Follow This Blog: RSS feed
Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Shortlist Title #9: Sugar Changed the World

You shouldn’t be surprised. Jonathan posted on this title recently, drawing out it specific strengths as they relate to the Newbery Criteria and comparing it against our other contenders.  It was one of the first titles we latched onto in this season, and we mentioned it as an example of a late-pub date book that we felt we couldn’t include in the original shortlist.  So: even though it just came out last month, I’m hoping you’ve read it already, or at least made arrangements to obtain it!

In his recent post, Jonathan makes a case for this title as equally well constructed and compelling as THEY CALLED THEMSELVES THE KKK, but also as a title that  “stretched [his] mind in ways that THEY CALLED THEMSELVES THE KKK did not….like A CONSPIRACY OF KINGS, there’s a lot of work for the reader to do here.”

I agree that this is both a challenging book, and that Aronson and Budhos challenge themselves to bring the reader along with them. That’s what I most appreciate about this title. Looking at two of the Newbery criteria…

  • Interpretation of the theme or concept
  • Presentation of information including accuracy, clarity, and organization
  • …I feel that Aronson and Budhos have exploded the traditional method for presenting/organizing history for young readers, and constructed their narrative as a parallel journey to theirs: the researchers following leads and hypotheses.   They manage still to progress in a somewhat chronological fashion, but always allowing the trains of analysis to depart from the linear path: like a Shepherd dog running, circling back to its owners to lead them along.  (That’s a compliment, Marc and Marina. I like Shepherds).  The end material is like a treasure box…extra goodies for those who care to look.

    The question that I look forward to discussing with you all is: do they achieve what they’ve set out to do, as well as–say–Bartoletti does? Or our authors of fiction do?  I feel that there are a handful of places in which Aronson and Budhos are slighltly sloppy in a few of their claims, either in connecting all their dots, or in use of hyperbole.  I still have to do a thorough re-read to track this, but I do recall someone else mentioning a similar twinge in a comment.   If Aronson and Budhos are going to stretch our minds and make us work, I’m willing to lend the focus and complexity of thought required if I’m given a thread to follow that will hold.   There is certainly more on display in this title of the authors’ distinguished work, than in THEY CALLED THEMSELVES THE KKK (which, we noted in our discussion, is similar to last year’s CLAUDETTE COLVIN in that part of the artistry is in the fact that you don’t notice the author’s skill overtly), but does that in the end make it more distinguished?

    Nevertheless, I have no doubts that this title merits discussion in the top ranks of contenders this year.

    Nina Lindsay About Nina Lindsay

    Nina Lindsay is the Children's Services Coordinator at the Oakland Public Library, CA. She chaired the 2008 Newbery Committee, and served on the 2004 and 1998 committees. You can reach her at


    1. I’m almost finished with this. I will admit that reading non-fiction is like flossing for me. Something that is good for me, and I enjoy when I get around to it, but it is far from the plate of cookies that fiction offers.

      True confessions aside, I am finding SUGAR incredible reading. The way the authors lined up the movement of slavery to satisfy the world’s sweet tooth was fascinating and clearly presented. I am to the part now where they are talking about how just the idea of freedom and man’s equality unleashed a movement that proved unstoppable. The juxtaposition of reading it at the same time as Forge is exhilarating.

    2. Mark Flowers says:

      “I feel that there are a handful of places in which Aronson and Budhos are slighltly sloppy in a few of their claims, either in connecting all their dots, or in use of hyperbole”

      I mentioned something like this in Jonathan’s post but no one took me up on it – so thank you for letting me know I wasn’t the only one.

      The flip side of this, for me, was that I felt that while KKK was more solid, Sugar was more vividly written and more ambitious. It’ll be interesting to see how people see those values as interacting with each other. It’s a pretty close call between the two books for me.

    3. I felt this too a few times, but the excitement of the overall effect transcended those occasional weak spots for me. Vivid, passionate, dramatic, and a very fresh new way of looking at some things.

    4. I actually finished this yesterday – my library *just* got it in, I was the first person to check it out – and I was really impressed. Partially because I know this material (several graduate courses in colonial ethnohistory, read Sidney Mintz’s “Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom” a few years ago) and I still learned a lot, and partially because I liked the way they personalized the history and showed how interconnected it all is. And it was filled with passion – not easy, when it comes to history or nonfiction in general.

      Those points pushed it slightly ahead of “They Called Themselves the KKK” in my mental scorecard.

      My only quibble was that there wasn’t much “magic” in the story (as per the subtitle). There was certainly more than enough spice, slavery, freedom, and science, though. Maybe the magic comes from the world-wide links they uncovered and their ability to present it all without boring the pants off a young reader? Cause that really does take a certain magic.

      And I am the only one that is consumed by the need to use really terrible puns when writing about this book? Sweet.

    5. Jonathan Hunt says:

      I didn’t need the authors to connect the dots for me. I didn’t need it for A CONSPIRACY OF KINGS and I don’t need it for SUGAR CHANGED THE WORLD. I agree that it’s atypical of juvenile and young adult nonfiction to make these kind of demands on readers, but I think that’s exactly what makes it “individually distinct” and a “significant achievement.” If anyone has specific examples of sloppy claims, misconnected dots, or hyperbole, I would love to hear more about them.

      The magic of the subtitle is a very slender thread, a reference to the Hindu uses of sugar, and I agree that it could have easily been ommitted from the title. It’s interesting how the title of a book can set up expectations that often colors our assessment of the book. For example, THE KNEEBONE BOY and THEY CALLED THEMSELVES THE KKK: THE BIRTH OF AN AMERICAN TERRORIST GROUP.

    6. Jonathan Hunt says:

      Still looking for word of the Booklist Editors’ Choices, but their Top of the List Youth Nonfiction is THEY CALLED THEMSELVES THE KKK. Youth Fiction is THE ADVENTURES OF NANNY PIGGINS (Australian author–ineligible for Newbery), and the Picture Book is NINI LOST AND FOUND.

    7. Monica and Jonathan,

      Isn’t it about time you let slip a few of the Battle of the Books titles? I won’t tell anyone.

    8. Well, I think magic in a title (hmmm, perhaps unlike magus and coronation) also appeals to a lot of readers.

      The more I think about “Sugar Changed the World”, the more impressed I am. I guess you could argue that “sugar changed the world” is hyperbole – except that it really *isn’t* an exaggeration, as far as I can see. Maybe you could question whether sugar changed trade and colonization and slavery and industrialization more than tobacco, smallpox, or maize, but I really don’t think Aronson & Budhos overstated sugar’s economic & symbolic importance. Whether sugar itself was responsible for the the rise of passive resistance and a fight against injustice, racism, etc. in the industrial age is more debatable, but I think they make a good argument even there.

      I think what I’d like now is an adult version of “Sugar Changed the World” – expanded, with more on sugar consumption and its changes over the last 50-60 years. I found myself wondering if the recent backlash against HFCS is having an effect on sugarcane and sugar beet production, for instance.

      A lot of authors do YA versions of their works (like Greg Mortenson with “Three Cups of Tea” and Michael Pollan’s “Omnivore’s Dilemma”)…is it too much to ask Aronson & Budhos to do a longer book aimed at adult readers now? I’ll bet they have lots of material they weren’t able to include in “Sugar Changed the World”!

    9. Mark Flowers says:

      I really don’t want to overstate my objection, because I loved Sugar, and I agree with Jonathan that demanding work on the part of the reader is a good thing (or at least not a negative thing). But I also think that it can be a thin line between challenging your reader and sloppy argumentation. If you don’t make all the connections explicitly, sometimes you’ll find that those connections don’t actually hold up. I’m planning on re-reading Sugar, but my sense on my first reading was that for the most part, the sense of “not connecting the dots” fell on the demanding end of the spectrum, but that at least a few times, it fell into sloppy reasoning.

      Again, I don’t by any means think this is a fatal flaw for the book–I’m just trying to articulate what it was about it that nagged at me every once in a while in a way that (say) Every Bone Tells a Story, or KKK did not.

    10. Huh. Why does my library not have “Every Bone Tells a Story”, and why is this the first I’ve heard of it? It looks like a fascinating book.

    11. Jonathan Hunt says:

      The finalists for the YALSA Nonfiction Award were released last week and they included THEY CALLED THEMSELVES THE KKK, JANIS JOPLIN, SPIES OF MISSISSIPPI, EVERY BONE TELLS A STORY, and THE DARK GAME. The latter two did not receive any starred reviews, but were Junior Library Guild selections. So they were under the radar, but not completely.

    12. Jonathan Hunt says:

      I really like THEY CALLED THEMSELVES THE KKK, and I can clearly vote for it as evidenced by my mock Newbery ballot, but I remain strangely ambivalent about it, too (in much the same way that I am about ONE CRAZY SUMMER). So here’s an attempt to work though my thoughts . . .

      1. I think HITLER YOUTH is a better book, and since I was on that committee, I probably can’t be very objective about it. Fortunately, THEY CALLED THEMSELVES THE KKK does not compete against HITLER YOUTH, but rather the other books published this year. I was able to banish these thoughts from my mind during a second read and better appreciate it on its own terms.

      2. I wish this had covered more of the modern Klan. Yes, the book’s subtitle telegraphs a focus on the Reconstruction era, but I’m with Wendy in wanting to read a companion book, THEY *CALL* THEMSELVES THE KKK. I did appreciate how Bartoletti opened with the story of how this book began (i.e. her coming across the memorial to the Klan leader) and how she came back to her experience at a Klan retreat in the author’s note, but (as someone else mentioned) I almost wish she had flip-flopped those because that Klan retreat is a great hook. Aronson and Budhos also bookended their story with personal narratives, but I thought they did so more compellingly.

      3. While I didn’t know the particulars of this story, I knew the general information from many previous books. It’s not that this book retreads old territory–far from it–but it just seems to overlap with many. For example, Tonya Bolden had a good book on the Reconstruction several years back (CAUSE) and Julius Lester wrote a nonfiction book based on the slave narratives (TO BE A SLAVE) many years ago. So while I learned new stories, I don’t think I learned anything new or shocking or surprising.

      So . . . nothing that I’ve mentioned above matches up with the Newbery criteria and should not be taken into account in my evaluation of the book. And it doesn’t: I think THEY CALLED THEMSELVES THE KKK is excellent and worthy. But, rightly or wrongly, these things clearly affect my enthusiasm for the book. Should they?

    13. DaNae, Battle of the Books —what’s that? Just kidding. We’ve got our little list and will announce it soon, soon, soon. (BTW, noticed that the Tournament of Books just announced their long list.)

    14. >>…I’m with Wendy in wanting to read a companion book, THEY *CALL* THEMSELVES THE KKK.<<

      It's my understanding that this was in fact Bartoletti's original title and intent and that editorial demurred. I don't have any more information than that (and even that is second-hand). It's interesting to think about why editorial might have been afraid, if they were….

    15. Jonathan Hunt says:

      Nancy, that would be both surprising and disappointing if it is true. After winning the Sibert Medal and a Newbery Honor you would think Bartoletti would have the freedom–and the trust–to write whatever she damn well wanted. I think a broader focus on the Klan would have allowed Bartoletti to exhibit the fearlessness we have come to expect from her. I mean, I think we can all understand the birth of the Klan in the Reconstruction South given the circumstances. What’s much more mystifying–and what to my knowledge has never been covered in a children’s or young adult book–is the continuing presence of the Klan during modern day America.

    16. She sneaked in some contemporary commentary on a modern Klan “congress” in her author’s note, at the end.

    17. Jonathan Hunt says:

      Yes, and as an earlier commenter pointed out, it was some of the most compelling writing in the book! Again, I’m not criticizing this book as much as I’m trying to figure out why I think–sorry, Nina–that it’s more of an Honor book than a Medal book.

    18. Jonathan Hunt says:

      It would have been interesting to see what would have won our mock Newbery if DARK EMPEROR had not been included. Our 2nd ballot did not include that title. So what do you think would have won?

      THEY CALLED THEMSELVES THE KKK (3 first, 4 second, 3 third = 30 points)

      ONE CRAZY SUMMER (6 first, 1 third = 26 points)

      A CONSPIRACY OF KINGS (1 first, 6 second, 1 third = 24 points)

      I think the key voter here is the person that voted for ONE CRAZY SUMMER third, if they are willing to move their first place vote to ONE CRAZY SUMMER that gives it the necessary 7 first place votes–but not the 7 point spread! It would have been a real dogfight and I think any of the three could have emerged as the winner . . .

    19. Ginger Knowlton says:

      As Susan Campbell Bartoletti’s agent, I can assure you that Susan has always had editorial’s full support for this subject and the freedom and trust to write, as Jonathan Hunt says, what she “damn well” intends. I can also assure you that she has written the book she intended .

    20. I really want to get in your Mock Newbery, so I wish our library had DARK EMPEROR and SUGAR! Sounds like time for a note to our Children’s Book Selector….

      btw, I’m a librarian again! I got transferred back into the system (after getting RIF’d last June) after a librarian retired. Adult services, but I can still help patrons who are children! — And I can better rationalize reading your blog on work time! (while at the desk, in between customers)

    21. I did feel that the sloppy argumentation detracted from the book–and that it was sloppy argumentation, not just leaving us to connect the dots. Two examples I found off-putting:

      Page 68:
      “Why were the English the first to build factories to mill cloth? Because of the wealth they gained, the trade connections they made, and the banking systems they developed in the slave and sugar trade. Indeed, the cheap cloth from the factories was used to clothe the slaves. English factories, you might say, were built, run, and paid for by sugar.”
      I was not convinced of that last sentence. I’m convinced they were related, but there were a lot of complicated factors–how sheep were raised and sheered, how wool was transported, how British cities formed–that impacted the formation of English factories. I really felt like they had their dead horse to beat, and by golly, they were going to beat it regardless of having to step over the dead sheep to get to it. It’s great that they had their focus–sugar–and stuck with it, but they tried to make EVERYTHING about sugar, and oversimplified the world in the process.

      Page 92:
      “What textbooks called the Louisiana Purchase should really be named the Sugar Purchase.”
      Oh for feck’s sake, people. They purchased a chunk of land called Louisiana. They called it the Louisiana Purchase. This was a silly, self-aggrandizing sentence that does their subject a disservice by being ridiculous. I have a hard time taking seriously the claims of a book that also states, as fact, silly, pointless, unprovable things.

      I did enjoy it and felt a learned a lot, but I found it more repetitious and less compelling than KKK. With KKK, I spent a lot of time feeling like I knew the shape of what they were telling me already–but that reading it was still powerful and painful. With Sugar, I was learning the shape of something which with I was not familiar, but it lacked that emotional connection and power. I think because Sugar used individual stories and incidents less, I found it harder to connect to and be moved by. And overall, I think it informed me less than KKK; KKK will stick with me *because* of that emotional connection, and I’m already forgetting details of sugar (which I finished two hours ago) because it didn’t have particular stories of anecdotes to anchor it in my brain.

      (Also, congratulations, Sondy!

    22. Jonathan Hunt says:

      Miriam, well, what would you say the answer to that question is: Why WERE the English the first to build factories to mill cloth? Do you disagree with their answer? Or just how they got there? Their explanation is brief, perhaps to the point of simplification, because their focus is on the sugar industry rather than the cloth industry. But . . . did you check the endnotes? There’s more information about the source of their claims. :-)

      As for your second point, I taught fifth grade history for six years, and every year I taught about the Louisiana Purchase, that we bought it, but never why France sold it (Haitian Revolution and French war debt). Moreover, we are left with the distinct impression that Jefferson bought all that land so that Lewis and Clark could wander all over it. By phrasing their point so boldy, the authors are challenging our assumptions. I’m not sure why it rubbed you the wrong way, but I had no problem with it.

      I think SUGAR and KKK are both great books, and while I think SUGAR is more distinguished, I really can’t fault people who prefer KKK. I do think there is a matter of taste involved here, but to what degree is it a factor . . . I dunno.

    23. Admittedly, no, I haven’t read the endnotes yet. But I feel like these are cases where I should need to to get the *extra* information… but they’re not giving me the *basic* information. They’re making a huge claim that they have come nowhere near proving. You say their explanation is brief, but I didn’t even see an explanation; I saw a statement of a relationship between sugar and factories. That’s not anywhere near an explanation of why English factories were so intertwined with sugar. They’re strongly implying that English factories would not have sprung up as they did without sugar… and not giving me any reason to believe it.

      Calling the chapter “The sugar purchase” was clever. Spending time talking about how sugar led to the Louisiana Purchase was really cool; saying that we’re all wrong in what we call The Purchase is just… petty.

      I also felt hey’re saying “what you learned in school is wrong” without saying *why* what I learned in school was wrong, or why they’re right. I like having my assumptions challenged, but in a way that feels like it’s educating me. For an informative book, these passages felt like they were taking cheap shots at my prior education *instead* of informing me. I imagine that the truth is somewhere between what I’ve learned and what they’re saying; my education left out the sugar aspect and they’re leaving out everything else–and both are problematic.

    24. Nina Lindsay says:

      Miriam, though I myself am on the fence with your argument, I do have to say that you *must* read the endnotes. In SUGAR especially, they should be considered part of the text. 9 times out of 10, any time I had a question with where the argument was leading, I found sufficient substantiation in the notes. Aronson and Budhos use them to *distinguished* effect by allowing the main text to engagingly make its argument. No such argument is totally straightforward.

    25. Jonathan Hunt says:

      Miriam, there is a long page-long endnote on p. 67. Part of that note says, “Dr. Inikori shows how the world of commerce across the Atlantic, involving the products of African enslaved labor in the New World, created new markets, new trade relations, new income, which then allowed specific regions in England to focus on manufacturing cloth in England . . . The argument we trace here is the briefest outline of what we learned from his work.” But read the WHOLE endnote . . .

    26. Well, I wasn’t particularly satisfied with the notes; They make a statement on pages 66-67, and in they endnote they tell me who has made the argument on which the statement relies. I want to read the argument. I’m willing to accept that its beyond the scope of the book. Like with The Purchase, talking about tea breaks at factories is great and interesting… and then they made this huge, sweeping statement that they just hadn’t proven. Take out those sweeping statements and my problem disappears, but they’re there, and the authors had to make leaps to get there–and I don’t think they let the reader leap with them.

      In terms of how the end notes factored in, I had a harder time considering them to be integral than with other books, for one reason that I can lay my finger on. The first thing after the main text, BEFORE the endnotes, is the How We Researched and Wrote This Book. Which is prefaced by the statement, “This essay is not aimed at young readers.” If I’m trying to analyze a book’s contribution to literature for young readers, I feel a need to discount that essay. And its placement makes it harder to consider the endnotes that follow to be part of the “aimed at young readers.” Yes, the information is the same whether its before or after that sentence, but things like arrangement really do affect how we treat a book (and I found it to detract, so I can discuss it under Newbery criteria).

    27. Jonathan Hunt says:

      Historians use footnotes and endnotes because their scholarship rests on the foundation of those who have come before, and using them allows them the liberty of not having to recapitulate everything. Aronson and Budhos have said basically that they are taking X for granted, if you need or want more information than go look it up here. I understand that it bothers you, but it’s quite common in academic writing (if not children’s literature).

      I don’t think back matter gets read very much by children, but It must be considered as part of the book. I would even consider the part ostensibly not aimed at children. Perhaps if there’s a way to get children to read back matter, it’s to tell them it’s written for adults . . .

      I think you can argue that *anything* makes a book less effective (e.g. title page, cover art, line spacing, font size and type, etc.

    Speak Your Mind