Why We Need Chicken Soup and Grandma

Whether we're white, black, rich or poor, beautiful, smart, stupid or ugly, we all have the same grandma. She's about 70, has white hair, or nearly white, wears a cotton calico dress slightly worn and a bit tight, and has those sensible grey shoes on. She mumbles to herself when she's looking for something hidden in the back of the pantry's dark shelves, and she slaps our hand if we reach at the table. She's as jolly as Santa Claus and just as generous with the space on her lap.Who cares if the truths in our lives include gangsta rap, skyrocketing teen pregnancy rates, celebrated depictions of impassive sex and violence, rewarded wrongdoing, joblessness and hopelessness. We always have grandma. And we're hugging her -- or just the idea of her -- more and more lately and in record numbers, thanks to a deluge of books characterized as anecdotal, proverbial, inspirational, or just old-fashioned, finger-waging, lesson-learning yarns about the old days. From Chicken Soup for the Soul, 101 Stories to Open the Heart and Rekindle the Spirit, to William Bennett's Book of Virtues, to the Delaney Sisters' Book of Everyday Wisdom, the public can't get enough of the books, tapes and videos that teach us the basics: how to live, whom to love and why we should, just as a 70-ish, white-haired, hand-slapping grandma should. It's a multi-million-dollar business that shows no signs of receding. Writers galore and an increasing number of enthusiastic readers are hungry for the wise words that used to come in the midst of lazy, Sunday afternoon storytelling.Publishers are taking advantage of the interest by offering more titles in the genre, and experts are advising the public to buy because they say it might be the only way the younger generation will hear such lessons. After all, grandma nowadays is healthier, wealthier and more mobile. You'll find her in the classroom, with a tour group or in a casino. But you won't find her in the pantry looking for ingredients to make soup. The hugely successful Chicken Soup books follow a simple recipe proven successful for every edition. Stories, essays, poems, and reminiscences about living a happy life are compiled ingeniously under various banners in the eight Chicken Soup books: Cup of Chicken Soup, Condensed Chicken Soup, Chicken Soup for Working Women, and a soon-to-be-published Chicken Soup for Teenagers. There's even an actual cookbook as well as audio and video-tape versions.Many of the pieces are reprints written by notable authors for other projects. Most, however, are submissions sent in from obscure grandmas and grandpas, parents of all ages living in places as unpretentious and ordinary as Flint, MI.According to Jenny Chou of Audubon Court Books, the Chicken Soup books took off in the store in 1994, when the original Chicken Soup for the Soul won the celebrated American Independent Booksellers' Abby Award presented annually to the book independent booksellers most enjoy selling. Kim Weiss, public relations director of Health Communications Inc., publishers of the Chicken Soup series, contended the books are popular because people are "thirsty for positive literature that makes them feel good, and because they love to learn through storytelling." Weiss said the mixture of anecdotes and memoirs by the young and the old, the famous and the not-so-famous, the well-written with the better-written, and the various literary forms each play a part in the series' success. "Everyone can relate to something in the books," said Weiss. The books, edited by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen, self-esteem lecturers and motivators, aren't preachy or didactic nor are they how-to books in the pop-psychology sense, Weiss contended. They're simply lightweight reading with homespun messages regarding love, obstacles, parenting and goals.For Connie Popp, they're anything but lightweight. Popp, director of the Newman Center, the Catholic Campus Ministry of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, said Chicken Soup for the Soul could be a textbook for her class, "Introduction to Conflict Resolution and Peace." She has played excerpts of the taped version for her students, whose ages run from their early 20s to senior citizens.Popp said she must use the tape because if she would try to read excerpts to the class, she might cry. The stories are that moving for her. The popularity of Chicken Soup for the Soul and books like it reflects the society's need to fill a spiritual void. "Everybody is on a spiritual journey," she said. "They're lacking something in their lives. These books offer inspiration." The Chicken Soup books have inspired similarly conceived copies, including the well-promoted From Grandma with Love, A Legacy of Values, which is, according to publisher William Hilbig of Alti Publishing in California, a "collection of 155 character-building stories written by real grandmas from around the United States."Each vignette illustrates a different virtue, from "Not Judging By Appearances" to "Manners." Hilbig said the interest shown his and similar books is due in part to senior citizens wanting their beliefs and morals from a bygone era affirmed."Older people believe these books validate their own character-based upbringing, which they see less and less of nowadays," says Hilbig. "These books let them know that there are still people out there who share their belief in the importance of virtue, and these books preserve that belief." Many of the From Grandma authors submitted their recollections without a profit motive. When Hilbig solicited stories for the anthology, he offered no more than a $50 contribution to a children's charity of the writer's choice. The response was surprising. The company received more than 300 stories in a little more than two months. Hilbig says he was touched by them all. His firm, which up until From Grandma had published coffee table art books, plans to follow up the story collection with stage presentations aimed at high schoolers. He and his staff are interested in imparting values in a non-religious, non-preachy way.Plans are underway for publishing, in the fall, a male-oriented version of From Grandma With Love, to be called From Grandpa With Love. From Grandma can be used to promote the kind of storytelling expressed in its pages, Hilbig contends."It serves as a catalyst to spark discussion of values within their own families," he said.Or within church study groups, said Virginia Schaeffer, who tutors young women between ages 25 and 35 and uses the book to communicate with them. The stories are short enough to read out loud, and she can get immediate feedback from her students."They all end up saying, 'I can relate to that,'" said Schaeffer. People have had enough negativity and given something positive will respond, she added. "On one level it's as simple as people wanting to read something positive. On another level, people are looking for a way to express themselves," Schaeffer said. "They identify with stories being told no matter what their age." Another local woman whose story appears in From Grandma With Love is Shirley Silko, whose "Where Are You, Madia?" is designed to illustrate the value of remembering to care. She wrote it for her granddaughter, who as a child had been close to Silko, but as a teenager visited her grandmother less and less often."Kids will listen to everyone but family, so I figured that if my granddaughter saw this story in a book and she read it, she'd know it was important to me," said Silko.She reported that when her granddaughter read it, she grumbled and denied anything was wrong between her grandmother and herself. In Hilbig's view, books like his and the Chicken Soup series are popular because we're losing "the subtle technique of tutoring at grandma's knee." The books somewhat replace that oral tradition. In a Frank Capra movie, advice was handed down by a wizened, white-haired nanny to her young charge while both rocked in chairs on a porch at sunset. For a variety of reasons, people just don't spend time with their grandparents, or great aunts and uncles. They don't know the stories first-hand. They buy the book instead, and read it while they're riding the bus, sunning at the beach, bicycling at the health club, or during lunch at the local fast-food restaurant.A recent Newsweek article predicted the next best seller would be The Life of Jenny Lee Brown, From Birth To Age 80, which recounts the life of a family elder originally written by Brown solely for her family as a way to preserve her story for them. For years, the biography, written on yellow legal paper, was handed around from relative to relative until someone showed it to a publisher. Now it's in bookstores.A similar account is told by Robert Fulghum, whose still-popular book All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten arguably is the granddaddy of the no-nonsense, value-imparting reminiscences. In the introduction to the book, Fulghum said he was in the habit of writing "stuff" to friends, family and himself, and somewhere along the line part of what he'd written made its way into the hands of a literary agent. In 1986, the book hit The New York Times' best-seller list.Mary Anderson, of the marketing department at Harry W. Schwartz Book Sellers, said the trend in proverbial-type literature can be viewed with the increased number of biographies by senior citizens. She cited Fulghum's work and Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt, but credits Having Our Say: The Delaney Sisters' First One Hundred Years, published in 1993, as having started the publishing trend of books authored by older adults. "I think the Delaney Sisters' book really started the wave of senior stories," Anderson said. "Seniors are putting their stories down, and thanks to them. And, damn it, yes, we should listen." In Anderson's opinion, the books are successful because people are looking for something "to put their arms around" and that "there are some extraordinary stories out there."Older parents are buying the books for their kids, in part, for their kids to compensate for the fact that it might be difficult for some parents to express themselves because they don't have the time, they don't live near their kids, or don't have the physical or intellectual ability, said Anderson."They can't express themselves, but they want to communicate with their children," she added. "They want their children to know their history. They often erroneously think they should be able to tell their own stories articulately and chronologically, and when they can't they think it's not worth telling. But they still want their kids to know, so they buy these books for them."Anderson recalled a recent book-signing by Agate Nesaule for her book Woman in Amber. The book recounts Nesaule brutal childhood in Latvia during World War II. She is in her 60s, and most of the audience was older. "The senior author had a great response to her book-signing," says Anderson. "Over half of the audience, which numbered about 70, were senior citizens who said they bought the book, which recounted the author's Latvian childhood during World War II, for their children so they would know their parents' story even though it was told by another person in a book." According to Josephine M. D'Antonio, president of Grandparents Count, an organization devoted to helping grandparents obtain the right to visit their grandchildren, From Grandma With Love, All I Really Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten and other books like them, are important tools for grandparents to have on hand these days because grandparents are called upon more often to help raise their grandchildren. These books serve to remind them of the stories they should be sharing.She added that "grandparents see the anxiety and stress their kids are forced to deal with especially when it comes to raising kids and that modern parents meed help. Grandparents have to take a role in raising their grandkids." "These books are in a sense how-to books for parents and grandparents," D'Antonio said. "We've got to give more than toys to the kids." The books remind people of what they should be sharing with their families, D'Antonio said."These charming stories are filled with hope and love and heritage, and should be preserved," she said. "Grandparents today are younger, better educated and doing more and more, and may forget to pass along their family traditions. If they are able, grandma and grandpa should write down their family stories in a journal or diary. This wisdom has to be preserved. Young kids are looking for this."

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