Monday, March 28, 2011

Nonfiction Monday: Sugar Changed the World

Sugar Changed the World: A Story of Magic, Spice, Slavery, Freedom, and ScienceSugar Changed the World: A Story of Magic, Spice, Slavery, Freedom, and Science Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos

Human tongues have to be trained to enjoy salty flavors, but we are born craving sweetness.

Starting a few thousand years before the Common Era and moving through to the modern day, most of the book focuses on slavery and the large sugar plantations of the Caribbean.

In tracing the brutality of life on the sugar plantations, as well as a growing taste for it among the lower classes in Europe, Aronson and Budhos make the argument that sugar was responsible for the rise of slavery as well as it's eventual abolition and played a vital role in the Industrial Revolution.

While I do not dispute these arguments, for the sake of conciseness, the book doesn't look at the other factors involved in these movements, which makes it sound like sugar was the main or sole reason for them and that's not right, and weakens the overall argument about the very important role that sugar did play.

I most enjoyed the section that traces the spread of sugar with the spread of Islam-- that was a topic I could have read much more about.

At the end, it talks about this rise of sugar from non-cane sources (such as beets and corn) and mentions a bit about the health controversies surrounding this, but doesn't focus on it. I think a little more exploration of the role of US sugar tariffs and the rise of high fructose corn syrup would have been really interesting and fit in well with the main points of the book in showing the effects that sugar had beyond sweetening our food and drink.

Lots of pictures and a few pull-out boxes with further information. The illustrations are in black-and-white, but there are links to see the pictures online in color (in addition to the links in the text, the authors have gathered all of them on their websites.) There are also extensive source notes (and comments on the reading levels of various sources so students can decide if they want to follow up with something, which is very, very, very cool) and a bibliography. I really appreciated the multiple time lines for each strand of the sugar story-- these really helped show how the multiple narratives meshed together. There's also a note for "teachers, librarians, and other interested parties" about how they researched the book. That's the kind of thing I geek out over and thought it was interesting, but I remain a bit confused as to why they thought they needed to explain the difference between primary and secondary sources to teachers and librarians!

Overall though, I think this is a really interesting book for junior high and high school students that looks at something so common and explores the role it played in some major historical shifts.

Round up today is over at Practically Paradise.

ARC Provided by... the publisher at ALA.

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