By Sally Grindley
Published by Bloomsbury
Sally Grindley has been writing children's books for 25 years and has won both readers' praise and publishers' awards. She is skilful at writing fiction for young readers that relates to real-life topics, without them coming across as a textbook. Grindley's books have taken young readers to China, India and Africa, with each new adventure being built around a social issue that provokes thought as well as cranking up tension and thrills.
Pascal, the central character of Bitter Chocolate, lives with his family in Guinea, in Africa. His Dad is often away, working long hours in a diamond mine, but Pascal's life is full. He enjoys school, playing football and looking after his mum and sisters when Dad isn't around. Pascal doesn't have much time to worry about things outside his village, but recently he has heard about fighting going on in neighbouring Liberia and Sierra Leone. But, of course, kids don't worry about this sort of thing.
Bitter Chocolate opens on a cocoa plantation, and we soon meet Pascal and his friend Kojo. They are part of a gang of youngsters who have been forced to work in the fields. Chapters alternate between Pascal's terrible life on the plantation with flashbacks to his life in his village with his friends and family. This structure is a bit of a suspense-killer, because we learn immediately that war or something equally terrible has come to Pascal's homeland and taken him away from his family.
As soon as we start reading, we know where the flashback chapters are going to lead and this does distract from the tension Grindley builds in the home village chapters. Pascal and his friends are for the most part unaware of any approaching dangers, but Grindley gets one step ahead of herself by starting the story where she does and this is a bit of a spoiler.
After a few chapters in the cocoa plantation with its cruel supervisors and appalling living conditions, the story moves towards Pascal escaping. He is desperate to find his family again, and escape is the only way forward. He remembers the terrible events that brought him to the plantation, the rebels who destroyed his home village, the explosion that changed his life ...
But that is the past. Pascal has to think of the future, and that means escape. Will he make it home? And what will he find there if he does?
Bitter Chocolate is first and foremost about people and Grindley doesn't let the issues she is raising cloud the story too much. This is a very tense book even though we know some of the outcomes beforehand, and can work others out quite easily. A short, informative and thoughtful read.
John Millen can be contacted on MillenBookshelf@aol.com