Review: The Bitter Side of Sweet by Tara Sullivan

bittersideofsweetToday is the book birthday of Tara Sullivan’s second novel, The Bitter Side of Sweet, which is an excellent and heart-wrenching work of realistic fiction, much like her debut novel (and 2016 Rebecca Caudill nominee) Golden Boy.

Fifteen-year old Amadou and his little brother Seydou are slaves on a cacao plantation in the Ivory Coast. They have been kept and forced to work there for two years, after leaving their home in Mali assuming they would labor only for the season and bring much needed money back to their family. Now their lives are full of nearly-impossible-to-meet quotas, barely enough food to survive, frequent beatings, and very little hope that they will ever escape or be set free. Amadou is a loving brother and takes care of Seydou as best he can, giving him easier work when possible, taking the blame for shortfalls, and making sure he eats enough to keep up his strength.

One day, a girl is brought to the plantation. From the first, Khadija Kablan is a fighter, a “wildcat” who attempts escape even when it endangers others. Amadou is equally impressed and aggravated by her, and the bosses eventually chain the two together during work time.  After Seydou is (accidentally) severely injured by a machete, Amadou knows it is time to run away–to save his brother, Khadija, and himself. The three embark on a perilous journey to freedom that will make readers sometimes bite their nails and sometimes pump their fists in victory.

After many harrowing experiences, Khadijah leads them all to San Pedro, and Amadou learns Khadija did not get duped into coming to the farm; rather, she was kidnapped because her mother is a reporter researching a story about child slavery on the cacao plantations. The kidnappers did so in an attempt to terrorize and silence Mrs. Kablan. While recovering, Amadou and Seydou get their first taste of chocolate, and Mrs. Kablan explains that it is the end result of their labors–that cocoa is the county’s main export and that it is made from the cacao beans they were forced to pick and shell. Not surprisingly, the incredulous young people find the treat no longer appealing. They urge Mrs. Kablan to complete her article using accounts of their experiences, in an effort to raise awareness and perhaps prevent other children from suffering the same fate.

Although the end of the book is a tad information-heavy, it is entirely plausible that Amadou would be unaware of just what his slave labor was producing in the end. And it is through Mrs. Kablan’s explanations that readers become aware that although the majority of chocolate is produced by large companies that turn a blind-eye to how their cocoa is produced, there are other farms that make fair-trade chocolate without enslaving children. When Amadou and Seydou find work at such a farm, readers will breathe a sigh of relief–and, hopefully, become more thoughtful consumers, as Sullivan encourages in her Author’s Note.

When I booktalk The Bitter Side of Sweet to my junior high students, my plan is to approach it in the same way I have Golden Boy. I will give some information about the main characters and their situation, and then I will ask in what time period they think the story is set. Surely many will think it is a work of historical fiction, just like they do when first hearing about Golden Boy. Most of my students  just don’t realize how, even now, different the lives of other children around the world can be from theirs in the Midwestern United States. They will be shocked and eager to learn more, just as they have with Golden Boy, with Kashmira Sheth’s Boys Without Names, and with Patricia McCormick’s Sold, to name a few. Tara Sullivan’s diligent research, call-to-awareness, and thought-provoking storytelling make her an author to watch for years to come–an author who will help pre-teens and teens learn about the world they live in and encourage them to be global citizens.

Note: I received a complimentary advance reader copy from the author.

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