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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Sugar Changed the World

Aronson Sugar Changed the WorldPLOT, CHARACTER, and SETTING

Since plot refers to the specific arrangement of the events in the story, plotting in fiction is synonymous with organization in nonfiction.  If you felt like the events of a story such as SIR CHARLIE are already predetermined, and therefore leave less room for a creative interpretation, then I would suggest this book for comparison because it is abundantly clear that Aronson and Budhos are editors here just as much as they are writers.  With such an ambitious scope and focus, they have had to sort through volumes of information, and whittle their narrative down to its present shape, a process fascinatingly described in an author’s note.

The book opens with Marc and Marina each sharing their family stories, as they relate to the sugar industry, a tantalizing, effective hook that displays the connection between author and subject.  Toward the end of this introductory section (page 7), they lay out the course of the rest of the book.

In the Age of Sugar, Europeans bought a product made thousands of miles away that was less expensive than the honey from down the road.  That was possible only because sugar set people in motion all across the world–millions of them as slaves, in chains; a few in search of their fortunes.  A perfect taste made by the most brutal labor: That is the dark story of sugar.  But there is another story as well.  Information about sugar spread as human knowledge expanded, as great civilizations and cultures exchanged ideas.  In fact, while sugar was the direct cause of the expansion of slavery, the global connections that sugar brought about also fostered the most powerful ideas of human freedom.

Aronson and Budhos take us on a brisk whirlwind tour of the advent of sugar in Western civilization, beginning with Alexander the Great with stops in the great Muslim empires, the Middle Ages, the Age of Exploration, the Age of Enlightenment, and the Industrial Age before they come full circle to revisit their own stories again in the twentieth century.  There are numerous setting changes, rapid jumps in time and place.  There are also many strands–political, social, cultural, intellectual, economic–woven into this narrative.  In short, like A CONSPIRACY OF KINGS, there’s a lot of work for the reader to do here.

There is no main character here, unless you count sugar itself (and the authors sort of invite the reader to think of sugar as the main character with their frequent use of personification).  Thus, we could say the that not only is sugar portrayed with depth and complexity, but that that portrayal grows and changes over the course of the story.  In terms of more conventional characters, we do meet plenty of these along the way.  Brief anecdotes and vignettes give the stage to various people, both famous and obscure, giving this epic sweeping drama an intimate, human touch.

STYLE and THEME

SUGAR CHANGED THE WORLD is a mind-expanding book, whether you are learning new things (Did you know that Christopher Columbus was involved in the sugar trade before sailing for America?  That Gandhi was in South Africa to help sugar workers?) or re-examining old things (America bought the Louisiana Purchase from France, but why did France sell it?).  The source notes are so engaging and thorough that they serve as an invitation to explore these topics and come to your own conclusions, as Lynn Rutan and Cindy Dobrez discuss here.  I love THEY CALLED THEMSELVES THE KKK, a powerful book which calls forth lots of emotion, but for me, SUGAR CHANGED THE WORLD made me just as angry.  It also stretched my mind in ways that THEY CALLED THEMSELVES THE KKK did not.

Every day we live in the world sugar created–where the descendants of Africans live in the Caribbean, in Brazil, in the United States and Canada; where the grandchildren of indentured Indians share those Caribbean islands and American cities; where the children of China, Japan, the Phillipines, and Korea make up the population of Hawaii; where Haitians still suffer from the silence that greeted their nation’s birth; where equality does not belong to the rich, the planter; the overseer, or even the freed people.  It exists in each one of us.  That is the sweet truth bought at the price of so much bitter pain.

Sugar changed the world.

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Jonathan Hunt About Jonathan Hunt

Jonathan Hunt is the County Schools Librarian at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at hunt_yellow@yahoo.com

Comments

  1. Mark Flowers says:

    I loved this book, and would love to see it get a Newbery or Honor. The only problem I had was a very vague sense throughout that the authors weren’t quite connecting their points clearly. I can’t find specific examples (hence the vagueness), and I always knew what they were trying to say, but I wondered 1) if others felt this, or I completely imagined it, and 2) if perhaps this would be a stumbling block to the target audience. Otherwise, a really stunning NF book.

  2. Blakeney says:

    I have not read SUGAR, but I would comment on the KKK title. I felt this book was meticulously researched, yet the strongest sections seemed to be fairly far into the book. The organization did not start with a strong hook as you indicate SUGAR does. The account of the author attending a contemporary Klan meeting which is buried in the source notes could have opened the book and offered a more enticing entrance to the historical information. Instead the book begins with the Civil War ending and Reconstruction beginning and follows, on the whole, a chronological organizational scheme. The chapters that focus on education and religious leaders are to me some of the most dramatic (in a horrifying way) and have the intimate, human touch you refer to regarding SUGAR.

  3. I’m with you on this one!

  4. Kate says:

    I totally agree with you on Sugar, Jonathan! This book caused me to stretch, dig deeper, marvel. I learned so much and it has stayed with me every day since I read it.

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