for young readers

Review: "Sugar Changed the World," by Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos

Wednesday, December 1, 2010


A Story of Magic, Spice, Slavery, Freedom, and Science

By Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos

Clarion. $20. Ages 12 and up

Circling the globe and spanning millennia, this eye-opening book is the first collaboration between Marc Aronson, a top historian for young readers, and his wife, Marina Budhos, a novelist with roots in sugar (her father's family left India for work on a sugar plantation in the Caribbean). Central to sugar's story is the brutality involved in its manufacture, and the authors use all sorts of sweeteners - personal stories, archival photos, maps and historical anecdotes - to help the medicine go down. Readers will get a sense of the laborious nature of sugar-processing and also the forces that have spread sugar around the world from its origins in New Guinea, where sugar cane was first cultivated "five thousand years or more before the Greeks." These forces include the Jundi Shapur ("the world's first true university"), Islam, the Crusades and of course trade. Indeed, one of the book's great strengths is the way it explains how millions of people became a moveable commodity. In fact, 96 percent of Africans sold into Atlantic slavery were sent to sugar lands in the Caribbean and South America rather than to North America. The authors point out the upside of sugar, too: English abolitionists were able to force the issue through boycotts of "the blood-sweetened beverage," and Gandhi's movement was deeply informed by indentured Indian sugar workers in South Africa. Today, our sweeteners have more to do with chemists than harsh plantation overseers.

-Abby McGanney Nolan

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