Who doesn’t love a delicious chocolate cake for their birthday?
In this picture book aimed at children ages 4-7, a young girl is making a celebration cake with her father while her mother is out on a special errand. As the pair measure and mix the ingredients, she asks her father to tell her again about Grandpa Cacao, the grandfather she has never met, and discovers the origins of their chocolaty treat.
Grandpa Cacao lives in the Ivory Coast and his name is no coincidence. His cacao farm, we discover, was the “pride of his life”. Grandpa Cacao knew when to harvest the ripe fruit, how to slice the pods open without cutting the beans inside, and where to dry them. Cacao farming was the family’s livelihood, and that of others in the community, earning them money for food, clothing, and other materials. Through the father’s reminiscences, author/illustrator Elizabeth Zunon transports the young girl (and readers) to another land, and cleverly interweaves farming and family, past and present, fact and fiction.
The symmetry between the stories is a delight for the senses:
“I can spot the end of summer from tinges of orange at the tips of treetops!” the young girl exclaims as her father recounts Grandpa Cacao’s ability to spot ripe cacao fruit. In another double spread, the “crak-crak” of dry cacao beans ready to sell at an Ivory Coast market is followed by the “crak . . . crack . . . crak” of eggs being added to the chocolate cake mixture.
Conversely, the unique artwork clearly differentiates the Ivory Coast recollections from the contemporary father and daughter scenes. Bright and bold illustrations abound but, while the young girl and her father are shown in depth and in color, Grandpa Cacao and the Ivory Coast villagers are represented by flat, white screen-printed figures. They appear as if in the young girl’s imagination, Elizabeth Zunon explains in a fascinating insight into her unique artwork in the back matter.
In a heartwarming finale, both stories come together in time and place as the oven timer buzzes and the doorbell rings, announcing the arrival of the much-anticipated chocolate cake and the return of the young girl’s mother with a very special visitor . . .
The back matter takes the form of two double spreads, including a note by the author about her childhood in the Ivory Coast and her own Grandpa Cacao, the inspiration for this story. It also comprises interesting facts about cacao, cocoa, the chocolate making process and the cacao industry. And, of course, a recipe for chocolate cake!
Grandpa Cacao is a delicious mingling of two stories and two worlds. A real treat for the senses, it celebrates a family’s Ivory Coast heritage and those farmers who work hard to bring us a commodity that many of us take for granted.
Written and illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon
2019, Bloomsbury Children’s Books
Reviews: School Library Journal (starred review), New York Times, Kirkus, Horn Book
Awards: 2019 Children’s Africana Book Awards: Honor Book for Young Children
Laura Taylor is the founder of world children’s literature blog Planet Picture Book. She is a small business copywriter, NAATI-certified translator of French into English and member of AUSIT and IBBY Australia. When she is not writing, she is reading, and chasing after her two young children. She tweets regularly @plapibo and posts at www.planetpicturebook.com