It’s safe to say that all children are captivated by stories. Some choose to read chapter books, whereas others like to watch stories unfold on the TV screen. For other children, there’s nothing better than a comic book: a happy medium between words and illustrations.
And every story, regardless of whether it’s in print or on video, has a message. What is your child learning? Lessons of friendship, self-esteem and morals are often intentionally incorporated into stories by the authors, but other lessons and messages are passed along to the viewer or reader unintentionally, and not always for the best.
Societal perceptions of food allergies are just one example of this in action. Does a character with a nut allergy get teased and taunted? If so, children reading it may conclude that it’s common to make fun of someone for being allergic to nuts. Those who have a nut allergy may feel a little more embarrassed about it after reading such a story, especially if the teasing is not tackled head-on and denounced.
Recently, a group of researchers decided to look into the portrayal of nut allergies in comic books and study how such a portrayal could be affecting children. Do they feel like having a nut allergy is something to be embarrassed about? Do they anticipate being teased? Or do they anticipate being accepted and respected?
The researchers analyzed a small cross section of stories in which a nut allergy was central to the theme. The first example was Allergic by Adrian Tomine. The researchers note that the main character (meant to be the author himself) is drawn as an anxious, morose and paranoid individual after his diagnosis. He worries that he cannot live life to its fullest and that others may harm him by giving him peanut products. By the end of the comic, however, he realizes that “if he controls his fear, he can enjoy life despite his allergy.” The comic thus turns into an educational story for children with nut allergies, telling them that it’s understandable to feel afraid but that they don’t need to live sheltered lives as a result.
The second comic is What’s Up With Paulina? by Drs. Kate Hersov and Kim Chilman-Blair. The main character Paulina has a peanut allergy, and at the beginning of the story it’s clear she does not quite understand what this means. She is drawn as an isolated, unhappy character and expresses her disgust at not being able to eat anything that “tastes good.” The comic focuses on explaining a food allergy in child-friendly medical terms, and in the end Paulina feels empowered and capable of defeating the story’s “foe,” Anna Phylaxis.
Peanut by Ayun Halliday and Paul Hoppe is the third and final comic analyzed by the researchers. In this story, the main character pretends to have a peanut allergy to “make herself appear more interesting.” The comic explains the dangers of a peanut allergy, but because the main character is ultimately lying about her diagnosis, it plays into the social stigma that peanut allergy is a “fad” or a “self-indulgent” diagnosis and not as dangerous as it seems. This is, of course, problematic as it may cause others to believe it is a fake condition, and it may cause some children to worry that their allergy won’t be taken seriously.
Each of these comics represents a fantastic opportunity to read with your child and to talk about some larger themes. Discussing the story with your child allows you to address any misconceptions he or she may have afterward, and to also ask about his or her real-life experiences. Maybe your child is fearful like the main character in Allergic, but you haven’t realized it. Use stories to touch base with your child if he or she is having trouble opening up about something personal.
There are many other books and stories that center on food allergies. Some children’s books have been highlighted in our shop. Let us know your favorite titles and whether or not you’ve read any of the above comics!