Sugar Changed the World: A Story of Magic, Spice, Slavery, Freedom, and Science by the husband-and-wife team of Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos is a riveting account of how the human craving for sweets led to the development of a product that has quite literally changed the course of history. This book was nominated for a Cybils award in the MG/YA nonfiction category.
Aronson and Budhos start out with a prologue explaining how personal history drove them to research this book. It turns out that each of them had a tie to sugar processing, Aronson’s through an aunt by marriage and Budhos through her Indian ancestors who moved to Guyana in South America to work on the sugar plantations. Discovering these commonalities led them to want to learn more about the history of sugar.
And what a history it is. Sugar cane was thought to have originated in New Guinea and from there spread to India, where it was used in Hindu ceremonies. Over time, the Indians developed techniques to extract and refine the sugar. By the 600s (AD) sugar was spreading through the Islamic regions, and in the 1200s the Egyptians invented a technique for refining sugar to a pure white form. Once Columbus took sugar cane to the island of Hispaniola in the New World, things start to heat up with the development of sugar cane plantations throughout the Caribbean.
Sugar cane is a difficult crop to harvest, and it must be done quickly because the sugar content of the plant drops rapidly once it is cut. Sugar cane required a vast workforce and the landowners turned to slavery to provide it. Although we often associate cotton with slavery, Aronson and Budhos make a compelling argument that sugar cane was crop that truly led millions to suffer, in some areas even up to modern day. The authors give many details of what life was like for the slaves. They even researched the music and dance that the slaves developed on the plantations and provide sound and video clips on their website.
The power of sugar began to wane, however, when people began to worry about the health effects of eating too much. The authors also point out that not all the changes were negative ones, and now technology has made the processing of sugar cane less arduous (see video below).
In the back of the book is an essay entitled, “How We Researched and Wrote this Book,” giving insights how tangled up together history is and how it should be presented with some of the messiness intact instead of as separate events. The authors also have compiled extensive “Notes and Sources” where they reveal how they arrived at their versions of events. Quite possibly they should have added their prologue here. It seems out of place at the beginning, and it ties in nicely with the personal tone of the back sections.
Sugar Changed the World is not a quick read. It is full of so full details it requires quite a bit of processing itself. It would be a fantastic supplement to a world history course, or even a course unto itself. Students interested in history are going to love this book. For teachers, it’s a valuable resource for courses outside of history, as well. The accompanying Teacher’s Guide has science lessons, as well as history, geography and economics. In any case, you will never look at sugar in quite the same way.
If you have read this book, I would love to hear what you think of it.
In this video is a fascinating look at how juice is extracted from sugar cane in India to be used as a beverage.
This How Its Made episode shows the modern equipment now used to make sugar.
Reading level: Ages 12 and up
Hardcover: 176 pages
Publisher: Clarion Books; 1 edition (November 15, 2010)ISBN-10: 0618574921
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This week’s post is at Practically Paradise.