If you were around during the 90s or early 2000s you likely recall the Chicken Soup for the Soul book series. Whether you read the text yourself, or rolled past the tomes in a grocery store, the series is likely to have touched you somehow. Today, the franchise is huge; they've sold more than 500 million copies worldwide, are doing television, and even make dog food.
Chicken Soup for the Soul was founded in 1993, "with a simple idea: that people could help each other by sharing stories about their lives," their website states. The founders, Jack Canfield and Mark Victor, were motivational speakers who discovered that their audiences connected deeply with the personal stories they told on stage. More than anything, Chicken Soup for the Soul seems to want to make you cry, cathartically.
Offering palliative aid to the ailing human condition is an ambitious undertaking—and one with an obvious religious connotation, given the titular "soul" of the series. According to Slate's brief history of the series, one of the founders attributed the unforgettable title to a special dream: "the words Chicken Soup appeared to him in a dream, in which the hand of God scrawled them across a chalkboard."
Though many of the numerous Chicken Soup collections seem to radiate wholesome values that could be perceived as Christian—especially in the United States—Amy Newmark, the current editor-in-chief and publisher of the series, vehemently denies any specific religious agenda. "We don't know how we ever got the reputation for being a Christian publishing company, as we have never been that," she said. In an email to Broadly, Newmark explained that the company finds the terms "Christian values" and "Christian ideals" to be offensive, "as they imply that people who follow other religions or are atheists somehow do not have the same values as someone who practices Christianity."
As Cynthia Gorney put it in a 2006 New Yorker profile of the company, "The books are not overtly Christian, except for the ones that are." (There are specific Chicken Soup for the Christian Soul books, as well as Chicken Soup for the Jewish Soul and Chicken Soup for the Latter-Day Saint Soul, among others.) Still, something about the series feels vaguely biblical: a series of parables meant to advance a relentlessly positive worldview, one in which adversity is a test to surmount, and hope can be drawn from any circumstance like water squeezed from a stone.
"We hear from millennials all the time that they grew up with our books and that they depended on them during their preteen and teen years," Newmark told me. "Twenty-something women tell us that they used to go to sleepovers and read the stories out loud with their friends." It was not difficult to find the people that Newmark described; I spoke with several people in their 20s who attest to the inspirational value they found in Chicken Soup for the Soul when they were kids.
We don't know how we ever got the reputation for being a Christian publishing company, as we have never been that.
George, a 17-year-old young man, said that he first realized that a girl could kiss another girl because he read about it in some title of Chicken Soup for the Soul. He doesn't remember which story it was, but remembers that it was a major, positive revelation to him at that time. I grew up reading the books too, and I remember crying at them sometimes. However, there's something a bit odd about many of the stories in the series, and perhaps that peculiar quality—whatever it is—has helped to make Chicken Soup for the Soul such a phenomenon.
Alan, a twenty-something man, grew up in an extremely religious household, one in which Chicken Soup for the Soul was seen as "an acceptable, family-friendly book, and describes them as "kind of like a more optimistic Left Behind series," referring to the massively popular Christian book and film series that horrifically documents the rapture with America's favorite Christian oddball, Kirk Cameron. He said he feels like Chicken Soup for the Soul attempts to portray diverse human experiences, to tap into what it means to be a person, though he can't shake a vague feeling that the series had a specifically religious undertone. "It's like good values, but not necessarily preaching at you," Alan said. "I can't hold anything against it or think that it's wrong for doing that." He stopped reading the series when he was 14 years old.
Lilyana, a woman in her twenties who grew up reading the series, feels that some of the stories in Chicken Soup for the Soul appeared to be delivering a religious message to the reader. "There's definitely a line where it's like: this is good, this is a story, this is like empathetic emotional stuff I can work with and bring to my life—then there's a line over that which is like, it suddenly becomes: well this is religious and spiritual," Lilyana said. "I think there were versions of it that were more overtly that way: I didn't like those ones."
Adding to this interpretation is the fact that some of the stranger stories included in the collections tend to involve miracles or seemingly divine coincidences. Take Not so Accidental, the 72nd story in the 2010 title Chicken Soup for the Soul: Teacher Tales. In the story, a girl is disowned for being gay—but her cousin Brooke refuses to cut ties with her, which subsequently causes Brooke to be disowned, too, and she is also accused of being gay. One day, in class, Brooke's teacher senses that Brooke is upset, and mysteriously knows why. They talk for a while, then the teacher says something weird and prophetic: "Whatever you do, don't drive." Brooke attends Thanksgiving the following year, and runs out from dinner upset. But she remembers the teacher's advice, and chooses to walk instead. A month later Brooke learns that her lesbian cousin, as well as her cousin's "friend," were crushed to death by a tractor-trailer. It's unclear what the takeaway is meant to be—Listen to your teachers? Drive safely? Respect and love your family members for who they are?—but it reads like a parable nonetheless.
Crying is an essential theme.
If the series has an implicit spirituality, it's a religion of its own, predicated on wholesomeness and a fundamental belief in humanity's inherent goodness—which feels Christian, but not exactly. Indeed, Newmark says some people complain that their books aren't "Christian" enough. There even exists a niche of Christians who believe that Chicken Soup for the Soul is explicitly non-Christian in a dangerous way. Susan Brinkmann, an author and a member of the Third Order of Discalced Carmelites, argued in a blog post that the series is an example of one of "the many seeming innocuous ways that the New Age and the occult are seeping into our culture."
In essence, the cult of readers around Chicken Soup for the Soul appears to be hooked on the series profound power to cause you to cry—the profound, often corny or unrealistic, triumph of human empathy over the forces of callous apathy. The people I spoke with for this story repeatedly told me that Chicken Soup for the Soul made them break down in tears. It is this secular power that may be the most lasting quality of Chicken Soup for the Soul—whether you're religious or a teen coming of age.
"Crying is an essential theme," Alan assured me. "Inciting tears and making people think and dig deeper and emotional about these stories is part of the design of the series itself." He would regularly weep while reading the collections. Lilyana, too, described the content of the books as "the type of stories that make you tear up." A reviewer on Amazon, still apparently in the series' thrall, described the experience of reading Chicken Soup for the Soul: Grieving and Recovery, a particularly tragic volume, as bordering on religious ecstasy. "Usually reading them feels like a precious balm or holy oil is anointing my head, and the tears just run down my face and sometimes I sob and I just can't believe that a mere book can move me so deeply," they wrote.
"People have always learned best through storytelling," Newmark said. "It's how mankind has shared wisdom and culture and advice for thousands of years." For many, Chicken Soup for the Soul has bridged the gap between hopelessness and faith in a better future. "Our readers tell us they 'feel less alone' after they read our books," Newmark said. "They tell us they are life-changing."
Illustration by Magnus Atom