Moving. Engaging. Eye-opening. Read it.


Amadou (15) and his little brother Seydou are child workers on a cocoa farm. He and Seydou have been very away from their home in Mali for two long years, and Amadou focuses to count the things that matter. Their days on this plantation on the Ivory Coast consist of working in the blistering sun, chopping down as many cacao pods. The boys work as slaves doing this backbreaking and dangerous work in conditions that are horrifying. The boys wanted to help their impoverished family, never imagining they would be tricked into slavery.

Amadou tries desperately to keep the bosses’ beatings at bay, especially away from his brother. The bosses never tell them how much their debt is, never give them anything except little amounts of food, and never let any boy leave alive. Maybe, Amadou and Seydou could somehow return home to their Baba and Auntie. But the longer the two have stayed at the farm, the more Amadou continues to lose hope that they will ever be free again.

As Amadou accepts his fate, a girl is forcefully brought to the camp. Khadija turns out to be a big problem. Full of wildness and vigor, she never stops fighting to get away, awakening the same thoughts of escape in Amadou. But the bosses finally break her, and the unthinkable happens to Seydou, Amadou’s only good thing left. This time, he knows he and his brother can no longer remain at the farm. The three join as a family and try once more to run away.

BTSYA / Teen Reader (15):
The Bitter Side of Sweet wakes you up to face reality. It sheds light on the experience of present-day slaves in different countries less protected than the United States. It reveals the brutality involved in child labor practices in an intense and powerful way. The novel portrays the difference in classes between those in Africa. At times, the book can be hard to read and caused me a lot of anxiety for the characters. Ultimately, that is what made the story so moving, engaging, and eye-opening, because this is also a story of friendship and what it means to look out for one's family.

This novel is a reminder of the importance of being an informed consumer and using your money wisely. The book also includes many African words, and there is a glossary at the back to help those not familiar with the African language.

I recommend this novel to readers 13 and older. I would also encourage readers to learn more information on child labor and become more active against it with things like writing letters to unjust companies, donating to reliable charities, and educating others on the cruelty of present-day slavery.

Reader Enjoyment Factors:

Readers who are interested in the lives of children in other parts of the globe or want to make a difference in the world will find this realistic novel eye-opening and a call to activism. It is not a story easily forgotten.

Content Awareness Factors:

Characters use profanity and the plot has violence. While this book isn’t extremely graphic, there are scenes of beatings; descriptions of injuries and starvation; and a vague reference to rape.

Type of Book:
This is a historical fiction novel that paints a very realistic, contemporary portrait of life for impoverished youth in Africa.
Educational Themes:

As our reviewer points out, there is a lot of factual information about present-day life for children in other parts of the world. "Child labor" isn't something that today's teens would be familiar with - unless they sought it out. This is a book that can be a catalyst for more research or inspire someone to be a more engaged citizen. 

There are many discussion threads that can be drawn from the "factual" events of the story, as well as the human dynamics of the brothers' relationship, and concepts of love and hope. 

  • Social and contemporary studies: cultural strata and traditions, governmental systems, accepted norms, geography, et al.
  • Interpersonal: Amadou and Seydou's relationship and how that did/didn't change despite conditions. Khadija and her impact on their plantation lives, as well as Amadou's thinking and subsequent choices.
  • Abstract concepts: love, hope, friendship, power, inspiration, etc.
Reading Level:
Recommended Age To Read By Yourself:
14 and Up
Recommended Age To Read Together:
13 and Up
Age of child:
Teen STAR Review Team, Be the Star You Are!™ . Reviewer's Age: 15
Purchase Recommendation:
Borrow, for sure. If you are inspired to activism, you will want to buy so that you have access to the resources in the back.

Title The Bitter Side of Sweet: A Novel
Author Tara Sullivan
Publisher G.P. Putnam's Sons Books for Young Readers © 2016
ISBN 9780399173073
Material Hard Cover
Cost $16.99
Genres Adventure, Cultures & Tradition, Historical Fiction, Realism | Realistic Fiction, Contemporary Fiction, Africa | African People
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