“Thank you, thank you, thank you. I am a single mother of two small children and I suffer from depression. But I don’t like to take anti-depressants because of their side effects. I’ve discovered that your books are my medication. And as long as I can read one or two ‘Chicken Soup for the Woman’s Soul’ stories every day, I am just fine.”
“That’s a very moving experience for me,” says Jennifer Read Hawthorne, one of the authors of the best-selling “Chicken Soup for the Woman’s Soul,” reciting the letter from memory while on a book tour in South Florida. “To read something like that, it touches me very, very deeply.”
It took only two months for this latest offering of “Chicken Soup” to bubble to the top of that whiz-bang cauldron, The New York Times Best Seller List, miraculous even for this record-studded series. Nine books in all, 12 million sold, two more on the way, and still the fans scream more, more, more.
In an industry filled with strange quirks and jerks and fancies, the “Chicken Soup” series, conceived by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen and published by Health Communications Inc. of Deerfield Beach, Fla., is indeed a peerless phenomenon.
A cynic might dismiss the feel-good stories as schmaltz or sentimentality. But they’re modern parables, for an age that seems too often disconnected from its own core of humanity.
Hawthorne read all 2,000 stories submitted for the “Woman’s Soul” book. And she had a hand in selecting the final 101 (because in some societies 101 has magical connotations), which she edited. She also wrote two of the stories.
She still cries and laughs when she tells from memory the tales of love, courage, kindness, pain and grief.
“… We have been told ‘Chicken Soup for the Woman’s Soul’ requires at least three boxes of tissue on hand,” she says.
It was she and co-author Marci Shimoff who proposed to Canfield and Hansen a book that carried the specific imprint of the female heart and soul. (Hawthorne and Shimoff are also co-founders of The Esteem Group, a motivational company in Fairfield, Iowa, specializing in programs for women.) It wasn’t female chauvinism, Hawthorne explains. “As we traveled around the country giving talks (based on the Chicken Soup series) we often discovered that in telling certain stories, men had very different reactions from women.”
Where a woman would respond, “Ahh,” a man would utter, “Yeah, right.” Some themes seemed to just naturally resonate on a deeper level with women.
So Hawthorne and Shimoff began to solicit tales they felt would “open the hearts and rekindle the spirits of women.”
The book has all the chapters readers expect to be part of the Chicken Soup recipe: chapters on love, attitude and self-esteem, overcoming obstacles, fulfilling dreams.
But a few new ones have been added.
“We saw other themes emerging in those 2,000 stories,” says Hawthorne, “threads that make up the tapestry of women’s storytelling and lives.
“For example, we have a chapter on motherhood, we have a chapter on marriage, we have a chapter called ‘Higher Wisdom,’ which is an exquisite chapter filled with stories about things that happen that have no explanation whatsoever from a rational perspective. You just have to hear them and say, ‘Oh, yes, that is a miracle.”’
There are chapters, too, labeled “Aging” and “Special Moments.” And despite the gender-specific title, the stories come from men as well as women. Men whose wives, partners, mothers, sisters, aunts, grandmas or female associates have influenced them in a significant way.
Leo Buscaglia’s “Mama’s Soup Pot” recalls his embarrassment as a young boy when he invited a friend, the son of a wealthy doctor, home for dinner. The friend’s home life was markedly different from Buscaglia’s, with his large, boisterous immigrant family, full of talk and hugs, and the ever-simmering soup pot that was dinner.
The other boy’s home was formal. Conversations when they occurred were subdued. And fatherly handshakes substituted for hugs.
“… Finding Leo’s story was what really prompted us to include male authors in the book,” Hawthorne says. “At one point, we had actually discussed do we want this to be a book for women by women exclusively?”
Buscaglia’s loving piece certainly scuttled that notion. “It wasn’t a question of ‘Why not include this,’ it was, ‘Oh yes, of course …”’
In Buscaglia’s tale, the payoff comes when the boy says good-bye. “You sure have a great family,” he tells Leo. “I wish my mom could cook that good. Boy, are you lucky.”
The poetically titled “Where Do the Mermaids Stand?” an offering from Robert Fulghum, is a charming tale of youthful identity.
When a wired group of grade-schoolers are told to divide up into Giants, Wizards and Dwarfs, one little girl stands apart. Tugging at Fulghum’s pant leg, the tiny child asks, “Where do the mermaids stand?”
“There are no such things as mermaids,” he replies.
“Oh yes there is, I am one,” she insists, unwilling either to sit out the game or forfeit her chosen identity.
“Well where do the mermaids stand?” he thought. “All the mermaids - all those who are different, who do not fit the norm, and who do not accept the available boxes and pigeonholes.
“Answer that question and you can build a school, a nation or a world on it.”
Finally, he answers, “The Mermaid stands right here by the King of the Sea.” The little girl takes his hand.
“It is not true,” he concludes, “that mermaids do not exist. I know at least one personally. I have held her hand.”
Such stories, says Hawthorne, have jump-started even the withered hearts of criminals. Prisoners have written her saying that “their hardened hearts, hearts that were like rocks, have started to melt, and they feel for the first time in many years that there is hope, even for them,” she says.
The stories, Hawthorne says, with the exception of two obvious ones, are all true. At least those submitting them are required to sign an affidavit testifying that they are. That veracity contributes in a large measure to the series’ appeal.
Some may be mystified by the astounding popularity of these moral tales, but not Hawthorne, who sees them nourishing a hungering heart and soul.
People love to feel good, she says. They love to feel inspired. “And I think they love hearing stories that model for them the smallest, seemingly most insignificant thing that somehow impacts another person’s life in a way that was unimaginable at the time the thing happened.
“People love to know they can make a difference in the world in some very, very small way. You know, Mother Theresa once said, ‘We cannot do great things. We can only do small things with great love.”’
That, she says, is really what the books are about, showing us the way to positively affect another’s life.
xxxx The Slice is on vacation and will return Tuesday.
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