January 29, 2023

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Chicken Soup for the Soul: Publishing Everyday Stories

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My parents recently relocated across Canada to Vancouver, where I have lived for six years. With them came a box full of school reports, letters, cards, diplomas and swimming badges from my childhood. Reading these was like attending a reunion with my childhood self, and among those moments I stumbled upon the acceptance letter and contract when I was released in Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul 2. I was 13 when I submitted my story to them and 15 at the time of publication, and the acceptance letter was definitely the most exciting mail I’ve ever received. I would basically be famous, my name would be listed next to celebs like Jennifer Love Hewitt and Andrew Keegan – it was definitely 1998.

I had discovered the original Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul at a Boca Raton Target, and reading the plethora of teen-written stories felt like people were writing about relatable experiences for the first time. Not only that, but when I discovered they were looking for stories for a second book, it felt doable. I had been writing short stories and poetry for years, and this book was full of stories for mine to fit into.

And so I wrote a semi-autobiographical, joking version of a teenager’s unrequited crush, Buffy references and self-mockery abound. I didn’t realize the stories were meant to be absolutely true, and honestly mine wasn’t. It was an imaginary conversation between imaginary people, but based on real people and thoughts. And yet, when I received emails from teenagers who had read and referred to my story, I was shocked to discover that teenagers were reading this book in droves. Teens from all over the world, of different ages and with different experiences, all longing to see themselves in the pages of a book.

niche interests

And that was the gimmick of the Chicken Soup series. Creators Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen had a knack for finding a niche and digging into it. Are you a fan of golf? Well, grab a copy of Chicken Soup for the Golfer’s Soul. Teachers, coffee lovers, cat and dog lovers? Everyone gets their own collections.

Part of the draw is that each title is based on a niche aspect of your identity – be it interest, religion or race – and that makes the books easy gifts. As long as you know a person at a semi-basic level, you can find a match that fits.

Unless, of course, you’re looking for a chicken soup with an LGBTQ+ story, which 29 years later still doesn’t exist. The brand’s site’s “About Us” copy ensures LGBTQ+ readers get some hope, writing: “[t]Our team members are diverse and represent many races, religions, nationalities and the LGBTQ community. We continue to strive for even more diversity in our team members and our storytelling as we advance our mission to change the world, one story at a time.”

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hmm

Her recent publications seem to have a religious slant; 2022 brought us miracles and the inexplicable, belief in angels, Christmas magic and devotional stories for mothers and grandmothers. It’s quite a sentiment, though current editor-in-chief Amy Newmark has denied that Chicken Soup has any such religious agenda. Addressing this in a Vice article by Diana Tourjée, Newmark said, “We don’t know how we ever got a reputation for being a Christian publisher, as we never were.”

In 2014, Katy Waldman wrote an excellent critical analysis, summarizing the change in content of Chicken Soup in the Newmark era with a wry but apt description: “Originally an all-purpose mix of entertainment and inspiration, the franchise has partly evolved as a source for reinvented heavenly bathed lifehacks.”

The brand no longer just publishes books. The company has produced a podcast, a socio-emotional learning curriculum, children’s books, a video-on-demand network called Chicken Soup for the Soul Entertainment, pasta sauces, puzzles, and last but not least, a line of pet foods. So how did this multi-product empire come about?

origin story

Canfield and Hansen were successful motivational speakers before they began working on their first Chicken Soup for the Soul. According to Cynthia Gorney’s history of the franchise, written for The New Yorker in 2003, Canfield was the original creator. His early career included teaching in high school, co-founding a center for humanistic psychology in Massachusetts, co-writing a workbook on children’s self-esteem, and starting self-esteem seminars where he shared short, inspirational stories aimed at building self-esteem to strengthen people.

In 1992 he hired Hansen as associate editor with plans to put together a book consisting of the kind of motivational stories Canfield had become famous for. They put together a chapter and found an agent, Jeffrey Herman, but Herman struggled to get the green light. Publisher Ron Fry told Gorney that he felt the first chapter “[k]Ind of treacly.” In addition to its unproven potential, Hansen and Canfield wanted a $1,500 advance for it.

Canfield and Hansen were undeterred. Gorney explains that the co-authors wanted to reach people who don’t identify as book readers and who may not go to bookstores to browse on purpose. Her small team, also consisting of Patty Aubery, whose job was a kind of jack-of-all-trades-meets-office admin. Gas stations, nail salons, flea markets, PTA meetings, self-help seminars… the co-authors and Aubery strove to get the books into the hands of the public. And it worked.

At the end of the book, the co-authors invited their readers to contribute to the next volume by suggesting that they “[s]share your heart with the rest of the world.” As Gorney points out, the fact that the books contained readers’ stories was another draw for the general public. Gorney writes: “Coincidentally, there are very few places today where an ordinary person without a literary agent could hope to share his heart with the rest of the world. There are a few magazines that publish first-person accounts, and of course there’s the internet, which was still on training wheels when the first Chicken book came out.”

That was part of what made me submit, even though it shared less my heart and more my words. I’ve thought of myself as a writer since I was 8 or 9 and when I saw the invitation to submit at the end of the book it felt like this was my moment. Some of the stories were emotional rather than skillful in their narratives; if they could be published, then I would have a chance. I would imagine many aspiring writers felt the same way.

In 2008, Canfield and Hansen sold Chicken Soup to a new ownership group led by Bill Rouhana and Bob Jacobs. This is when Newmark, Rouhana’s wife, first came into the picture. Between 2008 and 2014, Newmark, Canfield and Hansen began co-editing the books; Eventually Newmark would edit alone or with guest co-editors. Rouhana and Jacobs wanted to increase the popularity of the books while also expanding into licensing products in related areas – such as pet food for all pet lovers who read their books. In a 2011 interview with Forbes, Rouhana and Jacobs praised the Chicken Soup brand as representing “hope, faith.” and Faith.” You can see this branding in the current iteration of the books, as overseen by Newmark; Faith, Hope, and Faith might literally subtitle many of their more recent collections.

SHARING IS CARING

Chicken soup for the cover of Teenage Soul 2

I was 15 years old when Chicken Soup for Teenage Soul 2 was released. Raised on the self-mockery and skepticism of sitcom humor and Buffy, reading candy stories about teenage troubles had become far less appealing.

Received my free copy and delighted with the publication and payment, I ripped open the spine and began reading my story entitled Unrequired Love. With growing anger, I noted the editor’s decision to begin my story with a quote from Charlie Brown and change the last line. I didn’t really recognize the characters in the book either; between 13 and 15 a lot had changed for me. When I was done, I closed the book and laughed, oh how I laughed, before getting up and putting the copy on my bookshelf. Nestled between favorite books like Please Kill Me: An Oral History of Punk Rock and The Picture of Dorian Gray, I haven’t opened the pages of Teenage Soul 2 for many years.

While I haven’t read any other books in the franchise since and never plan to, that doesn’t mean I think they’re baseless. Yes, chicken soup can be preachy and cheesy, but it normalized the practice of publishing ordinary people’s stories — and even gave a voice to many who felt their stories might not otherwise seem worth hearing.

Teenage Soul 2’s stories didn’t boost my self-esteem, but the release made a difference. That’s one thing I really want to commend about the franchise: their willingness to listen to their readers’ wishes. As Waldman explains of the books’ appeal, their doer attitude and uplifting platitudes will infuse some readers with a sense of healing and hope that can combat even the most warped of cynicism. Towards the end of her article, Waldman writes, “’Chicken soup is the worst,’ I said to my roommate, and tossed the book down. What I didn’t say was that I read for an hour and cried three times already.”

Perhaps that’s what Canfield and Hensen really found with the formula — there’s a lot of people out there who just want to let out a cathartic scream while reading a book that’s almost actively about their interests, their happiness, and their… seem to care about self-improvement.

Strange angelic fixation or not, got it I think.