Clouds for Dinner is a magical book for children, written and illustrated by Lynne Rae Perkins. The story revolves around a little girl named Janet, who lives in beautiful rustic isolation. Janet's house is at the top of a tall hill that can only be reached by climbing up a long, eighty-seven step path.
Janet's mother and father put the house there because that's where the "view" is. The "view" necessitates an arduous daily climb, the payoff of which is "a small triangle of Lake Opagwah" in the distance, along with a never ending vista of ever changing cloud shapes. However, any time they come home from anywhere they have to trudge up the 87 steps. Mom and Dad tell Janet that it keeps them young, to which Janet replies "I already am young." Because, you see, Janet is a kid, and kids don't always appreciate the "finer" things in life.
Janet wishes she could live in a normal house like her Aunt Peppy, whose house is in a neighborhood, and on ground level. When she visits her Aunt Peppy for the weekend she has lots of fun, in the fast lane of suburban life. There's a TV room, car and dog washing, basketball in the driveway with cousins, school soccer games to attend, and organized, sit-down family meals. "I wish I lived with you all the time," Janet tells Aunt Peppy, who is always, well....peppy. At Janet's house, dinner time is not always easy to recognize. "It was clear enough when they all sat down at the table together. But some days they would be eating apples and bits of cheese and muffins, and by and by nobody was hungry anymore. And that was dinner."
But when Janet wakes up early one morning at Aunt Peppy's and beholds the magical transformation of the dawn, Aunt Peppy is at a loss to understand. Instead, the soccer mom rushes the family out the door in a good natured, organized bustle of activity. Janet returns home to her former life, happy once again to be sitting around the table with her mom, dad and little brother, Harry. As the moon shines on distant Lake Opagwah, this other "family unit" basks in the glow of a late night, ad-hoc meal together. As she looks around at the smiling faces Janet realizes that "anyone could tell that this was dinner."
I love this book, because I too live in a house which does not run like a well-oiled machine. Sometimes the beds don't get made right away, and, I must admit, sometimes mealtimes can be more functional than social. But we try, and in our own ways, we make our families. Sometimes I envy those other families, but mostly I really just don't believe their PR. Clouds for Dinner does not go out of its way to criticize Aunt Peppy's life style, but to make way for a kinder, gentler alternative life style. It is a book that doesn't talk down or preach to its audience. Above all Clouds for Dinner is an honest book, full of the ambiguities which make up the rich texture of family life as it is really lived, full of love and acceptance. I can tell you it appeals as much to me as to my own six year old daughter.
The pictures are richly rendered, and support the story well. In one scene Janet sits at Aunt Peppy's immaculate breakfast table, surveying a rich choice of melon balls and hot-cross buns, and other labor intensive accoutrements. Everybody is already dressed, clean and fresh, and even the wallpaper suggests the efficiency of a well run theme restaurant. They seem to like it. The scenes at Janet's house are more mellow, more exterior, and full of the variety of clouds. Even the indoor scenes point to outdoor beauty, all the while emphasizing the tightly knit family inside. Each of the rich watercolors is full of an appreciation of nature, and is full of the gentle delicacy of the book's theme: Janet lives in a radiant world, and by the end of the book she begins to appreciate it.
Lynne Rae Perkins lives near Cedar, MI, in a house perched atop a high hill, not unlike Janet's house. Clouds for Dinner is published by Greenwillow Books of New York, and is available at good quality local booksellers, including Leelanau Books.