“Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul”: A Nice Soup-rise!

Monday, February 12, 2018 - 12:49pm

No one is proud of reading self-help books. I’m not referring to the pop-science books about harnessing your brain power, or the Malcolm Gladwell-type stuff that tells you how to beat the odds. I mean real self-help: I’m talking “Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul.”

I’m sure most people aged 15 to 25 have stumbled across (or been gifted) “Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul.” It’s a self-help book (of sorts) made up of a series of personal narratives written by teenagers about love, friendship, school and family. In a bizarre turn, I recently found out that the publishers of that book also created a number of ridiculously specific variations: “Chicken Soup for the Cat and Dog Lover’s Soul,” “Chicken Soup for the Mother of Preschooler’s Soul” and “Chicken Soup for the Latter-day Saint Soul.” My personal favorite title is “Chicken Soup for the Woman Golfer’s Soul.”

Why is it so easy to make fun of these books? Maybe because the first-person stories are so eager, so simple, naive and nice. A review by Will Friedle of “Boy Meets World” (how very ‘90s) on the first page of “Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul” commends the very concept of the book: “The idea of teenagers writing about their experiences to help other teenagers is brilliant.”

Is it? The advice my mom gave me in high school and middle school was a lot better (in retrospect) than whatever convoluted solutions my friends came up with. I don’t think the power of this book is that the content is really helpful in any tangible way, although I guess it’s comforting to know that everyone else is heartbroken and pimply, too. Instead, it’s that it’s entertaining. This book is like all the gossip that went around your middle school, written up and condensed. There’s a disappointing first kiss, a young romance cut short by a cross-country move and many, many, many stories of unrequited love.

Rereading “Chicken Soup,” I was surprised by how deeply I was drawn into the narratives. The intensity of their emotions is somehow both ridiculous and poignant. I’m not much older than the contributing authors, and I vividly remember how hard it is to be 15 — everything is the end of the world.

It makes sense, then, that the book is full of delightful melodramatics:

“Plopping down on my unmade bed, I buried my face in my pillow. Light sniffles turned into cries, and cries into hysterics. I couldn’t bear it; the pain was too strong, and my heart was broken.” (Becca Woolf)

“I could smell her and touch her hair, and right then I knew I could die and be happy about it.” (Robby Smith)

“Emotion ran me over like a Mack truck when I was with him, and I knew that it was too late to try to be sensible — I was in love...And I kissed him — all driver's-license­-holding, varsity­-jacket­-wearing, sixteen years of him. It was bravery I didn't know I had, strength I owed completely to my heart, which gave up on my mind and took over.” (Kelly Garnett)

Yes, “Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul” is kind of insane, but it’s so juicy! These stories are compelling, though perhaps not for the reasons they were meant to be. When I reread “Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul,” I was struck by how entertaining yet manageable the problems are. “Chicken Soup” paints the adolescent world as one rife with both heartbreak and ecstasy, but neither in amounts that will have much lasting consequence. I’m not sure if this is the intent of the adults who solicited and compiled the stories, but “Chicken Soup” is indeed comforting  it reminds the reader just how temporary most teenage heartbreaks and embarrassments are. Everyone is miserable and everyone is in love, and you won’t really remember any of it in five years.