The Best Children’s Book About Climate Change Was Written 40 Years Ago
Like many good children’s books, Cloudy With Meatballs tackles adult anxieties
Reading to my children, sometimes, turns into an excavation of adult anxieties. Sometimes this is intentional on the part of the author, and it’s thrilling to go back and see how I came to adopt the anxieties.
I loved Virginia Lee Burton’s quaintly illustrated but melancholy The Little House, which follows a little worker’s cottage as the concrete jungle surrounds, overshadows, and wears it down, like a child’s introduction to concentric zone theory. Burton’s Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel is a clever retelling of the John Henry fable (Ezra Jack Keats’s more faithful retelling is a masterpiece as well), and like The Little House another melancholy account of how progress devours its preconditions: a cutting-edge steam shovel is ultimately cast out to marginal small-town uses, literally digging its own grave when it is used to excavate the foundations of a city hall. Even Burton’s happy ending is melancholy; the steam shovel is repurposed into forced retirement, fixed in place in the basement as the hall’s boiler. They’re always there when I’m writing about the built environment.
(Thus far my kids have gravitated far more towards Mike Mulligan, probably because it’s about machines doing stuff, which they think is cool. The Little House is intentionally static, with the frame changing around the little house.)
Other times it’s harder to tell. Possibly my favorite book as a kid was Esther Averill’s The Fire Cat, about Pickles, a big, tough, troubled street cat who gets taken in by a kindly woman in the hopes that a good home atmosphere will stop him from bullying the neighborhood cats. It doesn’t, on its own; Pickles isn’t transformed until he gets taken in by the fire chief and put to work, eventually rescuing a kitten from a tree and earning his own fire hat. You get it, he has to move up the hierarchy of needs. Pickles is just one of Averill’s characters in the Jenny and the Cat Club extended universe, which tends to be more loopy and picaresque and less dutifully moral than the Pickles story suggests. Maybe that’s why The Fire Cat was available to me as a middlebrow Book-of-the-Month Club version and I didn’t discover the bougie New York Review of Books reissue of Jenny and the Cat Club until adulthood. These things have their uses.
But the real surprise was Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, which you might know from its better-than-average film adaptation. Not to presume; the book has also sold more than a million copies, and the children’s-book expert Betsy Bird considers it a borderline classic. She’s got a point; it’s exceptionally well-executed fun but doesn’t quite have the spark that distinguishes true masterpieces like Burton’s best-known works.
On the other hand: it’s also a well-executed climate dystopia. Probably not intentionally, as its author has given no indication that it is, and while climate anxiety was certainly real in the 1970s, it had only just begun to coalesce into a consensus about warming being the problem by 1978 when the book was published. James Hansen’s famous warning to Congress, one of the turning points in the history of communicating the science, didn’t happen for another decade.
Maybe it was in, you know, the air. Maybe it’s a coincidence. Either way, if you want to explain to your kid what the hell is going on, it’s the best book out there.
Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs is about a town called Chewandswallow (it’s a picture book, bear with me), whose residents are fed by food that falls from the sky. They don’t have any choice of what they eat, but the weather brings them a nutritionally adequate mix of well-prepared meals from the sky, heavy on diner food: hamburgers, salad, pancakes, hot dogs. They don’t have to think about the rich bounty they are given, it’s simply bestowed upon them by a beneficent ecosystem. One panel shows a placid landscape out of the Hudson River School, with the sun shining over a green valley “with a wonderful Jell-O setting in the west,” Judi Barrett writes.
Before the pandemic, the existential crisis was climate change.
So you know where this is going, it’s going to hell. The climate shifts and starts delivering too much food of the wrong kind at the wrong times, wreaking vivid destruction on Chewandswallow: a flood of spaghetti, a stinky Gorgonzola snow, a pea soup fog. Following the satisfying logic of children’s books, things go increasingly out of control. A pancake too large to be moved by cargo helicopters falls on the school and closes it. Cream cheese and jelly sandwiches pile up waist-deep. A tomato tornado, satisfyingly thick and tangible on the page, carries off part of the town.
In the last couple panels set in Chewandswallow, the earthbound foods get supersized, giving illustrator Ron Barrett (Judi’s ex-husband) a chance to play with scale Honey I Shrunk the Kids-style, with giant donuts rolling down the street and a hamburger the size of a car impaled on a chimney. It’s satisfyingly apocalyptic.
In the end, everyone flees. It’s pretty dark! The scenes of Chewandswallowers building and sailing ships made of giant pieces of stale bread are given an appropriately heroic treatment by the illustrator, but eventually they wash up at a coastal town, where they build houses from the bread. “The adults all tried to find places for themselves in the new land,” Barrett writes. “And nobody ever dared to go back to Chewandswallow to find out what had happened to it. They were too afraid.” (In the sequel published two decades later, Pickles to Pittsburgh, we learn that a small group of residents returns years later to start a food-distribution company there, but the town remains uninhabitable.)
Maybe the movie, made well into our collective grappling with climate change, is actually a better metaphor — the climate shift comes because science goes awry, and perhaps not unrealistically, science saves the day. But the mystery of the book seems more childlike. The apocalypse simply emerges and consumes everything, which is how it seems like everything happens when you’re a kid, and the strength and fragility of the town’s migration is a little more compelling than the tidy ending of the movie.
Before the pandemic, the existential crisis was climate change. For many parents, it was especially vivid, because things are expected to get worse when their children start coming of age. In early 2020, there were a flood of stories like “Becoming a Parent in the Age of Climate Crisis” published in The Atlantic on January 6, 2020; “How climate experts think about raising children who will inherit a planet in crisis” published in The Washington Post on February 14; “Parenting and Climate Change” was the Winter 2020 issue of n+1. It feels like a bit of a time capsule right now, but the anxiety has simply been put on pause. We’ll come back to it, and Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs will be waiting.