Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs

People who know I love children's books often ask me for recommendations. I love to tell them about the latest Peter Brown, Jon Klassen, or David Wiesner. There are some fantastic children's books being written right now and I want to spread the word about these modern masters. Eventually though, the conversation gets around to what was my favorite picture book as a child. And that's an easy one. I loved Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs by Judi and Ron Barrett with a passion. I read the heck out of that book. Even before I got back into reading children's books (gave myself permission), I owned a copy of Cloudy. It was the first children's masterpiece I ever read.

Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs starts with a grandfather making pancakes for his grandchildren. That night he tells them the story of the tiny town of Chewandswallow. The town is just your average small town except for the weather. The only thing that falls from the sky is food. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are forecast the same way rain and snow are in our world. And the people of the town eat whatever the weather provides: pancakes, hamburgers, soup, and even "brussel sprouts and peanut butter with mayonnaise". Over time though, the weather starts to get worse. The food becomes larger and more extreme. It starts to cause damage to buildings and even injure people. So the townspeople are finally forced to build boats of giant sandwiches and abandon the town of Chewandswallow to settle across the sea. It's a wonderful little tale.

The first thing that drew me into the book originally were Ron Barrett's illustrations. As you look at the pea soup fog, storm of hamburgers, the giant pickle, or the pancake flattening the elementary school, you realize how incredibly effective simple ink lines can be in creating something realistic. The food looks good. All of it. And all it takes was the use of black ink hatched lines and a touch of color. Ron Barrett made that city, and its meals, come alive for me. The people have a lovely caricature quality to them but all the food looked real. As things get worse in the town, the illustrations become more and more elaborate. The situations are wacky but somehow the illustrations never look over the top. The palette is muted except for one very bright tomato soup tornado. The illustrations have an almost old-fashioned feel, but in just the right way. I remember marveling over each page, finding new details I'd missed before. Tiny moments of humor, all surrounding tasty food. I may even have drooled a little on it.

But over the years I've realized that while the pictures drew me in initially, it's the tone of the book that has kept me coming back. It wasn't until Sony Pictures made their terrible movie that I understood completely what I love so much about this book. It's the tone. Judi Barrett offers such an understated narrative for this strange and wacky book. The story is meant to be a tale told to grandchildren but it never sounds like a tall tale. It sounds like it could really happen the way the narrator tells it. It's almost like a documentary. The situation is stated as fact, even as the story gets more and more wild. "By the time they woke up in the morning, breakfast was coming down. After a brief show of orange juice, low clouds of sunny-side eggs moved in followed by pieces of toast." It almost sounds like a weather report. Sometimes it's the quiet stories that have the greatest impact. For me, growing up, this book sounded like it was real. And for a child who wanted to believe in magical places, it was just the invitation I needed to dream. The movie went for wacky, but what I loved was the understated tone of the book. So subtle, so quiet, so perfect.

I've loved a lot of picture books in my life. Some from when I was a child and some as an adult coming back to children's books. I'm constantly enchanted by new work. But so far, no book, not one, has taken the place of Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs in my heart. When people ask me what my favorite picture book is, I hand them this quiet little gem and wait for them to fall in love.