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.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.
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.
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.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.
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….