, the child catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Luckily, this hugely perjorative portrayal of a sweet seller can be omitted from this list as the child catcher didn't feature in Fleming's original book).

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl

The most famous portrayal of sweeties in literature is both celebratory and cautionary. Confectionery here is a test of moral fibre. I often find Dahl too cruel, but hats off to him for this positive portrayal of the humble confectionery retailer. Yes, the sweet shop owner is fat (which usually augurs badly in Dahl's universe) but he's a good egg who protects Charlie from the baying mob and is happy for his good fortune.

We Have Fun – Ladybird Key Words Reading Scheme (aka Peter and Jane book 2a)

I learned to read with Peter and Jane books and I love them still. The combination of those beautiful illustrations of mundane everyday existence alongside the often bizarre textual repetitions and dream-like dialogue never fails to delight. Sweet shops loom large in Peter and Jane's world. In We Have Fun Jane is particularly single minded:

Can we have some sweets? Says Jane.
Can we go to the shop for some sweets?
Yes, says Peter.
This is the shop, Jane.
Yes, this is it.
They have sweets and toys.
We want sweets, says Jane.

Bizarrely, when she finally gets her sweets, Jane chooses to place a liquorice allsort on Pat the dog's nose, but everyone seems happy and sweets and sweet shops bring nothing but joy. We do indeed have fun.

Milly Molly Mandy Keeps Shop – Joyce Lankester Brisley

In this story we learn that Milly Molly Mandy's commendable career aspiration is to have a shop 'like Miss Muggins, where she could sell sweets'.

A little goes a long way in Milly Molly Mandy's world: something as tiny as buying cress seeds can constitute an entire chapter, so being called upon to look after Miss Muggins' shop and actually work behind the counter for an hour is pretty much seismic in this small and perfectly formed universe.

The action climaxes with Milly Molly Mandy accidentally giving Billy Blunt one too many aniseed balls. Luckily, Billy spots the error and catastrophe is averted.

Pippi Longstocking Goes Aboard – Astrid Lindgren

Pippi Longstocking, for anyone not familiar with her, is basically a benign maniac with an immense amount of gold (courtesy of her pirate father) let loose in small town Sweden.

Pippi routinely and blithely redresses the power balance between children and adults and is an inspiration to any child who has ever been patronized by a grown up. In the 'Pippi Goes Shopping' chapter, our heroine disrupts local commerce on the High Street:

'Please may I have thirty-six pounds of sweets' said Pippi....
'You mean you want thirty-six sweets,' the shop assistant said.
'I mean that I want thirty-six pounds of sweets,' said Pippi. She put the cold coin on the counter. The assistant hurriedly began pouring sweets into large bags.'

Pippi ends up also buying a small cart to transport the lollipops, green acid drops, jelly babies and chocolate cigarettes out of the shop and into the street where she hands them out to local children and starts a kind of candy-fuelled bacchanal. Who doesn't want to be Pippi Longstocking?

The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes – Du Bose Heyward

Not only is this 1930s book a marvellous, non-puritanical celebration of the wonder and importance of chocolate in egg form, but also, rather surprisingly for the era in which it was written, it conveys very clear anti-racist and feminist messages.

The country rabbit heroine is looked down upon by the 'big white bunnies' who live in fine houses and the Jack Rabbits who sneer 'Only a country rabbit would go and have all those babies', but she has the last laugh as she fights off fierce competition to be the new Easter Bunny. With beautiful pastel toned illustrations by Marjorie Hack, this is an oddity, but all the better for it.

Lori and Max by Catherine O'Flynn is out now in paperback, published by Firefly Press.

Topics: Funny, Writing, Features

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