Tara Sullivan

The Bitter Side of Sweet

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The Bitter Side of Sweet Summary

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The Bitter Side of Sweet is a work of historical fiction for middle grade and young adult readers by Tara Sullivan, the author of the acclaimed novel Golden Boy. The book follows two brothers, Amadou and Seydou, aged fifteen and eight, who are working as child slaves in the Ivory Coast in West Africa. The boys work on a cacao plantation, where they do backbreaking physical labor for no pay and with no hope of escaping the plantation. Based on real stories of child labor crises in West Africa, the book is based loosely on Sullivan’s life experience as the child of two humanitarian aid workers.

Two brothers have been tricked into working without pay at a remote cacao plantation in the Ivory Coast. The older brother, Amadou, spends most of his days worried not about his own safety, but about the safety of his younger brother, Seydou, who, though only eight, is punished as harshly and violently as Amadou is for coming in under quota during picking season. Amadou makes it clear early on that the boys are frequently beaten and tortured, and their life on the plantation appears hopeless at first glance.

The boys had come to the plantation with the understanding that they had been offered seasonal work. As the children of poor parents, they wanted to contribute, and so traveled far way to the plantation to pick cacao. The cruel farmers, however, had fooled the boys. They locked them in the shed at night so they couldn’t escape, frequently starved them to punish them for not picking enough cacao pods, and beat them for not working hard enough during their long hours in the fields. When the book opens, the boys have been trapped on the plantation for two years.

Things begin to change, however, when a girl arrives at the farm. Khadijah is thirteen, and the only girl the boys have ever seen here. She is pulled, ranting and raving, from the jungles around the plantation and tied to a tree so she can’t escape. She is enraged, and unlike the other children who live on the farm, Khadijah has dark, clear skin and looks relatively healthy, despite her disheveled appearance from being taken hostage by the farm workers. Amadou, Seydou, and another boy named Moussa continue their work as Khadijah is tied to a nearby tree.

Then, when Amadou isn’t looking, Khadijah tricks Seydou into using his tools to cut her free from the tree. She goes charging into the forest to escape, but is almost immediately captured again by the farm workers and brought back to the camp, where she is locked in a shed. Terrified that the farm workers will hurt his brother for setting Khadijah free, Amadou tries to take the blame for the incident. However, Seydou is horribly injured by the farm workers, and Khadijah and Amadou quickly realize that if they don’t escape to find medical help sooner rather than later, Seydou will die.

Together, thirteen-year-old Khadijah and fifteen-year-old Amadou make a plan to escape the shed where they have been trapped, and to disappear with Seydou into the jungle. They travel through harsh conditions until they reach outside civilization, many times narrowly avoiding being recaptured by the farmers who enslaved them. Amadou learns many things about Khadijah, including the fact that she is the daughter of a well-known journalist. When they finally make it out of the jungle and find medical help for Seydou, Amadou is insistent that Khadijah’s mother use her influence with the newspapers to write their story. This becomes the larger frame for the book and is written on Amadou’s insistence that if his and Seydou’s story is not told, this kind of enslavement will happen to hundreds, even thousands of other children just like him.

In one heartbreaking moment in the book, Amadou is offered hot cocoa after his long journey and takes a sip, but then spits it out in disgust when he realizes where the cocoa came from. This larger narrative around the ethics of chocolate harvesting plays a significant role in the narrative, which encourages young adults to think about their food sources, particularly for luxury goods.

Tara Sullivan is the author of two books for young adults – Golden Boy (2013) and The Bitter Side of Sweet (2016). Before becoming a full-time writer, she traveled around the Caribbean and South America with her parents, who worked as international aid workers. She learned to speak fluent Spanish, and ultimately graduated from college to become a high school Spanish teacher. Her books revolve around the empowerment of disenfranchised or poorly treated youth in third world countries, primarily in Africa, centering on contemporary humanitarian issues.