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The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books

The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

The Runaway Dinner

by Allan Ahlberg; illustrated by Bruce Ingman

Theres no shortage of food-escape stories in children's literature, but most of them belong to the ever-expanding family of "The Gingerbread Boy" variants, which have allowed just about every baked good around the planet to hit the road in one picture book or another. In The Runaway Dinner, however, the estimable British author Allan Ahlberg eschews both folklore and specific food focus, instead creating an invitingly absurd tale of an entire dinner, from the food on the plate to the plate and even the table beneath it, on the lam.

It all starts with an unsuspecting and ordinary boy ("Banjo, his name was," the narration says musingly, "yes, Banjo Cannon"), who sits down, knife and fork in hand, ready to dig into his dinner sausage. However, the sausage ("Melvin, his name was") darts off the plate, followed by vegetables, utensils, plate, table, and chair, and Banjo, being a hungry little boy, of course follows his fleeing victuals, while his parents and cat come pounding after Banjo, and the whole lot of them go traipsing through the park. Some dinner elements escape, disappear down bystanders' throats, become part of other park pastimes, and otherwise bow out of the chase, and a tired Melvin-the-sausage finally slows down sufficiently for Banjo to have him within his reachonly to be told by his mother, "Don't eat that, its been on the ground!" Banjo does at least get to return home to a nice plum pie, "named Joyce on this particular occasion," but then it looks like Joyce too has wanderlust...

What makes this tale so hilarious isn't just the footloose and fancy-free foodstuffs, though. Ahlberg, who has demonstrated a knack for blending the quotidian with the absurd in works ranging from the Gaskitt family chronicles (The Woman Who Won Things, BCCB 6/02) to his Bert stories (The Adventures of Bert, BCCB 9/01), here uses the mundane to take a funny story into the loopy stratosphere. It's not just a sausage, it's a sausage named Melvin, a trio of peas named Percival (eaten by a pigeon), Paul (eaten by a duck), and Peter (who disappears, to be found by keen-eyed audience members); it's sweetly ludicrous details like Melvins dutiful waiting for the "Walk" signal before bolting across the crosswalk into the park, the athletic tables effect on some admiring park benches, and the French fries slipping off to watch a baseball game. The constant personification of the inanimate objects is funny enough in its own right, but Ahlberg also has an ear for names that are humorous without being desperately comedic. His storytelling style is confiding and personal, laden with oralisms, but he relates the events with a dry matter-of-factness that's sure to tickle audiences.

The text finds a perfect partner in Bruce Ingman's illustrations; the naive, childlike draftsmanship of the acrylic daubs keeps oversophistication at bay, suggesting instead some nursery rhyme gone strange in its procession of spider-legged comestibles, implements, and furniture all trotting merrily over the sidewalks and through the park. The elemental faces adorning tidbits and tableware are no less detailed than those on the people; in fact, many human extras appear in back view or line drawings only, making it clear that peas outrank picnickers in this landscape. Movement is constant throughout but decorous, befitting the pace of vegetables, and the text contributes as much as the illustrations, with shifts in font size and layout paced with strategic line breaks.

The appeals here are numerous—there's food, there's a folklorically cumulative chase, there are sentient objects - and they’re all wrapped up in a tale with an intoxicating blend of down-to-earth and eccentric charm, which is bound to make this roundly popular with readaloud audiences. They'll find it so hilarious, in fact, that it will likely leave them returning with breathless hope to their own dinner tables, prodding their meals in fond and forlorn hope of adventure.

Deborah Stevenson, Editor


Big Picture Image

Cover image by Bruce Ingman from The Runaway Dinner 2006. Used by permission of Candlewick Press.

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This page was last updated on November 1, 2006.