Book Review: The Bitter Side of Sweet
Awesome Stuff: Realistic characters, supports a good cause, brings cultural and ethical awareness, and still tells a fairly compelling story.
Less Awesome Stuff: Story drags in the middle, the writing sometimes felt a little less like a story and more like journal article, ending felt a bit preachy.
Teacher Approved? For sure. I think this is a great book to bring into the classroom. Works well in any multicultural units.
Along the Ivory Coast, kept a fairly hidden secret, there's a booming child-powered chocolate industry. Slavery is often spoken about like a thing of the past, but few people understand the very real slavery still happening today.
The Bitter Side of Sweet doesn't want ignorance to be an excuse anymore, and aims to tell an engaging story about the boys who work these camps and what it takes to get chocolate from Africa to you.
We follow Amadou, a teenaged boy who has been working in an Ivory Coast chocolate camp for a long time now. He and his brother, Seydou, came to the
camp looking to earn money to send back home. However, the paychecks never came and the boys are trapped on the camp under abusive overseers. Amadou once wanted to escape, but how could he and his little brother survive alone in the jungle? Resigned to their fate and determined to keep his brother safe, Amadou works hard on the camp and takes solace in counting things and numbers.
However, when someone new enters the camp unexpectedly, and something finally happens to Seydou, Amadou has no choice but to decide whether the risks of staying are greater than the risks of venturing into the jungle.
This book is important. Putting aside some of the faults it might have, it's such an important book. This isn't a subject many people know about, and Sullivan's ability to wrap this important message into an engaging story is phenomenal.
The characters had real faults and real biases, which I think is a huge plus for any piece of literature. Amadou is a bit sexist because of how he grew up. Sullivan doesn't just pretend he's a perfect character and treats everyone the same, he has to work through some of his negative opinions on gender.
Sullivan did an amazing job of bringing us into a new culture that many of us might not be familiar with. She used a lot of non-English lines and words, and never translates them within the story for you. I love this; it feels like a much more authentic experience of this new culture that way. She also includes ample material at the end of the book where she provides a glossary for anything non-English and resources for learning more about the issues presented in her novel.
The biggest fault for The Bitter Side of Sweet was that it tried to do too many things at once, and be too many different things.
It tried to be an informative piece to enlighten more modern-day consumers about where a lot of chocolate comes from, but it also tried to be an engaging Young Adult story. Then it also tried to be a culturally unique and informative piece. None of these were bad intentions, and I think they were all important to include, but Sullivan struggled in balancing all three of them.
All things considered, I think it wore these three hats pretty well, but we weren't able to fully appreciate any of the individual hats. When the story became more informative, we lost character authenticity and the plot was too convenient to seem real. When it became too action-centered, it felt like it lost sight of its purpose.
Minor Spoilers -
Some graphic imagery described. Acts of violence frequently described. A vaguely implied sexual assault with absolutely no description, simply hinted at. Potentially easy to miss if you aren't great at picking up inferences.
Overall, Sullivan's The Bitter Side of Sweet is a great read. It packs drama, action, brotherhood, growing up, and modern-day slavery and child abuse into one tight, impactful story. After reading The Bitter Side of Sweet, you're left with a call-to-action and an understanding of an ethical issue happening right now that you might never have heard of. However, you're also left with the satisfaction of having read a great story and met some amazing characters.