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.

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