By Alan Durant, illustrated by Dale Blankenaar. Charlesbridge, 2020. 40 pages. $16.99/hardcover; $9.99/eBook. Recommended for ages 3–7.
As its subtitle makes explicit, Quill Soup is “a stone soup story”: it follows the traditional plot line with which many are familiar. A hungry traveler—in this case a porcupine—reaches a village where the inhabitants claim they have no food to share. He requests a pot of water and declares his intention to make quill soup. Intrigued by this seeming impossibility—and by the porcupine’s assertion that the king loves his quill soup—the other animals offer the porcupine everything he claims would make his quill soup just a little bit better until his soup is thick and rich with all the ingredients provided by the animals of the village. The animals share the soup and spend the evening singing and telling stories in perfect amity.
This particular version is from South Africa, and the animal characters, as well as their soup ingredients, are also South African. Blankenaar’s riotous illustrations are full of bright, heavily stylized details, including cross sections of the characters’ houses in which we can see the hidden food they deny to the porcupine, as well as lots of unmentioned creatures. Figuring out all that’s going on in the pictures could certainly keep readers busy for a while.
Quill Soup is an interesting one for use in Quaker religious education. On the one hand, it is about how people can change from selfishness to generosity, and how once we begin to share with each other, we realize how much better life is for all. This story could be used in conjunction with a discussion of the gospel story in which Jesus feeds a multitude with only a few loaves and fishes. The stone soup principle offers one way to think about the miracle that took place, and how being the first to be willing to share can open the hearts of others. One thing I like about Durant’s story is that the sharing of soup leads to companionship among the animals, with a true coming together of the whole community and the porcupine becoming an honored friend. It could tie in with the tradition of potluck feasts as well.
On the other hand, the porcupine tricks the selfish villagers by lying to them about quill soup, and presumably about his friendship with the king. This dishonesty would have to be addressed in some way if we are not to offer the lesson that it’s okay to lie to get what we want, even if in the end it seems to turn out best for everyone. Perhaps it would be interesting and meaningful to have a brainstorming session about other ways the porcupine could have handled the situation.
The book is appropriate for children of preschool age and up, with the focus shifting slightly for different ages: for the young children, the focus could be on sharing, and for the older children, a discussion about dishonesty could be added. I’m not sure this would work in virtual settings because the busyness of the illustrations calls for a close scrutiny that is possible only in person. I’d save it until we can once again gather side-by-side with our children in our meeting communities.
Anne Nydam is a member of Wellesley (Mass.) Meeting, where she teaches First-day school. A former middle school art teacher, she now works as an author and artist.