In Judi Barrett’s classic children’s book, the town of Chewandswallow was just like any other town — except for the weather: “It came three times a day, at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Everything that everyone ate came from the sky.”
In Chewandswallow, it rained soup and juice. It snowed mashed potatoes. Sometimes there were hamburger storms. Hotdogs, already in their buns, blew in from the northeast.
Food falling from the sky! It’s every kid’s fantasy — and since its publication in 1978, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs has sold millions of copies. Sony Pictures Animation even turned the children’s book into a movie in 2009.
“I don’t know what made me think of it other than the fact that I’m very involved with food,” Barrett says.
Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs is one of several children’s books Barrett wrote that were illustrated by her ex-husband, Ron Barrett. The Barretts met at the Pratt Institute in the 1960s — their first books together were Old MacDonald Had an Apartment House and Animals Should Definitely Not Wear Clothing. they created Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs after their separation.
The pair say they remained very friendly after their divorce.
“The very best of friends,” says Ron Barrett.
“We play ping pong on the Internet,” says Judi. “You know, we send things back and forth. We were trying to figure out the other day how we got the drawings from him to me and me back to him.”
But way back in the late ’70s, they agree, they must have actually met in person, maybe with their editor. Or maybe Ron mailed his sketches to Judi.
“That was a very long time ago,” says Judi.
Judi Barrett does remember, though, that the idea for the book came to her with one sentence: “Henry walked outside and got hit in the head with a meatball.”
She says she then started making lists of food that also work as weather: a shower of orange juice, low clouds of sunny-side up eggs, a drizzle of soda.
“I didn’t save the list, unfortunately,” says Judi. “It was years ago and we thought, ‘Bah, who needs all this paper to save?’ But that was a mistake.”
She also thought about what was funny, including her girlhood eating habits.
“With the lamb chops that came down with peas and ketchup. Because, as a child, I confess that I used to eat my lamb chops, dipping them in ketchup. Which when I tell people they are truly revolted by it.”
Ron Barrett illustrated Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs in pen and ink. He says he using “tiny, tiny” nibs to create all the fine details and lines.
“I really wanted to create a world that was so believable that kids would find it a very credible situation,” he says. Even though the story is a fantasy — “a ludicrous fantasy,” says Judi — the town and its people are fully realized.
You can see bags and hats for sale in the window of Kathy’s Gift Shop — next door a barber is cutting hair. The light posts in town have campaign posters stuck on them. It’s possible to make out individual bricks in the chimneys.
The illustrations are so meticulous that Ron says he was once contacted by a mother who was reading the book to her son, who said they started to think of him as “Sneaky Barrett.”
“They felt that I would come into their home every night and add more details,” says Ron. “They would come back the next day and find all new things.”
It was a form of “self entertainment” Ron says, to include — for example — a kid wearing a Groucho mask in a scene in Ralph’s Roofless Restaurant. “I thought to myself, well he’s wearing a disguise because the food came from de-skys,” said Ron.
There’s also some debate about the various family members Judi and Ron included in this book. Judi says the mother looks like Ron’s mother — Ron disagrees — but he does admit to drawing his Uncle Eli as the Grandpa.
In the story, everything is going well in the town of Chewandswallow until one day the weather takes a turn. The portion sizes get bigger and bigger. A giant pancake crushes the school.
“Everyone feared for their lives,” writes Judi Barrett. “So a decision was made to abandon the town of Chewandswallow. It was a matter of survival.”
The townspeople decide to glue together giant pieces of bread and set sail on rafts for calmer lands.
“I was thinking that in some ways this relates a little bit to climate change,” says Judi. “It’s funny how it’s come around to that after all these years.”
But kids like it, she says, because, despite the giant donuts rolling down the street and the tomato tornado, it’s not too frightening “It’s not so scary that it doesn’t get solved,” says Judi. “And then there was that nice ending where they left and found a new place. Everything was OK.”
Judi Barrett says she still meets readers in their 30s who remember reading the book as children.
“It’s just amazing,” says Judi. “I feel like I’ve made my mark on the earth and the book will outlive me, as will the story. Which just gives me goosebumps to say that. But it’s really true.”