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Social Justice Novel

The Bitter Side of Sweet by Tara Sullivan

February 10, 2021

Two years ago, Amadou and Seydou left their home in Mali, West Africa, to find a job and earn money for their family. Instead, they were brought to the Ivory Coast and sold into slavery on a cacao plantation. The work is dangerous, and the child slaves are beaten and starved if they don’t meet the unclear quota. The bosses promise they can return home when they pay off their debt, but Amadou has never seen anyone being released from the farm. One day, a girl is brought to the camp: thirteen-year-old Khadija is defiant and determined to escape. Amadou had lost all hope of ever going home, but her willful spirit makes him start thinking about the outside world again. When Seydou’s life comes under threat, Amadou sees no other choice but to attempt an escape.

This realistic fiction novel was incredibly effective. I was awed by the conditions that Amadou and the other children had to work in, and there were times when I got emotional while reading. The present-tense narrative makes the reading experience very moving and captures the child trafficking and labor plot in a very powerful way. I couldn’t put the book down as I followed Tara Sullivan and her three characters in The Bitter Side of Sweet through their journey  to freedom—finding an unexpected friendship—in this page-turning book.

This novel completely changed my view on chocolate. To learn that cacao farmers would resort to using children as slaves because the pay was only two dollars a day was shocking. I had no idea that because cocoa is a crop grown primarily for export, around 65% of the Ivory Coast’s export revenue comes from its cocoa. As the chocolate industry has grown, so has the demand for cheap chocolate. On average, cocoa farmers earn less than $2 per day, an income well below the poverty line. As a result, the farmers often resort to the use of child labor to keep from going out of buisness. I was stunned to learn that the chocolate that I love and have enjoyed almost all of my life has come at the expense of child slaves.

“I have no idea why we grow these seeds, no idea who wants them. Why have so many trees growing the same thing? The bosses never talk about it; they only say that the seeds leave our farm and go to the coast, where someone else buys them. For what? I asked once, but they all shrugged. No one here knows. All we know is that people in the city want these seeds, so we grow them.” 

The Bitter Side of Sweet opened my eyes to see the different cultures and the different levels of poverty and education around the world. I found it interesting that no one on the farm even knew what the seeds were for, let alone what chocolate was. It was strange to me that the people that worked farming these seeds had never tasted their own product. I feel that I am unbelievably lucky to live in America, a rich country where there is no need for slavery, with with laws that prevent child labor. This novel made me rethink my views on my life, and how fortunate I am to be born here.

Sullivan wove together a fast-paced book that made me feel like I was right there with Amadou, enslaved on a cacao plantation, fighting to stay alive. The visual language painted the action of the story in my mind, and even though I have never been to the Ivory Coast or West Africa, I felt like I had been alongside Amadou for years. If a reader did not know anything about the Ivory Coast or a cacao plantation, he or she could still follow the main plot of the book because of Sullivan’s vivid descriptions of each scene.

I absolutely loved The Bitter Side of Sweet; I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who is in need of a powerful realistic fiction novel (for readers ten and above). I would rate this book a ten out of ten; there was never a dull moment where I wanted to skip a scene, and it always kept me on the edge of my seat. Readers that have read Prisoner B 3087 by Alan Gratz and Between Shades of Grey by Ruta Sepetys will love this novel, as well as other books by Tara Sullivan, such as Treasure of the World and Golden Boy. The Bitter Side of Sweet is a must-read, and I guarantee that your perspective on chocolate will be forever changed.

Lilly Mae

Putnam, 322 pages


Monster by Walter Dean Myers

February 5, 2019

 I have seen movies of prisons but never one like this. This is not a movie about bars and locked doors. It is about being alone when you are not really alone and about being scared all the time.

Sixteen-year-old black teen Steve Harmon is on Death Row for a crime he didn’t commit, because he was in the wrong place when the crime was committed.

This exciting story about a stereotyped boy will leave the readers on their feet, anxious to read more about his story behind bars, and his story of trying to plead not guilty. This book tells the story of a simple black teen in a poor neighborhood trying to find his way through being misunderstood by every person in his town, including his own family.

This novel was nominated for the 1999 National Book Award for young people’s literature. It won the Michael L. Printz award in 2000 and, in the same year, was named as a Coretta Scott King award winner, as well.

Myers wrote his masterpiece as a screenplay, because Steve’s life long dream has been to be a movie producer. Myers devloped the screenplay as Steve’s perspective because writing it is the only thing that keeps Steve Harmon less anxious while in jail. This means that the book isn’t just the normal novel of the main character’s perspective. Instead it is the protagonist’s screenplay. This made the book a quick read because it was like a movie script rather than a regular book.

This novel tells a story of racism, gangs, drugs, prison, and misunderstanding, which fits Steve Harmon’s situation. Steve evolves through the book—with identity crises, mild depression, anxiety, and in the end, a better outlook. He gets to think about his life from a whole different perspective since he is on Death Row, and he didn’t think he would be living it much longer, which I thought was really interesting.

If you like books about the misunderstanding and injustice that can come from prejudice like Monster by Walter Dean Myers, you might also like The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas or All American Boys by Brendan Keily and Jason Reynolds. Similarly if you’re read and liked these books, I’d encourage you to give Monster a try.

If you like reading screenplay formatting, and thinking about big ideas like misunderstood crimes, prejudice, and judgment because of a race this is a good book for you. I rated this book a ten out of ten and recommend this book to anyone who is eleven or older.

OWEN

HarperCollins, 281 pages


Dreamland Burning by Jennifer Latham

March 16, 2018

Racism is a problem that always seems to circulate through our society— no matter how many improvements we make as a country. It isn’t just rude remarks, or a racial stereotype. Racism is toxic and can consume a whole nation. But Dreamland Burning shows that, no matter the era, one brave person can change many lives.

Rowan Chase had no idea that the choice to investigate a century-old murder on her property could lead to the discovery of brutal, racist truths from the past. As she learns, she realizes the similarities between modern day issues and history’s conflicts.

Meanwhile, Will   Tillman is living in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in the roaring twenties. As he witnesses racism, he becomes aware of the harmful actions geared towards the black community. He sees how children are put in danger by racist minds. Will knows that racism is wrong and is afraid of it at first. But when a certain, defiant friendship ignites, he feels the need to help those in danger, even if it means risking his life.

Latham’s purpose in writing this book was to show the parallels between contemporary America and the past. She used the thrill of a mystery to keep the story moving and connect the two eras. She included both clues from Rowan’s discovery, and from Will’s life. As the lives of these two start to intertwine, the clues slowly add up. Latham sets up false information in both time periods so clues don’t always match, creating an unpredictable outcome. Readers don’t know the truthful information until the secrets are unveiled. This unusual mystery not only lets the reader follow the story of the detective but also chase the characters who are living the mystery.

Rowan starts out as a naive teenager who has yet to experience the harm of the world. William has been taught that whites are superior and has never second guessed his father’s words— until he is turned aghast by the unfair actions of white men. Latham develops the characters similarly and illustrates the way that change occurs in one’s actions based on events in his or her life. When writing, Latham had to carefully ensure that the characters and plots developed at the same rate. If she moved one faster than the other, then the mystery would be revealed prematurely.

Dreamland Burning gives the reader more than enough: a page-turning mystery, ideas to ponder, and relatable protagonists coming of age. It is clear that Latham has thought about how the present depends so much on the past. She has contemplated the recurring issues that haunt our society and knows that this unconventional mystery will urge the reader to consider these concepts as well.

Emerson

Little Brown, 365 pages


All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely

February 2, 2018

Rashad Butler is a black teenager living in a small town. He’s never done anything wrong—never broken the law or gotten into trouble. But that’s not what the cops see. They see his clothes and the way he walks. They see the color of his skin.

Quinn, a white boy, stands and watches as the man who raised him drags a black boy onto the street, and throws him against the ground. He is paralyzed with emotion. It obviously isn’t right, but he doesn’t know what to do. The police officer—the man beating his defenseless classmate—is his best friend’s brother. So at first, Quinn pretends he didn’t see anything. He pretends that nothing ever happened—but secrets can’t be controlled for long in this usually quiet town.

Quinn can’t stay silent. He will be a part of the encounter no matter what, but it is up to him to fight for his own beliefs—up to him to go against the people he cares about. He will be the one who decides which side of history he’s on.

Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely alternate perspectives in All American Boys: Reynolds writes in the voice of the black boy, and Kiely narrates the white boy. This results in two contrasting personalities, and writing styles, that both have a lasting effect on readers. The author’s decisions to form personal connections— between Quinn and the police officer, and the readers with the characters—were effective, because they developed a relationship between readers and the protagonists, then threw conflicts and hurdles at the characters, resulting in a thoughtful novel.

This book educates readers about one of the biggest issues we still face in our country today: police brutality. Two authors display the stark differences between the lives of two boys—one black, one white, both American—in our contemporary world. Reynolds and Kiely show—through two resilient characters—that racism is still alive in our country, and it’s waiting for us to make a change. These authors explore themes of racial justice and standing up for your own beliefs, while bringing characters to life in this inspiring novel.

This novel informs readers about current events, but still has a gripping plot that will keep its audience flipping the pages. I rated it a ten out of ten, and would recommend it to any fan of realistic or historical fiction. Anybody who wants to learn the hidden truths of our country will enjoy this thoughtful story.

Oscar

Simon & Schuster, 310 pages


The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Liesel Meminger is a girl living in Nazi Germany, who learns to read with the help of her adoptive father. She steals books for more to read when her family, the Hubermanns, takes in Max Vandenburg, a Jewish man on the run from the Nazis. Liesel’s best friend, Rudy Steiner, convinces Liesel to join a band of teenage thieves who steal apples from farmers for food and helps her through many tough situations. The aforementioned Max is my favorite character due to his role and involvement in Liesel’s growing up.

I rated this book a ten out of ten because Zusak created such a rich and descriptive world with strong narration and characters. The strength of this book was in the little details Zusak used to paint pictures in your head, such as when Max would imagine boxing with Hitler. This could have been cut, and doing so might have made the book shorter, but not as powerful.

This book isn’t for readers who dislike sad novels. One of the literary techniques that Zusak uses is having death as a narrator. This choice helps represent such a dark and ghastly time. I recommend this book to ages ten and up due to the sad topic and story. However, the  theme was friendship after all the friendships that occur throughout the book and the important roles they play for the characters.

This was one of my binge reads. I was hooked from the first paragraph:

First the colors.

Then the humans.

That’s how I see things.

Or at least how, I try.

* * * HERE IS A SMALL FACT * * *

You are going to die.

This quote shows the strength of having Death narrate the book and the straightforwardness of his storytelling style.

I loved every page of this novel. The moment I finished this it was in my top three books. This book is life changing. It will make you change how you think about the Holocaust and the world.

Liam

Alfred A. Knopf. 552 pages.


The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

January 29, 2018

I blink through my tears as Officer 115 points the same gun he killed my friend with, at me.

Starr is a teenage girl who witnesses someone that she cares about die in front of her eyes: her best friend, Khalil, is killed by a white cop, even though he doesn’t do anything wrong. The police officer pulls both of them over and asks Khalil for proof of insurance, licence, and registration. Khalil questions, “Why did you pull me over?”  Then the cop tells him to get out of the car and to lie against it, so he does. When Khalil looks into the car to ask if Starr is okay, the cop assumes that he is looking for the gun, which  he  thinks is the black hairbrush in the side pocket of the car door. The officer’s instinct is to shoot because he thinks Khalil was grabbing the “gun” in the car door.

From there, everything gets worse. For instance, the police officer begs that Starr  be interogated. She finally goes just to find out that the only questions they are asking are about Khalil’s life and what he might have done wrong: not about that night or about what Starr saw, heard, or felt.

Thomas crafts this book well: I love how she used the perspective of a girl who lives in a neighborhood where there are gangs, turf wars, and drug dealers. Starr also has to deal with the problem of going to a completely white school where no one really understands what it’s like where she lives. I also like how Thomas didn’t just focus on racism toward Starr and Khalil. She also included the racism expierienced by Starr’s friend, Maya, who is Chinese American.

Thomas included an effective secondary character, Devante. He echances the story and makes it stand out more. Devante gets treated like Starr’s family because one of the leaders in a gang is hunting him because he stole 5,000 dollars to protect his family. Starr and her family shelter Devante and keep him safe.

If I were to rate this book on a scale of one to ten I would definitely choose ten because I like how Thomas focused on Starr’s life throughout  the whole book and didn’t switch perspectives. I thought that made the book intriguing to read. Starr’s point of view made a strong impression on me. I like how Thomas structured this novel in present tense because it makes readers feel as if they are with Starr, rather than writing in past tense, as though this already happened.

Another feature I like about The Hate U Give is that it’s  a book where readers can’t predict what happens next, therefore it makes it a real page-turner that also raises important issues about society.

Jack

Balzer & Bray, 444 pages

 

 


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