My wife was reading to our two year old son recently. I was washing the dishes, only half listening to the story, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs by Judi Barrett and illustrated by Ron Barrett. I realized that this peppy children’s book is a subversive allegory of over-consumption leading to drastic climate change and mass exodus, all wrapped in a delightfully goofy bedtime “story” whose ostensive purpose is to endear grandpa to the kids, and perhaps teach them a little something about the uses of visual metaphor.
What happens in this “story”? The book is a tale within a tale. Two children are going to bed. Grandpa tells them a story, the best one they’ve heard him tell (though, I’m not clear why this is the best – it is devoid of some of the best features of bedtime stories, like a protagonist, a clearly articulated conflict, and a satisfying resolution. It’s the best perhaps because it is so outlandish.)
There is a town far, far away (from the United States, judging from the images) called Chewandswallow. Chewandswallow looks very much like a small Midwestern town; there are schools and bell towers and a main street. The people, however, get food from the weather. Food rains down on them from the sky, three times a day. Breakfast foods in the morning (OJ, eggs, toast), lunch foods midday (hot dogs, hamburgers, PB&J), dinner foods in the evening (vegetables, mashed potatoes, lamb chops). There are cleaning crews that organize the fallen food, first as food for dogs and cats (although the reason those animals don’t simply help themselves is not provided) and then as food for the rest of the ecosystem, e.g., fish in the ocean. Everything is going very well (although, if you think about it, very messily.)
Portions start getting bigger and bigger, which is either the cause or the symptom of climate destabilization: the result is a new era of huge, dangerous storms. One of the biggest problems is bread (a stab at carbs?). But in general, large portions of bad, overcooked or just gigantic foods (a pancake engulfs the local school, which must shut down) begin to threaten the lives of the population of Chewandswallow. They are forced to build rafts out of colossal pieces of stale bread and sail away. They land on some distant shore that is more like the U.S. because it involves grocery stores. They’re refugees, so they try to rebuild their lives and learn new methods of food acquisition.
That’s the end of the story. (Wha?)
Grandpa kisses the kids goodnight, and the next morning they imagine that a big snowbank in back of their house is a giant pile of mashed potatoes. Everyone is happy at the end – the kids love grandpa a little more, thanks to his vivid imagination.
Now, I’m not sure there is cause to be happy, which is why I think this text is subversive. The “happy” ending is only a ruse. The story of Chewandswallow is the story of the United States and its trajectory of wild over-consumption. The ending is not warm and fuzzy. It’s apocalyptic. And unfortunately, the people of the Philippines and other low-lying, coastal or island regions will be the first and foremost beneficiaries of the habits of wealthier populations. What Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs gets wrong is that if we are all in Chewandswallow now, there’s nowhere else to go.
More philosophically, though, the story of Chewandswallow illustrates a disquieting truth, one that is not marketable to children without delightful illustrations and smiles at the end. We are not in total control. Or, put another way: Things might be worse.
Barrett, Judi, and Ron Barrett. Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs. New York: Atheneum, 1988. Print.