Of all the rules of life’s road we learn, table manners are probably among the most valuable. A meal is a social situation where the people participating are mindful of curbing the expression of heart-felt feelings others might find unpleasant. However, a small person in a high chair next to the table is acquiring table manners at a glacial rate, so everyone else must stifle their preference to enjoy their food a safe distance away..
But how to teach the small person that flinging pureed peas from a spoon makes a disagreeable mess no one wants to clean up while the lemon chicken grows cold? Some public-minded picture book artists have ridden to the rescue by pairing clearly expressed standards with funny illustrations.
Diane Goode’s inspiration for Mind Your Manners! (2005) was The Child’s Spelling Book (4th ed.: Hartford: Increase Cooke & Co., 1802), which includes a section of thirty-five explicit prohibitions for good behavior at meals, such as “Throw not any thing under the table” or “Take not the salt with a greesy knife.” Goode puts courtesy into action by imagining that a well-mannered family has accepted an invitation to dine at the Abbotts. She teases a narrative out of a cleverly chosen sample of prohibitions that demonstrate how the Abbotts cheerfully embarrassed their guests. The dining room table extends across the double-page spread, which provides ample room to show the various things four adults, four children, two dogs and one cat ought not have done that evening.
Dinner is well underway. On the left, Mr. Abbott and his son are shouting over their guest, who, with a pained expression on her face, remains silent, remembering the rule that “If thy superiors be discoursing, meddle not with the matter; but be silent, except thou art spoken unto.” On the right, Mrs. Abbott is holding forth even though she should know that polite people “Drink not, nor speak with any thing in thy mouth.” On the floor there is a stand-off between the spaniel and the cat, who don’t care that they are breaking the rule “Stare not in the face of any one (especially thy superiors) nor fix thine eye on the plate of another.”
The puzzle picture with a test is central to the pedagogical strategy of the husband and wife team Caralyn and Mark Buehner (she’s the writer, he’s the illustrator) in It’s a Spoon not a Shovel (1995). Each full-page illustration shows a set of characters negotiating sticky social situation. On the facing page, the problem is posed as a question with three possible answers. After choosing the one he or she thinks is best answer, the reader can check to see if the letter he chose is hidden in the picture, along with teeny pictures of a dinosaur, rabbit, cat, and bee just for fun. Here is the dilemma of Wolfgang the Wolf when he introduces to his brothers his buddy Lambert the Lamb, who will be staying for dinner.
Should Wolfgang say:
a. “Lambert, this is Howler, Snarler, and Fang.”
c. “Hubba Bubba!”
“Pleased to meet you,” Lambert bleats, and the very hunger wolves politely growl:
d. “Mother’s red pajamas.”
e. “Where’s the salt and pepper?”
f. “We’re so glad to have you for dinner, Lambert.”
If one fails to find the letter(s) of the right answers (and they are not very easy to find) there is a key with the locations of the letters in the pictures printed upside down on the final page. Try the tailpiece if the previous picture stumped you.
For pure verbal and visual ingenuity, Table Manners, the edifying Story of two Friends whose Discovery of good Manners Promises them a glorious Future ( 2001) by Chris Raschka and Vladimir Radunsky, takes the cake. The two friends are Chester, the tall, thin, green-complexioned alter ego of Rashka, and Dudunya, the squatty, slow-witted, round-faced orange fellow who channels Radunsky.
The process of civilization begins when Chester gently, affectionately says to his smutty-faced friend, “Dudunya, if I may say so, you look like a pig.”Chester shows Dudunya that the importance of the place setting–plate, glass, and napkin–lies in its power to prevent human being from eating like a wild animal. With a knife and fork, it is possible to divide a big baked potato into sixteen cubes “small enough to fit into your mouth.” Chewing is essential to good digestion, but not at the expense of spraying the members of your dear family with bits of candy sprinkles, bread crumbs, shwarma or drops of cream sauce. “This,” notes Chester sagely, “I learned from my father’s father’s father. One day you will pass this on to your children’s children’s children’s.” But when Chester lays out of a schedule of meal times and what is typically served when, Dudunya is rapt: “Oh wow. What a busy day of eating.”
Chester demonstrates how to eat messy foods like roast duck dripping with sauce without soiling his hands or shirt, but Dudunya needs a few more lessons before passing the test with flying colors (yes, this picture book also features a multiple-choice test to measure mastery). Alas, he draws the wrong lesson from his education in manners, but luckily Chester sets him straight and prevents him from starvation!
How the Queen Found the Perfect Cup of Tea (2017) by Kate Hosford and illustrated by Gabi Swiatkowska teaches something just as important as remembering that a spoon is not a shovel. The spoiled queen goes around the world in search of the best of the best, when she can no longer tolerate the slop being offered her at breakfast. It turns out that it is not the method of making the tea that matters, although she enjoys the cups of tea Noriko in Japan, Sumil in India, and Rana in Turkey brew using completely different equipment and recipes. The queen takes the secret back home with her and invites her new friends to a royal tea party.
The truly charming and not alarming person knows that extending warm hospitality to the people around the table will make them feel more welcome than the most exquisite tea served in the most beautiful china cup with pinkies up!