Santa Claus Saves Christmas  Again!

Classic Santa Stout courtesy of Coke.

No cultural icon seems to be safe from scrutiny in these critical times.  Over the last few years, two authors have created picture books showing little readers that there’s room for improvement in Santa Land.  Is this driven by data showing that kids don’t like him roly-poly, generous, and jolly?  That they aren’t in awe of the one-man international parcel delivery service powered by reindeer that Amazon Prime has yet to beat? No, it’s his size, which is laid to the door of poor food choices at meals and snacks.  A mature elf who eats a plate of cookies at even a fraction of the houses visited on Christmas Eve is going to put on weight without regular exercise..

The stories offer different solutions to the same dilemma: can Santa lose weight in time for the Christmas Eve run?  Ralph Packard tries to make The North Pole Goes on a Diet (2017) a low-key, inspirational story about controlling weight through mindful eating and regular activity.

Vigilant Timmy the Elf. Ralph Packard. The North Pole Goes on a Diet. Illustrated by Tracy Egan. [U.S.A.: no publisher], c.2017.

One year some of the North Pole gang noticed that everybody had gotten plump, sluggish and grumpy.  Six months later Mrs. Claus tells Santa sorrowfully that his red suit can’t be let out: it is either lose weight or have a bigger suit made.

Santa on the scale.

Being an enlightened employer, Santa has a doctor, nurse, dentist, and vet up to the Pole to evaluate the team’s overall health.  The news isn’t good, but everybody takes the pledge to get fit and trim by the twenty-fourth.  Poor Santa has the most trouble finding a form of exercise he can stick with.  After failing with jazzerecise, yoga, the stationary bike, and weight-lifting, he settles into a daily hour-long walk with the dogs.  He gets into the old suit, the workshop hums with energy and good cheer, and everyone looks forward to the Welcome Home banquet on Christmas Day.  Professional losers may click their tongues at food as a reward for shedding weight as counterproductive: the loser has to substitute new ones.

The diverse North Pole team around the dinner table enjoying a healthy low-fat, high-fiber meal.

Before and after the North Pole diet…

Gently fat-shaming a beloved imaginary character to demonstrate that change is possible may be a positive strategy, but it’s not without problems. Yes, it’s good to emphasize that walking is a fine form of exercise, and yes, it’s sensible to admit that it’s hard to follow an exercise program.  But these are grown-up problems and grown-ups are not the audience for this picture book.  The author proceeded on the risky assumption that four- to eight-year-old were going to be engaged by this situation set in the North Pole.

No one in Packard’s ackowledgments noticed that at the beginning none of the characters  were drawn as visibly overweight and at the end they are unchanged after a six-month diet  Some kids will giggle at what is probably an oversight in continuity on the illustrator’s part, but there will be children so sensitive about body image that may read it as an indication that people can be overweight even though if they don’t look heavy.   They may see this anxiety reflected in themselves when they look in the mirror or at themselves in photos.  Even putting younger obese children on a diet is extremely complicated–they are still growing and haven’t developed like the degree of self-control the process takes.

Charlene Christie. Santa Claus Goes on a Diet. Illustrated by Peipei. [U.S.] ChristieSolutions, c.2012.

After stuffing himself for the first ten months of the year with Mrs. Claus’s excellent cakes, cookies and cupcakes, Santa discovers that not only can’t he get into his red suit, he doesn’t fit in the sleigh.  Mrs. Claus admits her baking has been a factor in this crisis, but quickly conjures up a no-carbs diet menu for the next sixty days: three French hen eggs and veggies for breakfast, cream of mistletoe soup for lunch, and pickled turkey legs with cranberry cider for dinner (seems cruel not to vary it a jot for all those weeks).  For exercise, Santa chases Dasher the reindeer around the yard for a hour.

Thanks, but I won’t be needing that suit after all!

He makes his goal with twelve days to spare and rewards Mrs. Claus for her cleverness with a kiss under the mistletoe, not a celebratory sweetie.  The plot is much simpler than the one in The North Pole, but the focus is squarely on Santa’s perseverance in the face of  privations, which is the right kind of silly for the picture book crowd (a comment by Christie’s son is often the springboard for a new book).  You can hear a four-year-old shriek “Yeeeeew,” at the idea of mistletoe cooked up in soup or  laugh at the ridiculous spectacle of Santa’s belly flopping while he runs after Dasher.  And the reward for this effort is not a bowl of fruit, but the pleasure of achieving a goal with the help of someone else who has your back.

As children’s book writers,Packard and Christie would probably be quite happy to designated as values educators, and the market (insofar as it can be determined on Amazon, who sells the books) has validated Christie as a successful one in the verified customer reviews.  One person notes that  “in my son’s words ‘he loved this  because Santa never gave up and ate his vegetables and because Mrs. Clause helped him.’”   Another customer touched on the difficulty of writing about the subject for children:

Diet books often give me pause as they can feed into self-esteem problems while denying the goodness of the body, no matter what the physique is. This one, thankfully, is innocent enough, even accepting Santa in the end if he fails his diet (tailor made an extra-big suit, just in case). In fact, the story, promotes good healthy habits and is funny...

A third, who tried this book on the strength of her niece’s enjoyment of another Christie picture book, was not disappointed: “This was a hit with both my 3 year old niece and my 11 year old daughter who read it to her. I recommend reading both children’s book by this author. Looking forward for more books to come. “   And more have come in the form of translations into Spanish, French, and German, and Kindle downloads.

The North Pole Goes on a Diet, on the other hand, seems not to have found an audience, in spite of its author’s good intentions. He names his avocation as  an animal rescue volunteer and thanks his two dog-children.   Perhaps he should have kept his eye on the child, instead of the dogs….

Where in the World is little Holly Healthy!?

Politicians have joined movie stars and rock icons in the ranks of aspiring children’s book authors.  Years before Karen Pence published  A Day in the Life of the Vice President (the book that inspired Marlon Bundo) Catherine Pugh, the mayor of Baltimore and fitness fanatic, created the “Healthy Holly” series to inspire children to improve the physical and mental well-being of themselves, their friends and families. Persuading couch potatoes of any age that eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly will make them better, more beautiful people is a hard sell.

One indirect approach to changing eating habits is to write a cookbook for kids, full of easy recipes for dishes that taste good and are good for you.  So nutritious and delicious that everyone will compliment the cook by asking for seconds.  Weave a conversion narrative around the recipes and you get…

Jules Bass. Cooking with Herb the Vegetarian Dragon: A Cookbook for Kids. Illustrated by Debbie Harter. (New York: Barefoot Books, 1999). Cotsen in process.

Herb is relentlessly upbeat about changing eating styles, but he gets it  when aspiring vegetarians fall off the wagon once in a while on their journey.   And if a ragon in chef’s whites can push a wheelbarrow brimming with fresh produce around the Kingdom of Nogard, anyone can!  But it’s his recipes that work magic on people who never thought they could give up m–t.

Herb’s no-meat patties with their dynamite secret ingredient puts the King of Nogard off his favorite wild boar burgers forever.  For his service to the arteries of the kingdom, Herb is knighted. 

Herb’s spicy chili full of textured vegetable protein, kidney beans, and grated cheese makes a believer of his buddy Meathook.  When Meathook has his friends over for dinner, no one can get enough of Herb’s veggie pasta.   Maybe Meathook will pass along Herb’s name to Drogon, Rhaego, and Viserion for the wrap party of Game of Thrones, season eight….

Not all anthropomorphized animals pressed into service as role models are perfect like Herb.  There’s Tiffany Dino, who gorges on pizza, chocolate chip cookies, and peanut butter sandwiches and loves every bite, even though the chair is groaning from the strain.  When her shirts ride up over her belly button, she decides it is time to turn over a new leaf.  Maybe Tiffany can get her act together.  Tiffany Dino belongs to the fallible but loveable category of animal stand-ins for children.  She eats healthy and works out for a week, but when she weighs herself, not one ounce less than six hundred pounds.  She decides to accept her big green self just as she is after making a new, very large friend who likes Tiffany  because there is so much to hug.

So how does Holly Healthy compare with Herb and Tiffany as role models? For a review, see the one Carlos Lozada ran in the Washington Post. At the time of writing this post, it was not possible to obtain a copy of any of the four titles: “Healthy Holly: Fruits Come in Colors Like the Rainbow;” “Healthy Holly” Exercising is Fun!;” “Healthy Holly: Not all Vegetables are Green;” and “Healthy Holly: Walking with My Family.”  There is some confusion as to their whereabouts–if indeed they were ever written, published, and distributed.   Perhaps putting out this call to the readers of the Cotsen Curatorial Blog may produce the results which will solve the mystery of the picture-book writing major of Baltimore.  Any or all of the titles would be welcome additions to  Cotsen’s collection of children’s books by politicians or their wives…