November 24, 2021


Chicken Soup for the Soul: Kids—The Sunshine Squad. By Jamie Michalak. Illustrated by Lorian Tu. Charlesbridge. $12.99.

Chicken Soup for the Soul: Kids—Sophie and the Tiny Dognapping. By Jamie Michalak. Illustrated by Lorian Tu. Charlesbridge. $12.99.

     The Chicken Soup for the Soul series has been around since 1993, using stories about ordinary people’s everyday lives to try to instill inspirational messages that are as heartfelt as they are simplistic. This sort of chicken soup is not to everyone’s taste – its flavor is more like treacle’s to some – but it is undoubtedly popular, the self-help series having sold more than half a billion books worldwide. At a certain level, there is no quarreling with success – certainly not that level of success. And now, for fans of the series and non-fans who think the whole thing a bit obvious and even childish, there are Chicken Soup for the Soul picture books specifically for children.

     The lessons taught in The Sunshine Squad and Sophie and the Tiny Dognapping are not really very different from those propounded by the longstanding series aimed at adults. Jamie Michalak, however, delivers them in an age-appropriate manner, and Lorian Tu’s illustrations are suitable for ages 4-7 and – inevitably – quite diverse and inclusive, in line with contemporary expectations for children’s books. Each book comes with a subtitle that tells what lesson it will teach. For The Sunshine Squad, this is “Discovering What Makes YOU Special.” The story introduces the gang at 123 Sunshine Street: Sophie (animal lover, with many pets); Mia (sports lover); Lucas (jokester); and Oliver (artist). They live in an inner city, in the same building, and interact regularly – so regularly that Oliver proposes they create their own squad of superheroes to battle any evil that happens to come their way. Oliver says he would make things come to life with his pencil, to trap monsters; Mia says she could use her skateboard to spin so fast that a tornado would sweep any monster away; Lucas says he could use his mastery of surprise, and his joke supplies, to catch a monster off guard; and Sophie says she could “teach the monster to be nice and make it [her] pet.” But there is a fifth child at 123 Sunshine Street: Tommy, Lucas’ little brother. All he does is tag along with the older kids, so of course he could not have a superpower: “Tommy sighs and wonders if he’ll ever fit in with the big kids.” Well, of course we can’t have any dejection in this uplifting book, so Tommy has to discover something about himself. And soon enough, he does. He opens the door for a neighbor who is carrying a bag of groceries, an orange rolls out of the bag and down the building’s front steps, and it turns out that the bigger kids cannot grab it – but Tommy saves the day (and the orange). And Mia tells him he has found his superpower: “‘You’re a helper, little dude,’ says Mia. ‘Kindness is your superpower.’” Of course it is! And kindness is so potent a power that the kids decide to “spread sunshine in so many ways” by calling themselves the Sunshine Squad. The story is as predictable and formulaic as can be, but for very young readers (and maybe even a few pre-readers), that is just fine – and the messages about kindness and about everybody having some sort of mundane “superpower” are pleasantly delivered.

     The message is a bit trickier in Sophie and the Tiny Dognapping, whose explanatory subtitle is “A Book About Doing the Right Thing.” Although all five kids reappear here, the focus is on friends Sophie and Mia. It seems that Mia has a well-equipped dollhouse that she does not much care about, and with which she never plays. But Sophie loves the house, and enjoys playing with it when she visits Mia. She especially likes a small dog figurine in the house; Sophie names the dog Emma. One day, Sophie decides to take Emma home with her to be with all Sophie’s other animals – but instead of simply asking Mia if that is all right (adults reading the book with children should be prepared to explain why she does not do this, since Michalak doesn’t), Sophie puts Emma in her pocket and heads home. She tries to play with Emma and introduce her to all the other animals, but Emma seems uncomfortable – that is, Sophie is uncomfortable, increasingly so. She realizes that she “hasn’t brought just Emma home. She’s brought a bad feeling with her, too.” So she has to undo the wrong thing she did, and tell Mia what happened, and apologize, and return Emma to the unplayed-with dollhouse. That is precisely what happens – none of it exactly a surprise. The message here, not to take what is not yours, is super-clear, and Sophie’s tearful confession to Mia makes the point through illustration even more effectively than Michalak’s writing does through words. Mia, of course, is 100% understanding, to the point of saying it “was brave” of Sophie to admit what she did, and everyone is happy and friendly and gratified by the outcome.

     Is all this super-obvious? Well, yes – and it is made even more so by two-page Chicken Soup for the Soul stories appended to the back of each book: “You Do It Your Way, and I’ll Do It Mine” in The Sunshine Squad, and “Start with the Truth” in Sophie and the Tiny Dognapping. But there is never anything unusual, out of the ordinary or difficult to grasp in Chicken Soup for the Soul books. Certainly they are cloying and emotionally simplistic, and certainly the extent to which that makes them useful for adults is arguable. But for young children, the ones for whom Chicken Soup for the Soul: Kids is intended, the thoughts and lessons will likely prove both tasty and nutritious.

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