Saturday, July 25, 2015

3 Things Writers Learn from Stone Soup

I enjoy reading classic stories to get a feel for what gives them such enduring qualities. Stone Soup by Ann McGovern is my latest read. (Original edition in 1936. current Edition by Aladdin Picture Books, 1997.)

I heard someone recently mention that their father had read it to them as a child and it was a favorite. My wife and her sister confirmed that it was also a favorite in their family.
What makes a story enduring? If anyone knew, they’d become the next Hans Christian Andersen. But perhaps I can speculate on this story.

For those who may not know the story (warning a little bit of a spoiler), it is about a hungry boy who asks an old lady for food. When she has none, he proposes to make stone soup. Little by little ingredients are found until the soup becomes delicious.

Before discussing what this story is really about, consider how the plot unfolds. The boy has a problem. He is hungry. We know that on the first page “He was tired. And he was hungry.”
How can the problem be solved? The boy finds an old woman’s house and asks for food, but she claims to have none – an escalation of the problem. This poor fellow is going to starve! The old lady has no interest in helping the boy … she has said no, and that’s it.

But wait, he doesn’t give up. No does not necessarily mean no. The boy offers an idea. He asks for a stone.  How could the old woman deny that simple request… but why a stone?

The boy proposes to make soup from the stone.

It is highly irregular, but it gets the old woman’s attention. She plays along.  They get a pot and some water and begin boiling the stone in the water.

As they watch it boil, the boy mentions that it would boil faster if it had some onions.
The old lady is intrigued, and finds some onions to put in the boiling water.

“Soup from a stone,” said the little old lady.
“Fancy that.”

The soup begins to smell good. Perhaps the old lady’s taste buds begin to talk to her.  When the boy suggests that it would be even better with carrots, the old lady finds some, and puts them in the pot.
Little by little, the progress of the soup stirs hunger in the old lady, and she puts a number of ingredients in the pot. By the time a fine soup is cooking, she decides that she must set a grand table to eat the delicious soup that is “fit for a king.”

“Soup from a stone,” said the little old lady.
“Fancy that.”

The boy and the old lady enjoy the wonderful soup. When the boy leaves, he takes the stone with him.

“Why are you taking the stone?” said the little old lady.

“Well,” said the young man. “The stone is not cooked enough. I will have to cook it some more tomorrow.”

That’s the story… but why is it enduring?  I believe because in a subtle way (the best way to teach a life lesson) it illustrates persistence. Every child, every person, encounters many “No’s” in their lifetime. Some people take no to mean no. Other people take no to mean maybe. Maybe there is a way to turn no into a yes. It is a skill that successful people have mastered. It is the “If like gives you lemon, make lemonade” kind of thinking.  Some people, of course, may think this a crass lesson, but other experienced parents know that persistence is a great skill for a child to acquire, and so they like this book. Children like the book because it is full of imagination.

“Soup from a stone,” said the little old lady.
“Fancy that.”

Who could have believed it could happen? Any yet, it does happen – slowly  the “can’t happen” becomes a “maybe” and then “yes” and furthermore “soup fit for a king.”

Even a children’s book writer can learn something from this story. Rejection notes are a daily reality to most writers. 

Writer's Lesson 1: Writers receive many rejections. But sometimes when we make a proposal, a small door is opened. Maybe this story will work. Let’s edit it a little. Let’s add some onions, maybe some carrots. Pretty soon the story begins to taste good, and if we are persistent, and imaginative, it might become a story fit for a king.

Writer's Lesson 2: An enduring story often teaches a life lesson in a way that is not obvious. But books that ring true to how life really works tickles some of the gray matter in the brain, and the story endures.

Writer's Lesson 3: Imagination is a powerful tool. When our brain encounters something unusual, or maybe impossible, like making soup from a stone, we are intrigued. We must find out how. We become anxious to hear the resolution... and that is the germ of a good story.

For more about Alan Elliott visit

Thanks for your comments.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Review of Big Red Lollipop by Rukhsana Khan

Big Red Lollipop by Rukhsana Khan, Illustrated by Sophie Blackall. 

Viking (2011)

2011 Charlotte Zolotow Award Winner

A lot of times when you start reading a children's book, you can pretty much guess the ending. I was
a little surprised by Big Red Lollipop. It had a twist in the middle (at least for me) that made it more interesting than a run-of-the-mill story. I'm sure that contributed to winning the Zolotow Award. Most books, although entertainment must be there, have some kind of message or lesson. This one is that things don't always go your way. A second lesson might be poetic justice. You'll have to read it to see what I mean.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Rukhsana Khan: The author was born in Pakistan but grew up (from 3 years old) in Canada. With four children of her own, she had plenty of inspiration for stories. She began her writing career by composing songs for Adam's World videos. Her stories often deal with diversity. She has six children's books (as of this writing) as well as two novels and some short stories. 

For more about Alan Elliott visit

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Review of What Can You Do with a Palenta? by Carmen Tafolla. Illustrated by Magaly Morales

What Can You Do with a Palenta? by Carmen Tafolla. Illustrated by Magaly Morales

Tricycle Press

2010 Charlotte Zolotow award winner

The stories in some books seem to come out of nowhere. Sure, probably most of us grew up with some kind of ice cream wagon visiting our street.It was a big treat then, and maybe that's why even if you've never heard of a palenta, you'll get this story. A palenta is a icy fruit treat on a stick that is popular in Latino neighborhoods (and any place you can get them.) We know that when you get a palenta you should lick it and slurp it and eat it, but what else can you do with it? That's where the magic of the story comes alive. As it turns out, you can do lot's of creative things with a palenta. Paint with it, cool off, or make people happy. Once you get the question, you can come up with your own ways of doing creative things with a palenta. The story takes the reader on a magical and creative ride through a Latino neighborhood, meeting people, having fun, and all the time enjoying a gooey, cold, and flavorful treat.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: In 2012, author Carmen Tafolla was named the first Poet Laureate of San Antonio. Besides being a children's book author, she is a well known and published poet. In addition to the Zolotow award, she has also been recognized with the Art of Peace Award,  recognition by the National Association of Chicana and Chicano Studies for giving “voice to the peoples and cultures of this land,” and by the Library of Congress (in 2010) with the Americas award.

For more about Alan Elliott visit

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Review of How to Heal a Broken Wing by Bob Graham

Review of How to Heal a Broken Wing by Bob Graham

Candlewick Press

2009 Charlotte Zolotow award winner

If you were ever a kid (I hope you were) or had kids, you've likely experienced a moment when you saw an injured animal. If you live in cities with lots of trees, you have mostly likely seen an injured bird, or a baby bird that has fallen out of its nest. I ran across a tiny kitten once that had no home. I walked it to a nearby firehouse, and a fireman took it, washed it, fed it, and adopted it. In  the big city, when a bird flies into a tall building, and falls to the ground, I am sure few people take note. In this story everyone passes by the injured pigeon until a small boy notices. Will is a caring child who wants to help. His mother and father take part in showing him how the bird might get well -- but it takes time, and nursing. Finally, the bird gathers enough strength to fly away.

This story is about a world where even the smallest bird is important. It is a story about how the strong should take care of the weak. It is a story of how there are no quick fixes, but healing takes time. And it is a story where those we help may leave without thanking us, and our only satisfaction is knowing that we have made the world a better place. All of these emotions are captured in Bob Graham's story.

Bob Graham is an illustrator and writer born in Australia in 1942. Perhaps his most famous book is Jethro Byrd, Fairy Child published in 2002. Other well-known works are Max and "Let's Get a Pup," Said Kate. In 2012 he was awarded the Hand Christen Andersen Medal. 

For more about Alan Elliott visit