Inspiring Young Readers
Brave Potatoes by Toby Speed, illustrated by Barry Root
Several years ago I was lucky enough to give a paper at an international academic conference with the intriguing title ‘Revolt, Rebellion, Protest: Change and Insurrection in Children’s Literature’ at Hollins University, Roanoake in Virginia, USA. There were some splendid and informative presentations and I found the whole experience intense but stimulating. One of the books that was recommended during the course of the conference was Tales for Little Rebels, edited by Julia L. Mickenberg (one of the many key note speakers) and Philip Nel, which is absolutely fascinating. Another, a picture book, Brave Potatoes, was cited as an example of one with an especially strong message - that ‘those without power haven’t got a chance unless they organise’. I of course bought both of these books, but have only recently looked closely at Brave Potatoes and realised what a curious, rather frightening story it is.
It is full of energy from the outset and Publisher’s Weekly aptly praises the author and illustrator:
‘Speed gleefully and rhythmically subverts the nursery classic. And Root plays along zestily … A rewarding romp’.
The eponymous potatoes seem to be the only vegetables with any sense of resistance to their inevitable fate of being chopped, cooked and eaten. The cover shows them as a merry, outgoing band of brothers, and as the story unfolds, we see that they are a force to be reckoned with. Unlike the sleepy, compliant peppers, aubergines, cabbages and pumpkins at the county fair, they are determined to escape from confinement to enjoy the fairground rides nearby.
Meanwhile, the villainous looking Chef Hackemup is shown busily chopping, mincing, shredding and grating to make a meal to serve in The Chowder Lounge. Terrified looking tomatoes , onions and others stand in line waiting for the chop from his huge kitchen knife:
‘See the parsnips looking pallid in the Bastaboolabaisse,
While the salad softly sings a veggie-ballad.
See the carrots curli-queuing and the garlic parachuting’.
There are no holds barred on the graphic depiction of inevitable cartoon violence which I found rather startling, although as the victims are shown getting closer to their execution, we no longer see their faces, which is some relief for sensitive souls like myself. Despite having plentiful supplies of many different vegetables and other ingredients the chef is clearly very angry that he can’t include potatoes in his various concoctions.
Meanwhile the spuds are having the best time on the Zip (Big Wheel) but the chef spots them from the diner window. He persuades them into his bag with the promise of a story and then takes them off to meet their fate in his kitchen. The tension mounts as he perches precariously on a ladder and leans in to stir a huge cauldron of stew but he reckons without the highly organised potatoes who are determined not to let him win. You can probably guess the ending, but it isn’t pretty for chef. It is a triumph for the potatoes who lead the other vegetables to freedom as they parade chanting through the streets.
Overall this was a dark, but comic little tale. I liked the bold depiction of a range of feelings on the faces of the vegetables which ranged from fear to optimism and the contrasting ecstasy, bravery and determination on the faces of the potatoes. I will be interested to try it out with some young children to see their reactions to the illustrations and whether they worry about eating vegetables as a result. And also if they pick up on the underlying messages about defying authority, working together and the value of life:
‘Potatoes to the finish.
Potatoes to the end.
We will always be courageous.
We will always be potatoes’.