Grandpa Cacao – Elizabeth Zunon, Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2019
The chocolate metaphor richness of Grandpa Cacao is so striking that it would be difficult to avoid in any description of Elizabeth Zunon’s new book. The richness refers to the content and themes: family, heritage, culinary traditions, agriculture. The artistic complexity of the book is also gorgeously rich.
In a detailed “Author’s Note,” Zunon explains how she has chosen to use oil paint, watercolor paper, and collage to create the main narrative background, combining these media with pale silk screen outlines in the images of her grandfather at work on his African farm. The sophistication of this multidimensional technique is, again, extremely rich. Grandpa Cacao is also an informational book about the cacao cultivation, and the book’s backmatter gives further information about the history, technology, and ethical issues of chocolate production, along with a recipe for Chocolate Celebration Cake. There is so much here to capture young readers’ attention that the book will surely inspire many conversations each of its ingredients.
The core of the story is a conversation between a girl and her father about the grandfather she has never known. Her father’s narration of his own father’s life as a cacao farmer is both dramatic and matter-of-fact, as he explains to this daughter the difficulties of planting and harvesting a successful crop. He emphasizes the communal cooperation necessary to the process, and ties its outcome to crucial economic gains: “We used our money to buy food, school supplies, uniforms, books, and fabric to have our special occasion clothes made.” As the girl listens, she draws parallels to her own life and feels connected to her grandfather, as she and her father carefully bake a chocolate cake together. The silk-screen images of life in Africa form a visual sequence of her father’s story and her own involvement in listening to it.
The ending of the book has a mythic element of reunion. Readers who have grandparents from other parts of the world, whether or not they have never seen them or benefit by a close relationship, will empathize with the family strength of Zunon’s story. Whether or not you love chocolate, Grandpa Cacao is a recipe for learning and empathy.