Stone Soup is an old folk tale that appears in many cultures and often features a trickster wanderer. I think of the purveyors of stone soup as bards, bringing the magic of imagination into the real world and changing what we perceive. In Jon J. Muth’s beautifully-illustrated version, the chefs are three Zen (Cha’an) monks in ancient China, searching for happiness in a poor village. The rich, traditional watercolors bely the impoverished hearts of the villagers and draw you through the pages. Muth has included a lot of symbolism in his art–from the color yellow which is typically reserved for the emperor to a stack of rounded stones that looks like a sitting Buddha.
The mendicant monks are traveling in the countryside when a young one asks the eldest to explain the meaning of happiness. Instead of a talk, the old monk shows him. They approach a picturesque village that has been through hard times. No one will speak to them, answer the door or offer them hospitality. So they collect a pile of twigs, set a tin pot on top and fill the pot with water. Then they light the fire and begin to scour the ground for stones. A small girl in a yellow dress runs out to ask what they are doing and helps them to find the perfect stones. Then she brings a much larger pot from her home to hold all the delicious soup. Soon people are slipping out of their shuttered houses to check out the disturbance.
The monks lament that they have no salt and pepper for the soup so a villager runs to get some. Then another villager brings a basketful of carrots. Soon everyone is getting in on the act–mushrooms, onions, spices, and dumplings all go in the enormous pot. Each household tries to outdo the others in what it contributes. And the monks do make a fragrant, hearty pot of stone soup–enough to feed the whole village. Naturally, the villagers set up a festive banquet and bring all the trimmings to enjoy with their stone soup and then vie to see who will host the distinguished monks in their homes.
Stone Soup is a charming story that shouldn’t be limited to very young bibliophiles. It’s a potent reminder that the power of imagination is limitless when it meets an open heart. The big life lessons can be gentle ones, delivered as easily as the old monk planned his simple soup. Muth’s work is captivating and thoughtful and Stone Soup is a book worth collecting and keeping–a cookbook for the soul.
Stone Soup Jon J. Muth | Scholastic Press 2003