Inappropriate Picture Books about Nutrition and Exercise

Let's Be FitNot a PigMurphyTreadmillHamster Camp

Below is the email I sent my friend a registered dietician who specializes in pediatric/family nutrition.

“Calories came up again tonight.  ML was having her bedtime snack, Snappea Crisps, when she started reading the nutritional information.  She said “These have 120 calories.”   I asked what she had learned about calories.  Apparently, a teaching assistant had two students compare the calories on their yogurt to determine which was healthier.  Or that is the impression ML got.  She asked “Too many calories aren’t good, right mom? So and so’s yogurt was healthier than so and so’s.  It was only 80 calories.”  The more questions I asked, the more ML shut down.
I can feel you cringing right now.  I explained everyone needs calories to live.  The most important thing is eating a variety of healthy foods.  I asked what she had eaten that day.  She named the things.  Then, I explained she didn’t need to worry about the number of calories in the food.  We are making sure she has access to a variety of foods that are good for her.  I am sure the teaching assistant meant no harm. With the obesity epidemic she probably thinks she’s helping the children make good choices.”
My friends advice… If calories come up again explain a calorie is a unit of measurement.  We need calories; like a car needs gasoline.  ML doesn’t need to worry about calories because I am making sure she has access to healthy foods.  Her body knows how much she needs.  Then, she recommended the Ellyn Satter website.  Especially, the page Feeding Your School-Age Child.  Currently, I am reading How to Get Your Kid to Eat…But No Too Much:  From Birth to Adolescence by Ellyn Satter.
I usually focus on books we love.  But today’s post is about books I am not bringing home.  If ML sees them at the library and decides to check any of the titles out, I won’t stop her.  I’ll read them to her and we’ll discuss them.  OK, I lied… I did bring the books home to write the post, but I hid them in my closet.
  • Let’s Be Fit by P.K. Hallinan is a board book.  Board books are published with thicker pages so toddlers have an easier time manipulating the books.  One illustration in this book has a child pumping iron and the text “I’ll tone up my body.”  Enough said.  But not really… A few more quotes,  “I watch what I eat-that’s the place to begin.  I need to take heed of the food I take in.” and “I try to do pushups And sit-ups each day”  All this in a book mostly read by parents to children 3 and under.
  • I’m Not a Pig in Underpants by Elwood H. Smith – The text “I’m not a plump platypus watching my weight” and the accompanying illustration of a large platypus running fervently on a treadmill while 11 smaller, skinnier platypus watch concerns me.  Such a shame this page made the cut.  Otherwise, it’s a very funny book.
  • Murphy Meets the Treadmill by Harriet Ziefert – Another treadmill story.  This one is much worse because it’s about a dog whose owner thinks he is too fat.  She forces him on the scale.  Then, forces him on the treadmill.    But the worse part is the quote “When Nikka, the neighbor’s hound, came to check things out, I knew she thought I was handsome and physically fit  And I said to myself, Exercise is worth it!”  (The text I italicized is italicized in the book for emphasis)  A blatant example of how our society reinforces how you look determines your worth.
  • Hamster Camp:  How Harry Got Fit by Teresa Bateman and pictures by Nancy Cote – The last page of this book provides “A Note to Parents”  I found the information helpful; but the actual book horrific.  Hamster Camp is basically fat camp.  When the campers arrive with their pet hamsters, the humans turn into hamsters too.  Together the pets and owners, do all sorts of hamster activities – run on the wheel and through the maze. Finally at the end of the month, the humans turn back into humans where they “got new belts to match their trim physiques.”  Harry returns home and teaches his parents how to be fit.  The premise of this book is the complete opposite of what the parental note discusses, which is “young children don’t shop, cook, or even fully control when and where they are physically active.”  It’s up to the parent to provide opportunities for active play and nutritional food choices.

There are others… The Gulps by Rosemary Wells and illustrated by Marc Brown, My Dog Jack is Fat by Eve Bunting and illustrated by Michael Rex, The Berenstain Bears and Too Much Junk Food by Stan and Jan Berenstain.  Many of the authors are acclaimed children’s book authors with fabulous, child appropriate books.  So I’m not saying stay away from books by these authors.  Actually, I’ll be highlighting one of the authors in my post about good books to read to children about food.

Some may think I am overreacting.  But what irks me is the obsession with introducing children to exercising like adults.  Plus the preaching of eating healthy foods to children, when they are not the ones making the food choices for their home.  Children’s best way to stay fit is to visit a playground, run, swing, slide, play in the sand and eat a variety of foods.

I am working on a post about more appropriate books about nutrition and exercise.  So far the list is small.  Let me know if you have any suggestions.

2 comments

  1. Actually a complex and subtle issue as you point out. Often picture books that are written and designed to ‘teach’ get heavy handed and lack a solid narrative flow or worse, characters that are only there to make a point. And I agree that the important lesson would be to better understand what eating healthy is beyond calorie count – look at chemicals, look at what a processed food is. It would be interesting to look at how and what people ate in different years, 1700, 1800, 1900 ETC. The fact that there was little to no heavily processed food until relatively recently is interesting. The entire middle section of a grocery store didn’t exist 60 years ago. Intriguing topic though.

    1. I hate books written to “teach.” I have a post idea about the horrible books written about bullying. One is actually called I Hate Bullies. John Burningham’s book Tug of War with it’s narrative and intriguing illustrations does more to open up a discussion about bullying than any book written specifically to talk about bullying. I think I just wrote the beginning of my post.

      I am fortunate ML loves fruits and vegetables. She definitely has ones she doesn’t like but she likes enough to have a well balanced diet. I try to stay away from the middle section of the grocery even at places like Whole Foods. But sometimes ice cream and BBQ potato chips cannot be denied.

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