Michael Leventhal and Laura Catalán’s new picture book tells the surprising story of Jewish refugees from Spain who brought chocolate to France in the seventeenth century. Weaving together fairy tale elements and history, Leventhal illustrates the persistence of one Jewish family as they enrich the culture of their new home.
This rags-to-riches tale begins with family history, as young Benjamin’s grandfather Marco explains how the Inquisition and the Spanish monarchy reduced him, a once-successful Jewish merchant, to poverty. Trade with the new American colonies had brought cocoa beans, long used by both the Mayans and Aztecs, to Europe. When the king and queen began to drive Jews out of their country, thriving entrepreneurs had to leave with the cocoa beans that they hoped would be their family’s treasure. This reversal of fortune threatened to dethrone Marco, the Chocolate King, permanently. But, as in most folk tales, circumstances change and fidelity to a dream pays off, although Marco is as pragmatic as he is visionary. After all, he points out, making chocolate was his only skill.
Catalán’s lively and detailed illustrations make the past tangible to young readers. Period costumes and settings point to a faraway time, but her characters’ facial expressions signal universal truths. In addition to straightforward narrative, some images are accompanied by Leventhal’s comedic captions. A woman sticking her tongue out proclaims, “That’s the worst glop I’ve ever seen,” while an open-minded child smiles and concludes that chocolate is great. Like a Brueghel painting, both domestic interiors and crowded streets contain different areas of focus as individuals engage in a flurry of activities. Leventhal and Catalán’s story is as universal as food, family, and finding a new home.
This highly recommended book includes an illustrated timeline and a hot chocolate recipe by Claudia Roden.
Emily Schneider writes about literature, feminism, and culture for Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.