As I write this, I’m two weeks into Summer, and have finally gotten into full Summer mode. I’m sitting on the deck with an ice tea typing away on a Sunday afternoon.

Like so many other teachers, Summer is a chance to read. During the school year I rarely have time to read between school stuff and family stuff, so most of my reading is done through audiobooks, but in Summer… ahh… Summer I actually get to feel the paper in my hands.

Last Sunday while at the library with the family, I came across The Bitter Side of Sweet by Tara Sullivan (@SullivanStories). It’s a 2018 Rebecca Caudill nominee (best book for fourth to eighth graders in Illinois) so I figured it might be worth a read, if for no other reason, so that next year when a student asks me what they should read I have a somewhat new title to offer.

It sat in the library bag until Friday night when I was sitting on the deck. My son and his friends were backyard camping with a fire and smores and I figured I should be outside in case they set the backyard aflame (they didn’t). I began my book. As it got darker, my cell phone flashlight came out. A few hours and 299 pages later, I was done. And I was thinking.

Without giving away too much, the book is a realistic fiction piece about two Malian boys working as modern day slaves on a cacao plantation in the Ivory Coast. It describes how they got there, what their working conditions are like, and the sad reality that these boys will never be paid, and never be able to buy their freedom.

When I finished the book, my head was racing with ideas. I’ve spent a lot of time on Human Rights over the past few years, and mentioned modern day slavery, but never really got students to buy in and understand that it is very real. But as I read about the terrible working conditions at the cacao plantation, I smelled something sweet. My son and his friends were roasting marshmallows, putting them on graham crackers, and then, adding Hershey’s chocolate bars to it. As I looked at them smearing chocolate across their mouths, the horror was real.

I began Googling to find out if somehow Hershey’s was a company that made sure that their chocolate came from farms that didn’t employ child labor. But nothing I saw made me feel better. I read a Fortune article, Was your Easter chocolate made with child labor? and then the infographics like this one. And then I thought back to a documentary that I watched during my lunch period last year, The Dark Side of Chocolate. The website for the documentary is gone, but if you’ve got 45 minutes to watch, you can do so here.


It’s heartbreaking. It’s sad. It’s awful.

But, this is where we have a choice. We can read the articles, read The Bitter Side of Sweet, and watch The Dark Side of Chocolate and feel bad, or, we TAKE ACTION.

So here is what my plan is for next year.

When we get to our Inquiry on Human Rights, I’ll have to get permission from parents to have chocolate in the classroom. I’m not sure if we’ll go with chocolate bars or hot cocoa or fruit dipped in chocolate, but we’ll definitely enjoy some chocolate. While we enjoy the chocolate, I’ll start reading the first chapter of Bitter Side of Sweet, where we are first introduced to Amadou and Seydou, the brothers who are working as slaves on the cacao plantation. My guess is that someone will make the connection between cacao and cocoa. And as we start to hear about the exhaustion, fear, and violence that these brothers deal with on a daily basis, the chocolate might not taste as good.

From there, we’ll start developing some inquiry questions.

  • Where does chocolate come from?
  • Where is cacao farmed?
  • Do all farms use slaves?
  • Did the chocolate that I’m enjoying come from slave labor?

As we delve further into this we can read the above article from Fortune. We can analyze infographics. We can watch the documentaries. We can get the answers we seek.

And now, it’s time to TAKE ACTION! This action doesn’t require collecting money, this action is getting attention and demanding change.

  • What if my students put up posters around the lunchroom letting their peers know how their chocolate came to be?
  • What if they led a boycott of all chocolate sold in the cafeteria or vending machines?
  • What if they went home and talked with their family about it?
  • What if they made trick-or-treating really uncomfortable for every house that handed out chocolate?
  • What if they began social media campaigns demanding change of chocolate producers in the United States?
  • What if they wrote letters to companies, stores, Congressional representatives, and the media?

None of this costs a cent, but all of it will have real impact on them.

So that’s how I’ll be using fiction to TAKE ACTION. What other titles can help students get excited about a cause and demand change? Comment below or message me on Twitter – @cheffernan75!

2 thoughts on “The Bitter Side of Sweet

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