Mrs. Kim & the Representation of Veg/Vegan Characters in YA Lit

mrs kim and the representation of veg vegan chararacters in ya lit Mrs. Kim & the Representation of Veg/Vegan Characters in YA Lit

When Gilmore Girls first aired in 2000, I didn’t see anything amiss with the fact that the food made by Mrs. Kim was always completely unappetizing. My sister was a vegetarian then, so I often ate vegetarian meals, but it never really stood out as dreadfully stereotypical in this regard because I wasn’t one yet. Fast-forward 15 years, however, and my perspective while binge-watching the series again, as a Gilmore Girls fangirl like myself is wont to do, was very different. I’ve been either a vegetarian* or vegan* for the last 13 years, so the 24-hour dance marathon episode, A.K.A. “They Shoot Gilmores, Don’t They?” I found myself feeling torn by the huge tub of eggless egg salad Mrs. Kim made for the participants to eat. Even though I occasionally have enjoyed a similar recipe, I found myself feeling disgusted because of the way it was presented.

mrs kim and the representation of veg vegan characters in ya lit Mrs. Kim & the Representation of Veg/Vegan Characters in YA LitJust as I didn’t notice anything amiss in the food that Mrs. Kim’s prepared back then, I likely wouldn’t have put much thought into how vegetarian characters were portrayed in books at that time. I may have subconsciously noticed whether they were represented in a positive or negative light, but it wouldn’t have stuck with me for any length of time. Now, things are different. For one thing, I notice when the author or the main character explicitly refers to a character or characters as vegetarian or vegan, which probably has a lot to do with my experience as one for so long. Moreover, as vegetarianism and veganism becomes more present in mainstream culture, it’s not surprising that authors have begun adding a more dietary diverse cast of characters to both their contemporary and fantasy worlds.

Whether you’re living a plant-based lifestyle like me and are looking for more books to add to your TBR pile that feature veg or vegan characters or are an author who wants to include some in your next project, keep reading to get a vegan’s perspective about the right and wrong ways to depict vegetarianism:

  • The Fault in Our Stars by John Green: Just before the #TFIOS movie was released, I reread John Green’s novel to refresh my memory of it. It’s a good thing I did because otherwise, I might have forgotten that Hazel Grace Lancaster is not only a vegetarian, but also an ethical one. When Gus asks if she went veg because the “Animals are just too cute?,” I’m sure that I’m not the only veg reader, who completely understood where Hazel was coming from when she answers: “I want to minimize the number of deaths I am responsible for.” Even though the conversation shuts down after Hazel’s admission, her honesty is something that could have a positive impact on readers – vegetarian and omnivore alike.

That said, I think it’s worth noting that this detail and conversation is   completely absent from the #TFIOS movie. Hazel doesn’t become a meat eater, but the emphasis on her ethical vegetarian stance and Hazel and Gus’ request for a vegetarian option from the chef on their date in Amsterdam are both completely absent. I can understand why these details may have seemed extraneous to the main plot, but at the same time, I’m sure that vegetarian and vegan movie goers would have loved to see a young woman who is so committed to their ethical lifestyle represented in this mainstream film.

  • Lola and the Boy Next Door and Isla and the Happily Ever After by Stephanie Perkins: When you set a book in The Castro neighbourhood of San Francisco, it shouldn’t be too surprising when one of the main characters has gay parents and is a vegetarian. The reason behind Lola’s vegetarianism isn’t so in your face with Lola and the Boy Next Door as it was in The Fault In Our Stars, but honestly, it doesn’t have to be. The detail is enough, especially when coupled with scenes where she eats a variety of veg-friendly foods, including falafel sandwiches. Technically, the vegetarianism of Isla and the Happily Ever After isn’t as clear, but spoiler alert, Lola does have a cameo in the last book in this series, so I’d say it counts.
  • Kissing Frogs by Alisha Sevigny: Unlike either Hazel or Lola, Jessica in Kissing Frogs isn’t presented to the reader as a fully formed vegetarian character at the beginning of the book. In fact, she starts out the novel as the queen bee who has spent several years of her life trying to hide her true geeky self behind a perfectly put together exterior without any obvious signs of intelligence and no concern for the environment. Her experiences on a school trip to Panama, including being influenced by the plant-based lifestyle of Travis – though technically he’s a pescatarian* not a vegetarian, change her though. By the end of the novel, Jessica makes a commitment to at least try to adhere to a vegetarian diet, and while she will likely have some struggles along the way or may decide not to stick with it, I’m sure that newbies to the veg or vegan way of life will appreciate her efforts. Also, for those of us from Canada, Alisha is from Toronto, which is kind of a bonus.
  • The Revelation of Louisa May by Michaela MacColl: For those of you who don’t know, Michaela MacColl writes great YA historical mysteries that blend the facts of various historical figures lives – including some great authors and poets – with fictional situations that could have inspired some of their most famous novels and poems. The Louisa May of the title refers to Louisa May Alcott, the author of Little Women, one of my favorite books as a 12 year old. What I never knew before reading MacColl’s novel, however, is that Louisa and her family were ethical vegetarians who not only avoided consuming meat, poultry, and fish, but also didn’t consume dairy.

From the novel, it’s hard to know whether Louisa would have subscribed to this diet of her own accord or not as their family’s decision to refrain from these foods but to eat eggs was influenced by her father, Bronson Alcott’s philosophical beliefs that chickens freely gave eggs to them for consumption. Still, I think this is a great book for teens and adult readers of YA to learn that while vegetarianism has become a more popular dietary choice recently, there were people in North America who ascribed to this diet in the 19th century.

  • The Queen of Bright and Shiny Things by Ann Aguirre: As with Louisa Alcott, Sage Czinski decides to go vegetarian because her aunt who has acted as her guardian for the last three years is one. It’s worth noting that Sage is adamant that she would NEVER be able to give up cheese and thus, mentions that she’s glad her aunt isn’t a vegan.

While I didn’t love that she started maintaining this diet even when she wasn’t at home because she was afraid that she’d be sent back to the group home where she used to live if she didn’t, there are more positives than negatives. First, I think this is one of the few, or perhaps only books that I’ve ever read where the main character serves seitan* to a bunch of her non-vegetarian friends from school, but also they enjoy the tacos so much that she has them over to her house for her aunt’s famous vegetarian lasagna. Second, I think readers will agree that somewhere along the way Sage becomes committed to vegetarianism for herself, and not just to please her aunt.

  • Loop by Karen Akins: In Bree Bennis’ present – the 23rd century – everyone is a vegetarian / vegan. While it’s not explicitly stated why as far as I remember anyway, I didn’t get a sense that Bree and her friends had an ethical reason for their dietary lifestyle. Rather, it seemed to amount to the fact that humans could get all of their nutritional needs from a vegetarian diet.
  • XVI by Julia Karr: I read this novel when it first came out in 2011, so some of the details are a bit sketchy in my mind. However, from what I remember, the future where Nina lives, like the world of Loop, is a vegetarian one. That said, another reader said that Nina’s society is vegetarian because there are so few animals left in her world according to the book.
  • The Mortal Instruments Series by Cassandra Clare: While each of the previously listed books featured a vegetarian protagonist, Cassandra Clare created a secondary character – Simon Lewis – who starts the series as one. While events occur over the course of the series that prevent him from maintaining this dietary choice, it’s interesting to see how his ethics complicate the life he is forced to lead at later points in the series.
  • I Was Here by Gayle Forman: As with Cassandra Clare’s series, I Was Here features several side characters, including several unnamed ones, who are vegetarian or vegan. First, there’s the “hippie” named Tree, who was one of Meg’s college roommates. From the story, Cody and the reader come away with the sense that Meg never had much of a relationship with any of her roommates, but even Cody keeps Tree at a distance, othering her for most of the story. It’s interesting, however, that Tree seems to be the only character who recognized that Meg’s behavior was a result of depression.In addition, Ben McAllister – the boy who broke Meg’s heart and becomes a major figure in Cody’s attempt to unravel the mystery that was Meg – repeatedly talks about his vegan roommates. We never learn their names because they’re unimportant to the plot. Instead, we learn about them only insofar as Ben attempts to avoid eating a strictly vegan diet, including how he hides cheese in a Tupperware container at his apartment and the copious amount of meat he eats when not at home to make up for his mainly vegetarian diet. In both cases, I found the representation of veg/vegan characters to be a little lacking in this book, but this didn’t change my positive opinion of the book in general.
  • The Catastrophic History of You and Me by Jess Rothenberg: This is another book that I read when it first came out in 2012, which makes the details a little sketchy for me. I’m including it here because I have read it and it was included on a Goodreads list of vegetarian and vegan protagonists.
  • Every Day by David Levithan: Like Jess Rothenberg’s novel above, I don’t specifically remember a vegetarian or vegan character in David Levithan’s novel, and since A wakes up in the body of a different person every day, I doubt A was the one with veg or vegan principles. That said, it’s a great book that you should read, and it was included on a list on Goodreads related to veg and vegan characters.
  • The Disenchantments by Nina LaCour: I love Nina LaCour’s writing, so I read this novel when it first came out in 2011, and I wasn’t disappointed. However, having seen this book on a list of books featuring vegetarian or vegan characters makes me want to reread it when I have a chance because this is a detail that slipped my mind from my first reading.

It’s been 15 long years since Mrs. Kim and her vegetarian diet first aired on Gilmore Girls, so it shouldn’t be surprising that there are more examples of vegetarians and even vegans in pop culture. Even better, more often than not, the representation of characters with diverse dietary needs – vegetarian, vegan, or otherwise – is generally presented in a more positive way. With that in mind, feel free to answer any or all the following questions in the comments:

  • Have you read any (or all) of these books with vegetarian or vegan characters?
  • Did you remember that there were characters with diverse dietary choices in any of these books?
  • Are there any other books that you would recommend to a vegetarian or vegan, who wants to add more books featuring these types of characters to their reading list?

As always I’d love to hear your suggestions and will use them along with some others that I’ve already obtained through Twitter from @appfanie, @Word_Tapestry, @MyfanwyCollins, @yalovemag, and @jennykacz later this week! Thanks so much for your help!

 

Vegetarian Terminology: 

* A vegetarian is someone who eschews red meat, pork, poultry, seafood and fish, but who might consume dairy products, eggs, and other animal products, such as honey.

* A vegan is someone who eschews all meat, poultry, seafood, and fish, and refrains from eating dairy, eggs, and may avoid other animal products, like honey. Some vegans prefer the term “plant-based,” and they may also refrain from using all animal products, meaning that they won’t wear leather or wool.

* A pescatarian is someone who doesn’t eat red meat, pork or poultry, but who may consume fish or seafood. Depending on the person, they may also consume or refrain from consuming dairy and eggs.

* Seitan is a protein-rich, meat substitute composed primarily of wheat gluten. It has a texture that is very similar to the type of meat that it’s attempting to imitate and can be flavored in a way that makes the similarity nearly complete. In fact, the first time I ever tried it after having given up all meat, poultry, and fish for several years, I was scared that the veggie chick’n I was consuming was actually chicken. Alas, now, as a gluten-free vegan, I can’t eat it anymore, but that doesn’t mean that you wouldn’t love it if you gave it a chance.

  5 comments for “Mrs. Kim & the Representation of Veg/Vegan Characters in YA Lit

  1. June 9, 2015 at 7:22 am

    I’ve been a vegetarian for 25 years and have grown pretty tired of “unappetizing vegetarian food” as a punchline. I’ve put vegetarians & vegans into a couple of my books:

    Donorboy, in which the main character goes vegetarian after her mothers are killed in a freak poultry-related accident

    Notes From the Blender, which I wrote with Trish Cook, in which one of the main characters goes vegan after being exposed to factory farming videos by a vegan metal band.

    A Really Awesome Mess, also co-written with Trish, features an ethical vegetarian character as well.

  2. June 9, 2015 at 7:37 am

    Thanks for commenting and adding accurate and positive representations of veg and vegan characters in your books, Brendan. It’s great to know that I’m not the only one who is turned off by these types of disparaging representations of vegetarian and vegan characters. Also, I like the way your books bring vegetarianism and veganism into the plot either as something the character already is or how they change over the course of the book.

  3. June 22, 2015 at 2:27 pm

    Thanks for this! I’ve been vegan for 11ish years and “semi-veg” for a long time before that. There’s a vegan in every book I write.

  4. June 22, 2015 at 3:21 pm

    You’re welcome, Sarah. I’m glad you like it, and of course, thanks for helping me with suggestions before I published it. I think that it’s great that you make it a part of your creative work, too. I’m pretty sure that most authors who use vegetarianism or veganism as a trope / aspect of their character(s) aren’t either vegetarian or vegan, which can lead to some less-than-amazing representations at times.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: