bitter side of sweetIn drought-stricken Mali, it’s common for boys to leave their homes to look for work across the border in the Ivory Coast. For the families, it meant less mouths to feed. For the boys, it means a better chance to eat and hopefully make money to send home. When Amadou and his little brother Seydou meet a man promising work, they jump at the chance, not realizing they were getting sold into modern-day slavery at a cacao plantation.

For two long years, Amadou and Seydou struggle to make the daily quota so they can have their pitiful bowl of stew and not get beaten. At 15, Amadou is strong enough to do the work, but little eight-year old Seydou can’t quite keep up with the bigger boys. Feeling like their situation is all his fault, Amadou protects his little brother by making quota for both of them and accepts the beatings when he fails.

Then one day, a girl is brought to camp. There’s never been a girl at camp. Thirteen-year-old Khadija fights like a trapped wildcat to escape. Amadou gets blamed for one of her escape attempts and is locked in a storage shed. Without Amadou helping him cut cacao pods, little Seydou is seriously injured. Amadou realizes that even though escaping with Khadija might cost them their lives, Seydou will surely die if they stay.

Although this is Amadou’s story of love and loyalty, they’re all heroes with incredible fortitude and courage. Khadija is as strong, smart, and tough as Katniss. Even little Seydou has his moments to shine.

The action and pacing are very well done. If you pick up this book, be prepared to read for a while. The story will draw you in and not let you go until the very end.

Although I loved THE BITTER SIDE OF SWEET, I hesitate to recommend it to readers younger than 11 or 12. The brutality inflicted on the children is graphic and heart-breaking. However, I don’t think it’s any worse than many children’s books about the Holocaust. It would make a great companion book for classroom use for units on contemporary Africa. There are even maps included.

This is a terrific survival adventure which I completely enjoyed for that aspect alone. I  highly recommend it. But I have to warn you, it will spoil your enjoyment of chocolate and rightfully so.