Soup from a Stone

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In theory this blog covers all ages and genres of children’s books, but you may find yourself picking up very quickly on a certain…bias.

I dearly love a good trickster tale.

So let’s kick this off with a classic: Stone Soup, the Marcia Brown version with the gorgeous red-and-black-wash illustrations from 1947. It’s a straightforward retelling of the old tale in which three hungry soldiers trick a town into providing them with a meal by pretending they can make soup out of water and a couple of rocks. Ultimately, of course, there’s enough food for everyone, and the town holds a feast, and everything works out quite well, especially because the villagers don’t seem to have noticed that they were tricked by the time the soldiers leave town.

There are a lot of ways you can read Stone Soup. It’s a comedy. It’s a trickster tale with a sweet ending. It’s a story about community, and about pitching in.

It is also quite definitely a story about three armed men walking into a town and deciding to use their words instead of their weapons to get what they want.

That’s not speculation, or my weird interpretation; it’s in the pictures and the text. The book opens with a rear view of the soldiers. Before we see their faces, we see their uniforms and the sabers strapped to their belts. The first page tells us that our protagonists are returning home from a war, that they’re exhausted, that this country is strange to them, and that it’s been two days since they’ve eaten anything. They’re everything that we’re warned about when we read medieval literature and post-apocalyptic survival stories: a group of hungry, desperate, armed men.

They walk into a town where the occupants are clearly holding out on them, lying to their faces that they have no food at all to spare.

And the soldiers, after four pages spent listening to blatant falsehoods about poor harvests and large families starving—really, they’re fair lies to make, but they’re hardly convincing when the children on the page are all trying not to smile as they peek out from behind their parents—after four pages of blatant falsehoods, the soldiers’ reaction is to announce to the town:

“Well then, we’ll have to make stone soup.”

Then they do. Like it’s the most ordinary thing in the world. They’ll have to make stone soup. They’re hungry, and the town is holding out on them, and so the logical conclusion for these three armed men is that they’ll engage in a complicated bit of gentle con artistry to feed not only themselves but the very people who would happily throw them out of town without so much as an apple core.

And, I mean, it’s a book for kids, so naturally we don’t expect a turn to violence. But think about if this were a newspaper article in your local paper. All of the terrifying what-could-happen-next conjectures you’d have as you read the opening paragraphs—they’re all part of the story here too. There’s nothing to say that the same fears you’d have if armed soldiers showed up on your doorstep don’t occur to Louis, Marie, Vincent, and Françoise as they answer the knocks on their farmhouse doors.

I keep bringing up the fact that the soldiers are armed. So do the illustrations. These guys use their sabers to chop vegetables into the pot all the way on the twenty-second page (not to mention the title page in the front). They take off their rucksacks early on, but we repeatedly see that they’re still wearing their sword belts after that. In fact, they don’t remove them until they have the soup they came for and a feast is being set on the table.

We read the book and say, don’t be silly, of course it’ll be fine. It’s a children’s picture book. All will end well. The townspeople will have plenty to go around. The soldiers will be hungry no more as they set off down the road. One day they might even make it home. No one gets bloodied, and no one gets starved. Those options were never even worth considering.

It’s a funny, playful story. It makes us grin and it makes us laugh.

And yet they don’t take off their swords until the feast is on the table.

The classic protagonist of a trickster tale turns to cleverness or treachery because they can’t compete in any other way. Think of Aesop’s fables about a clever fox facing down a lion; the fox can’t match the lion for force or charisma, so if she wants to survive her encounter with the king of beasts, she’d better use her head. Stone Soup offers a twist on the formula. Here, when polite requests and reasoned discussion fail, the soldiers, conspicuously, can use force if they want to. The decision to use trickery is an active choice instead of the default.

That’s the lovely, remarkable, dangerous heart of Stone Soup. We see the swords. We see the risks, the uniforms, the children hiding behind their parents, the lies on all sides, the vivid red wash of the illustrations. We see the swords, and we see three people find another way.

We have a choice of our own when we make stories for kids. We can decide that the world is a hazardous place that must be softened in our tellings, or we can let the hazards show themselves in the plots and in the pictures and tell beautiful, funny, compassionate stories anyway. For all that that sentence makes my preferences clear, it’s honestly not always an easy answer. Things that frighten some kids, or people, anger others; things that are easy enough for one child to accept strike another as outrageous. Things that kids see in their own communities, or live through themselves, often have to be handled differently from those with which they have no experience.

Still, time rolls forward, and the world we live in is itself and nothing else. Weapons and selfishness and deception are real matters to contend with no matter how we try to soften the blow. No town is perfect, and generosity is a harder habit to make than it is to break. Even our protagonists are liars.

But oh, the soup is good, rocks and all.

And the story’s even better.