by Jewell Parker Rhodes

Ages: 9 years and up (approximately grades 4 and up)

It’s 1870 and slavery is over, but some things remain the same, at least at the River Road Plantation. Ten-year-old Sugar works hard planting and harvesting sugar cane. Even though she’s named after it, Sugar hates the stuff. She hates the sickly sweet taste. She hates how it makes her back hurt and how the cane leaves cut her arms, hands, and fingers. She hates how it made her best friend’s family leave the plantation for a better life. But most of all, she hates how sugar doesn’t make her feel free.

Sugar would rather be doing anything other than farming sugar cane. She loves hearing the tales of Br’er Rabbit, dreams about the world beyond River Road, and wants to go on an adventure. Sugar’s life continues to revolve around work until she befriends Billy, the plantation owner’s son. No one wants Sugar and Billy to remain friends so they keep their friendship a secret. The plantation experiences more changes when a group of Chinese workers are hired to help with the harvest. Open-minded Sugar greets them warmly and wants to know everything about them. The rest of the workers feel threatened by their arrival and keep their distance. By helping everyone see what they have in common, Sugar brings the two groups together and gives everyone hope for better days ahead.

This historical novel focuses on a difficult subject in a way that is easily accessible. Not many people realize that, although slavery was abolished, former masters and former slaves still worked together in roles that were relatively the same. It was an uneasy time in American history where people were uncertain of the future and many on both sides were hesitant to change. This is a moralistic story that is not heavy handed and filled with ethnically diverse characters portrayed in a realistic way. The author weaves in both Br’er Rabbit trickster tales and Chinese folk tales to entertain as well as provoke thought. Younger readers will root for this plucky heroine and relate to her humor and grace. Read alikes to this book are The Lions of Little Rock for another story about friendship against all odds set during the Civil Rights era and The Birchbark House, the poignant story of a courageous Ojibwe girl in 1847. This title is recommended for grades 4 and up.

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