Jackie: We are in cold, cold winter. Too cold to read seed catalogs–spring just seems too far away to imagine fragile green. We are confined to cabin. What to do but think of repurposing, making something out of nothing, or next to nothing?
Stone Soup by Marcia Brown has always been one of my favorite something-out-of-nothing (or at least something out of stones) stories. The three hungry soldiers promise to teach the townsfolk, who claim to have no food to share, how to make soup from stones. The townsfolk quickly find a pot, wood for a fire, and three good stones. “’Any soup needs salt and pepper,’ said the soldiers, as they began to stir.” No problem. And then it begins, “Stones like these generally make good soup. But oh, if there were carrots, it would be much better.” Françoise brings carrots. Soon others bring cabbage, beef and potatoes, barley and milk. Tables are set. And the peasants decide this wonderful soup requires “bread—and a roast—and cider.” They feast and dance into the night and offer the soldiers warm beds in their homes. I love the idea of making soup from stones, the notion that the villagers are willing to share to make a better stone soup, perhaps because it’s coöperative. They are making soup together.
In recent days, I have wanted to see the villagers become aware of the stone soup trick, but that is not part of this French folk tale. And I can still imagine to myself a village child waking up with a smile on her face as she understands the real charm of stone soup.
Phyllis: I can understand the villagers’ hesitancy to share—they’ve been in the midst of war, feeding many soldiers whether they chose to or not, and now that the war has ended, shouldn’t they be left in peace? But peace means more than just the cessation of fighting. It means, too, learning how to open hearts as well as cupboards, a lesson the villagers don’t even realize they have been slyly given and have taken to heart.
I have been making lots of soup as the temperature dips to minus 28 with a wind chill of minus 47 or thereabouts. Like the saying about wood warming a person twice, (once when you split it, once when you burn it) soup warms us in many ways. The cooking warms our kitchens, the eating warms our bodies, and the sharing warms our hearts. When the ground thaws, I’m going to hunt for a smooth, round stone and try adding it to my soup pot. Who knows? It might be as secret ingredient, as it was for the villagers in Stone Soup. And I love the flowing line of Brown’s art—I knew I wanted to be a part of picture books when, in college, I discovered a tucked-away shelf of children’s books that included her wonderful woodcuts for Once A Mouse.
Jackie: An inside-out- version of this soup story is Thank You, Omu! by Oge Mora, recently named a Caldecott Honor Winner by the ALA. Omu lives on the top floor of an apartment building. One day she makes herself a large pot of thick red stew. Its “scrumptious scent wafted out the window and out the door, down the hall towards the street and around the block” until Knock, Knock, Knock. A little boy stops in to ask for a bowl of the thick red stew. “It would not hurt to share,” decides Omu. After all she has a very large pot of stew. Then stops a police officer, a hot dog vendor, the mayor, and others—all looking for stew. When it comes time for her delicious dinner of stew, Omu’s pot is empty. She hears Knock, Knock, Knock. But she has no more stew. “’We are not here to ask,” says the boy. ‘We are here to give.’” And all the neighbors who ate Omu’s stew have returned with meat and sweets, and plates of food. Omu’s small apartment is filled with people who “ate, danced, and celebrated.” Omu’s stew makes a community celebration out of an empty pot. And who can resist stories that end with eating and dancing? (Here’s a link to an interview with Oge Mora.)
Phyllis: I love this book! Oge Mora also just won the 2019 Coretta Scott King Book Awards John Steptoe Award for New Talent Illustrator for Thank You, Omu!, and it’s easy to see why—the colorful collage art, her color palette, the way words and images leap off the page, the irresistible knocks on the door that propel page turns, and, of course, the story of freely giving and receiving in return.
In an interview Oge Mora talks about how the heart of the book centers on giving and gratitude. She didn’t include a recipe for Omu’s scrumptious stew in part, she says, because she wants readers to think about food that they have their own relationships with—food that comforts, food that calls up memories of cooks who came before us. In an author’s note Mora tells how her grandmother danced and swayed as she stirred a pot of soup, and her table was open to anyone who stopped by. “Everyone in the community had a seat at my grandmother’s table,” she writes. And we are lucky enough to have a seat at Omu’s table as we share this book.
Jackie: No soup involved in Simms Tabak’s Joseph Had a Little Overcoat, but there is much making something out of something less. We can enjoy time and again Joseph’s ingenuity in making from his worn coat a jacket, then a vest. When the vest is “old and worn,” he makes a scarf and “sang in a men’s chorus.” Then a necktie, a handkerchief, and a button. When the button is lost, he makes a book about it. “Which shows you can always make something out of nothing.”
Phyllis: Vivid art and clever cutouts show the overcoat/jacket/vest/scarf/necktie/handkerchief/button getting smaller and smaller. Joseph, who makes a story out of “nothing,” cheerily doesn’t seem to care at all that one suspender is missing now a button, and we have no doubt that he’ll find some other nothing to make a new button out of.
The Patchwork Bike by Maxine Beneba Clarke, illustrated by Van Thanh Rudd, begins, “This is the village where we live inside our mud-for-wall home. These are my crazy brothers, and this is our fed-up mum.” The narrator and her brothers build a sand hill to slide down, jump and climb in the big Fiori tree “out in the no-go desert, under the stretching-out sky.” But the best thing in the village, she tells us, is the bike she and her brothers make out of scraps, with a “bent bucket seat and handlebar branches that shicketty shake when we ride over sand hills.” Tin cans become handles, wheels cut from wood go winketty wonk, a flour sack becomes a flag, Mum’s milk pot becomes a bell (and is she fed-up about that, we wonder), lights are painted on, and the license plate, made of bark, keeps falling off. “The best thing of all to play with under the stretching-out sky at the edge of the no-go desert,” she tells us, “is me and my brothers’ bike.” As someone who’s mended cars with twisty ties and temporarily patched leaky gas tank leaks with bars of soap, I admire their ingenuity. The art races across the page as a few exactly right words create setting and family and take us along with the narrator and her brothers on their best-thing-of-all patchwork bike.
Jackie: And finally, back to stones. In The Secret Kingdom by Barb Rosenstock and illustrated by Claire A. Nivola, we learn of Nek Chand, forced out of his home village with the partitioning of India to a newly-constructed city. He longed for the sights and sounds of his home, now part of Pakistan. He could not go back nor could he find the old sights and sounds in the gray city. He found a place on the edge of town, an uninhabited jungle. He made himself a home and over the next fifteen years he scavenged “broken pieces of village life under the modern city…chipped sinks, cracked water pots, and broken glass bangles in red, blue, and green.” For seven years he “carried these treasures into the wilderness. He made cement and pressed porcelain shards into it.” He “saved half-dead plants from the city dump,” watered them, and filled his kingdom with bougainvillea, oleander, mango and pipal trees. He constructed goddesses and queens, singing men, women, and laughing children. “Nek built his kingdom over twelve acres and kept it secret for fifteen years.” When government officers found his kingdom, they planned to destroy it.
Until the people of Chandigarh came.” They loved this place! “By the hundreds, city people roamed sculptured walkways, ducked through arches, laughed and told village stories, beginning to end and back again.” The people convinced the government officials to preserve the village.
With his collection of scraps and shards, with his yearning and his art, Nek Chand made a place that called forth stories, laughter, memory.
Phyllis: This book is breathtaking, both in the story it tells and also in the world of remembered home that Nek Chand created. The author came across this story by accident while researching another book and was so gripped by Chand’s art and story that she put aside that project while she wrote The Secret Kingdom. A short video offers a glimpse of Chand’s kingdom, and a book for grown-ups, Nek Chand’s Outsider Art: the Rock Garden of Chandigarh, is filled with photos of his creations made from the cast-off trash of the city. In the end, Chand’s art, built in secret solitude, created community as people fought to save his kingdom.
Jackie: When we make something out of nothing, we end up with more than the thing we have made, we end up with community, love, healed hearts, home.