The Soup Movement

Authored by Ben Davis
Published by Oxford University Press

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With its colourful, almost cartoon, cover, its weird, yet very literal, name and its claim to be inspired by true and heart-warming events, The Soup Movement very much does what it says on the tin. With a dash of comedy, a dollop of emotion and one moral message, finely chopped and stirred through, it’s a warm broth of a book. But, to steal a line from the text itself, ‘it’s more than just soup’, and The Soup Movement is more than just the smile-inducing comfort read it first appears to be. Like any good broth, its hearty and simple flavours are the result of the complex artistry of the cook. Mirroring this, the ease and lightness with which The Soup Movement deals with serious – and, at times, dark – issues is testament to the skill of author Ben Davis in the kitchen, I mean behind the keyboard. Right, I’m going to drop this extended metaphor now, promise.

It’s a story that is slowly brought to the boil (sorry, last one). It is very well-paced, with the book following the life of young boy Jordan along two timelines, that inform, underpin and build on each other until they finally and inevitably crash. One half of the tale chronicles Jordan’s struggle with cancer and the blossoming and beautiful friendship he forges with Rio, the energetic, vivacious and larger-than-life girl who inhabits the bed next to his on the children’s ward. She sets him a task, to do as many mitzvahs (the name for a good deed within Judaism) as possible within a year, to see how kindness can beget more of itself. The other half of the story then follows the result of this challenge, with Jordan’s focussed Good-Samaritan-ism landing him in the national spotlight, leading a movement to deliver soup to, and generally defend the human dignity of, the homeless, much to the chagrin of the school bully and the local council.

The story is very loosely based on the charitable antics of a real-life soup peddler in Oxford, although outside of the soup, the narrative similarities end. What remains constant between the two is the warmth, with each chapter being another spoonful to fill the soul. From Jordan’s father’s incredible ‘dad-jokes’, to the excruciatingly relatable depiction of school life, to the quite beautiful rendering of first love, the book demands constant reaction from the reader but manages to never feel manipulative or forced. There is the odd moment that strikes me a bit like a fly floating in the bowl: the sudden explanation about why the bully is as he is, Jordan’s immediate and spontaneous acceptance by the cool-kids. They may be narratively necessary but they don’t quite feel emotionally true, which is in contrast to the rest of the book.

The Soup Movement has the impressive quality – one that I normally associate with Frank Cottrell Boyce’s work – to deal with issues without making them seem like issues. From homelessness to terminal illness, to mental health, the book does not shy away from real problems, nor from dealing with them head-on and yet, through its gentle characters and easy humour, it never feels in the slightest bit heavy or demoralising and remains both appropriate and appealing to a broad UKS2 audience.

The book’s real strength is its moral message, the idea that doing good works is something positive even if unknown and unrecognised. The world could certainly do with more of this mindset. I found it interesting that Davis tied this inclination to a religious base. Children’s literature rarely deals with religion (either real or fictional). When it does, it tends to be, firstly, a monolithic presence in the book and, secondly, a negative force (His Dark Materials in the obvious example). Even those who treat it positively – Narnia, for example – still render it as huge and largely abstract from everyday life. So to see The Soup Movement show religious values as incidental, positive and relatable is both refreshing and important, especially for children who have a faith.

The story has a wealth of endearing supporting characters, from Jordan’s lovely but eccentric family and the school’s hippie headteacher to Rio’s painfully cool sister and the gleefully obnoxious council leader. As such, the book’s world is well-seasoned with the right incidents and individuals to make every moment a joy to read.

It is very much a book that will engage children independently but, in the hands of a teacher, it could also be the door to great social and philosophical discussions. So dig in, it tastes great.