Forty years ago, on Sept. 14, 1978, a strange book fell out of the sky, seemingly written for the kiddies but full of winking nods to the grown-ups in the crowd. The story it tells begins, like the film version of William Goldman’s 1973 novel The Princess Bride, with an indulgent grandfather spinning a grandfatherly tale of wonder—but there the similarities end, for if the former yarn had its giants and true lovers, the latter was a story of abundance, overconsumption, and fear, the unsettled stuff of the future.
There is no food insecurity in the land of Chewandswallow, a place that lies a couple of oceans, a few mountain ranges, a few deserts away from the known world. Whereas you and I have to scramble to make our daily bread, there bread falls from the sky.
So Judi Barrett relates in her ninth children’s book, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. “The sky supplied all the food they could possibly want,” she writes over a panel, charmingly illustrated by former husband and longtime partner Ron Barrett, depicting an ordinary house populated by a bespectacled elder, a dog, and a cat, the first two of whom are scanning the sky expectantly. (The cat, of course, isn’t paying attention.) When it rains in Chewsandswallow, Barrett continues, you never can tell what’s going to land on the ground. It could be “things like soup and juice.” It could snow, in which case it’d be hearty fare, something like mashed spuds and mushy peas. “And sometimes the wind blew in storms of hamburgers.”
Like one of those all-you-can-eat cruise ships—the celestial setting of, say, the movie Wall-E—Chewandswallow is a place where it’s easy not to keep one’s figure. Yet, even with pie and pancakes and pizza pouring down from the heavens, most folks remain pretty sensible about their diets, for it was, after all, the ’70s, before Americans ballooned. One imagines, even so, that nobody was worried overmuch about making a buck in that fine land, for if a day’s yield from the clouds included hot dogs and sunny-side-up eggs, why stretch?
Well, there’s no food insecurity, but there’s plenty of climate change in Chewandswallow. One day, Barrett writes, “the weather took a turn for the worse.” Spaghetti fell from the heavens in a “record-breaking pasta fall,” while the next day, in a complementary storm, there was just stinky cheese. Brussels sprouts, mayonnaise, split pea soup, stuff kids hate ensued.
What to do? Well, one can always flee, even from lands of milk and honey. The inhabitants of Chewandswallow split for the realms you and I inhabit—only to return, in a sequel to what turned out to be the Barretts’ hit book, to their homeland to take in the harvest and share it out to all the hungry people of the world.
Sounds pretty socialistic, a person might grumble. One of more kidly kindliness might say it’s just sharing. Whatever the case, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs has been a crowd-pleaser for grown-ups and young readers alike ever since first appearing on the horizon, and we hope it rains delicious cake on this anniversary.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.