The Bitter Side of Sweet:
The official Penguin Random House discussion guide for THE BITTER SIDE OF SWEET will be available with the paperback on June 6ht, 2017.
Preview of discussion questions for the THE BITTER SIDE OF SWEET:
- Throughout the story, Amadou “counts the things that matter”. What matters to Amadou at the start of the book? How does this behavior help Amadou feel in control of the situation he and Seydou are in?
- Amadou and Seydou end up in forced labor at the cacao farm under completely different circumstances than Khadija. In what ways does this inform how each of them behaves at the farm? How do their lives before play into this?
- Moussa and the bosses use punishment to motivate work and keep the children at the farm in line. Why do you think they vary their tactics depending on who they’re dealing with? How do the punishments create isolation between the children? Why is that beneficial to the bosses?
- “I was quiet at the farm a lot because quiet can be very scary, and being scary got people to do things if I needed them to,” from Amadou on page 188. Keeping silent and being quiet are recurring themes in this story. How are quiet and silence used by different characters? Do you think it helps or hinders them?
- For good reason, Amadou believes he can’t trust anyone to help him and Seydou. Yet it’s when he starts trusting people that he’s able to escape the farm with his brother and Khadija. Who else helps our main characters and in what ways? Consider how trusting each other allows them to begin trusting other people.
- All three of the main characters endure horrific brutalities while at the farm. What are the lasting effects of these experiences? How do they help each other heal and come to terms with those experiences?
- Amadou feels responsible and guilty for the traumatic things that happened to Khadija and Seydou on the farm. Why would he think these things are his fault? How do Khadija and Seydou respond to his apologies?
- On page 209 Seydou says, “I can help, you just never let me”. It’s true that Amadou has trouble recognizing how intelligent and helpful Seydou can be until Khadija points it out. Cite examples from the text showing Seydou’s smarts and resourcefulness. Why might Amadou have had difficulty seeing this?
- After what happens to Khadija, Mrs. Kablan wants leave the country but doing that won’t allow her to finish researching her story. How do Amadou, Khadija, and Seydou help her complete her story? Why is it so important to them that she publishes her story?
- At the end of the novel Amadou and Seydou choose to go to the fair trade cacao farm Mrs. Kablan told them about. What impact does working there have on each of them? What does this say about fair trade on a larger scale?
- Over the course of the book we see a change in Amadou’s definition of what matters. What inspires this change?
However, Aimee Rogers of the International Literary Association blog, did a full “Putting Books to Work” post on cross-curricular connections for The Bitter Side of Sweet. Her ideas for classroom use are fantastic! Please head over and check them out: http://www.literacyworldwide.org/blog/literacy-daily/2016/09/15/putting-books-to-work-em-the-bitter-side-of-sweet-em?utm_source=TW-09202016&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=ThisWeek&utm_content=Story-3
EXCERPT from ILA website:
Social studies/history, geography, economics, journalism, and math
Ideas for Classroom Use
Dying to Tell a Story
As Khadija shares her story with Amadou she explains that she ended up at the cacao farm because she was kidnapped from her home. She also reveals that her mother is a journalist and has been researching a secret topic, one that has prompted threatening phone calls to their home. Khadija believes that there is a connection between her mother’s research and her kidnapping.
Unlike journalists in the United States who have the protection of the First Amendment, journalists in other places around the world often face retribution, threats, and even death as a result of the stories they research and publish. This can happen in the United States as well, but it is more widespread in other parts of the world.
The Committee to Protect Journalists reported that 69 journalists died on the job in 2015. Of these 69 deaths, 47 were victims of murder, with at least 28 of these 47 murder victims receiving death threats before they were killed.
The topics presented above provide a wealth of teaching and learning opportunities. Some of the issues or ideas that can be explored are as follows:
- Freedom of speech is protected in the United States by the First Amendment. What does freedom of speech mean? What protections does the First Amendment provide for freedom of speech?
- What are the topics or stories that have led to the threatening or killing of journalists? What do these topics or stories have in common? What do the threats and/or killings related to these topics or stories indicate about the topics and/or stories?
- In the era of Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms, the reporting of news is changing as is the field of journalism. Is journalism becoming obsolete? What is the role of citizen journalists in this new era?
“I count the things that matter.”
The first line of The Bitter Side of Sweet is “I count the things that matter.” Amadou goes on, “Only twenty-five pods. Our sacks need to be full, at least forty or forty-five each, so I can get Seydou out of a beating. Really full if I want to get out of one too.” Amadou spends his days obsessed with meeting the daily quota of cacao pods in order to protect him and his brother from a beating and hopefully to get them some food for the day.
Quotas rule the lives of many, such as those being paid by piece rate, those working on an assembly line, or those who work on commission. Piecework is when workers get paid a set amount for each item or unit they make or action they perform; for example, a seamstress may get paid for each collar she sews on to a shirt. Although not limited to the jobs held by children, women, and the working poor, the jobs held by these populations often involve quotas, piecework, assembly lines, or commissions.
In order to explore the pressures of working under a quota an assembly line can be created in the classroom. For example, students could assemble a predetermined design out of Legos, with each “worker” adding a specific piece or two to the total. There is an abundance of topics related to this type of work, including:
- What types of industries use assembly lines? Why do these industries use assembly lines? What are the benefits of an assembly line? What is it like to work on an assembly line? Who regulates assembly lines? What does it mean for consumers when they buy products that have been made on an assembly line?
- What industries rely on piecework? Why these industries? What is it like to do piecework? Who regulates piecework? What does it mean for consumers when they buy products that have been made through piecework?
Where Did This Come From?
The world has become a global marketplace; a single product can pass through numerous steps and hands before it arrives at our local store for us to purchase. The Bitter Side of Sweet provides insight into some of the beginning steps and hands involved in the making of the chocolate that we love. Sullivan also provides glances at some of the other steps in the production of chocolate, such as the transport of the dried cacao seeds to large warehouses.
Have students select a product and research the steps involved in its production. Students should consider the “who” involved in each of these steps as well as the “what” of the steps. If a product has steps that occur in different locations, students can create a production map that traces the route of a product and its components as it moves towards completion.
What’s Fair About Fair Trade?
In her author’s note, Sullivan mentions fair trade chocolate. She says, “Fair trade chocolate, produced by companies that guarantee a minimum price to growers even when international prices dip, is by no means the only answer. Nor is it an answer free of its own complications, as any long-term solution must address empowerment and education as well as economics. However, it is one way of tackling the root problem: the grinding poverty of the small growers who produce cacao.” There are many aspects about the idea of fair trade products that can be taught and explored; here are some possibilities:
- What does it mean for something to be fair trade?
- What kind of products can be considered to be fair trade? What do these products have in common?
- What is the impact of fair trade on workers? What is the impact of fair trade on employers? What is the impact of fair trade on consumers?
Additional Resources and Activities
Resources for Teachers: Chocolate Production and Child Slavery: On her website, Tara Sullivan, the author of The Bitter Side of Sweet, provides teaching resources for both of her young adult novels. Sullivan provides suggestions for what readers can do if they have been inspired to action by The Bitter Side of Sweet. She also discusses the idea of fair trade chocolate and supplies a list of other resources on the chocolate industry and modern day slavery.
“The Dark Side of Chocolate”: This 45-minute documentary is a great companion to The Bitter Side of Sweet as it provides visuals for many of the objects, locations, and events that occur in the novel such as the cacao pods themselves and how they are harvested.
Additional Literature With Similar Themes
Diamond Boy. Michael Williams. 2016. Little, Brown.
Iqbal. Francesco D’Adamo. 2003. Atheneum.
Sold. Patricia McCormick. 2006. Hyperion.
Trash. Andy Mulligan. 2010. Ember/Random House.
Aimee Rogers is an assistant professor at the University of North Dakota. She is a member of the reading faculty and teaches children’s literature courses. Aimee’s research interests include how readers make meaning with graphic novels as well as representation in children’s and young adult literature.