If you were ever a victim of worry, or outrage, or panic, or downright hopelessness alighting mysteriously in your day, and taking root, and reproducing like one of those viruses you see under the microscope in a movie where everyone’s walking around like zombies, and garbage is piling up in the streets, and Gwyneth Paltrow is looking peaky – if you were ever struck dumb by the racing, consuming momentum of gloomy emotions, then you probably know too how their disappearance is likely to prove every bit as mysterious.
What, you were never…? Okay, you’re excused, now click on Books, now click on Aliens, and leave the rest of us please to contemplate Betsy Everitt’s seminal Mean Soup, in which a fuming, staring Horace begins by forgetting the answer to question number three, suffers a love note from the apparently notorious Zelda, and nearly gets killed on the drive home from school when his mother sends dotty old Miss Pearl to pick him up. There’s more, a lot of it puzzling – Lulu, the show-and-tell cow, stepping on Horace’s foot? Why does Miss Pearl have a bird nesting in her hair? What’s so bad about a love note? – although I think these are finally the sort of delirious details we use to embellish a stubborn case of pessimism, which is meanwhile not a case that is very simple to explain.
Maybe you hiss as Horace does when his mother says hello, or growl at the presumption of a good, or nice, or halfway quantifiable day, or go out of your way to step on flowers, or flop down on the floor in surrender – or maybe you are all grown up now, and can only fantasize about behaving so rottenly, and the eager, knowing helpmate who understands.
Now here is where I propose for the thousand-and-fiftieth time that there is often more nuance and worldly sophistication running through even the shortest and bubbliest of picture books than so many of the chapter books with which we are nowadays in such a hurry to replace them – wordiness, often, for words’ sake. It’s great to be able to express yourself, of course, in paragraphs, with headings and punctuation, but I am always a little relieved to get to the end of Mean Soup and remember that no other ingredients were required in the brewing of this restorative potion than water, a little salt, and a lot of screaming. Some dragon breath too. Who would have thought? While we were out stomping and shrinking and squinting through our interminable days, and shaking off insults, and taming our tempers – who would have ever remembered to save some for a special occasion?