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Sugar Changed the World

Sugar Changed the World: A Story of Magic, Spice, Slavery, Freedom, and Science

Written by Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos
Published by Clarion Books, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-618-57492-6
Grades 7 and Up

Of the over 2 million slaves shipped from Africa during the trans-Atlantic slave trade of the 17th-19th centuries, only 4 % came to the United States. The other 96% were sent to the Caribbean, Brazil, and Central America to work the sugar plantations. In other words, what middle and high school students across the nation often learn about the slave trade is a highly incomplete portrait, leaving out key parts of its role in the global economy. Fortunately, Sugar has arrived, offering teachers and students alike a more comprehensive understanding. In the prologue, husband and wife team Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos frame the book through their personal family histories with sugar, introducing themselves and the topic to the reader, and providing a taste, so to speak, of the sweetness and bitterness of this global history lesson. Sugar is a “taste made possible by the most brutal labor,” and its production “set people in motion all across the world – millions of them as slaves.” However, “the global connections that sugar brought about also fostered the most powerful ideas of human freedom.” Many well-known figures are featured in the global transformation that sugar production initiated, including Alexander the Great, Muhammad, Christopher Columbus, and Gandhi. But more importantly, figures and places not frequently discussed in America’s history classrooms also feature prominently, such as the scholars at Jundi Shapur in Iran, the world’s first university; the free nation of Palmares in Brazil, settled by escaped slaves in the 17th century; and the enslaved blacks in Haiti who fought for their freedom from France in the early 19th century. Aronson and Budhos take the complex web of social, cultural, political, and economic global history, and create a narrative that successfully presents these inter-connected strands with a clarity their teen readers will understand. This is no small feat. The book concludes with a story about the research and writing process, which can serve as a road map for middle and high school students conducting their own research. Extensive back matter further extends this engaging and complex snapshot of global history.

Teaching Invitations
Middle and High School (Grades 7 and Up)
  • Primary Source Connections. Have students do a “picture walk” through the book and identify the primary source images throughout. What questions do they have about these sources? Have them explore some of the primary sources further at the author’s website at What new information have they learned? What new insights have students gained about sugar production and the global economy?
  • Colonization and Commodities Map. After reading Sugar, break students up into two groups. Have one group read the nonfiction picture book The Cod’s Tale and the other Salt, both by Mark Kurlansky. Jigsaw the groups together into new groups in which they can compare and contrast the information in the picture books to Sugar. Have each group build a map that demonstrates the connection between cod, salt, and sugar in the colonization and growth of North and South America. This map should present a helpful visual that allows students to see in a very concrete way the interconnectedness of the three texts and, more importantly, these three commodities in colonial history.
  • Community Exchange. Have your class take several routes to sharing what they’ve learned about what happened to 96% of the enslaved Africans during the 17th-19th centuries. Some students can create a “Sugar and Slavery” webpage to inform other members of the school community. Another group can plan a performance of some of the songs and dances from and make a recording to have available as a podcast on the webpage. Still another group could create a short play that can be performed for students in younger grades within your school district. This too can be recorded and included on the webpage.
  • Listening Literacy Station. Via the website created by the authors (, have students explore, in small groups, the songs and music that grew out of the sugar plantation culture in South America and the Caribbean islands. What do the songs have in common with one another? How do these songs relate to music that we listen to today? How do they compare with the spirituals that came out of the enslaved African experience in America’s south? For lyrics and audio recordings of a sampling of songs from the African-American slave experience, go to This Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) site includes a Teacher’s Guide.
  • Sugar as a Mentor Text. Have students conduct their own research, either in small groups or individually, on another food. Use the “How We Researched and Wrote this Book” essay in the back matter as a guide to how students should conduct their research, moving from secondary sources to more specific primary sources and personal stories. Next, they will write nonfiction mini-books that parallel the structure used by Aronson and Budhos. Students will include a personal introduction to their connection to the food, a three-part chronology that mixes expository and narrative styles and includes samples of primary sources, and conclude with what they consider appropriate back matter.
Critical Literacy

  • Representations of Sugar: Series vs. Individual Title. After reading Sugar, have students break up into small groups and examine another nonfiction book about sugar written as part of a series (see below: Sugar by Gary Chapman, The Biography of Sugar by Rachel Eagan, and Sugar by Sheryl Peterson). How does each book articulate the role of sugar in the trans-Atlantic slave trade? How does each book address the human cost of sugar? It’s role in the global economy historically and today? What’s included and excluded from each text? What differences in writing styles can students note? Why might the series books present the information through structures and styles that differ from Sugar? What role does the author’s presence play in Sugar?
  • Sugar Study. Have students brainstorm the sources of sugar in their daily diet, sharing with one another to create a complete portrait. Next, compare and contrast the information on sugar presented on The Sugar Association’s webpage ( and compare that to the information contained in this May 2010 article from USA Today: ( To what extent is sugar unhealthy? What do students think they should do about their eating habits? How can students become better informed about who is behind the information they read?
  • Sugar Action Plan. Break students into three groups. Have one group research current sugar cane farming and production in the United States, another research sugar-related human rights globally (see Amnesty International’s recent postings on sugar-related human rights issues around the world in the URL below in Further Explorations as a starting point). Have another group try to locate the sources of sugar used in some of the class’s favorite snacks and beverages through online and print research and emails. Jigsaw the different groups back together and have each group create a “Sugar Action” plan that provides background information to educate the school community, and a few steps that students can take to help make sugar a more “fairly traded” commodity.
Further Explorations
Online Resources:
Marc Aronson’s Webpage
Sugar Changed the World’s webpage created by Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos
PBS The American Experience: Jubilee Songs
Amnesty International: Sugar and Human Rights
Florida Crystals Company – History of Sugar

Chapman, Gary. (2010). Sugar. World Commodities Series. Mankato, MN: Smart Apple Media.
  • A nonfiction series survey book on sugar.
Eagan, Rachel. (2006). The biography of sugar. How Did That Get Here? Series. New York: Crabtree Press.
  • A nonfiction series survey book on sugar.
Hearn, Julie. (2007). Hazel. New York: Antheneum Books for Young Readers.
  • This historical novel, set in 1913, reveals thirteen-year-old Hazel Mull-Dare’s discovery of the source of her family’s wealth when she is sent from London to live on her grandparents’ Caribbean sugar cane plantation, formerly run by slaves.
Hopkinson, Deborah. (2006). Up before daybreak: Cotton and people in America. New York: Scholastic Nonfiction.
  • This nonfiction chapter book discusses the history of cotton in America from colonial times through the Great Depression, and compares and contrasts the particular role of cotton in the industrial economy of the north, the agricultural economy of the south in the 19th century, and the interdependence of the two. Like Sugar, this book articulates the human toll of cotton production, from the fields to the factory, and the hard work of enslaved and free Africans, poor whites, and European immigrants.
Kurlansky, Mark. (2000). The cod’s tale. Illustrated by S.D. Schindler. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.
  • This nonfiction picture book adaptation of Kurlansky’s Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World introduces the role of cod fish in the Atlantic-based economies of Europe, Africa, the Caribbean, and North America’s northern colonies. This book reframes colonization in North America through the lens of the global marketplace, examines food culture in North America from colonial times to the present, articulates the role of cod fishing in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and confronts the challenges of today’s fisheries.
Kurlansky, Mark. (2006). The story of salt. Illustrated by S.D. Schindler. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.
  • This nonfiction picture book adaptation of Kurlansky’s Salt: A World History examines the role of salt in global economies from antiquity to the present, and the ways in which salt galvanized food production, shaped food cultures, and influenced politics.
O’Dell, Scott. (1990). My name is not Angelica. New York: Yearling.
  • In this historical novel, Riasha, a Senegalese teen, taken into slavery, attempts to take control of her life during the slave revolts on the island of St. John in 1733.
Peterson, Sheryl. (2002). Sugar. Let’s Investigate Series. Mankato, MN: Creative Education.
  • A nonfiction series survey book on sugar.
Pollan, Michael. (2009). The omnivore’s dilemma: The secrets behind what you eat. Adapted by Ritchie Chevat. New York: Dial Books.
  • This young adult adaptation of The Omnivore’s Dilemma provides a snapshot of food industry and culture in the United States, and it isn’t pretty.
Schlosser, Eric. (2006). Chew on this: Everything you don’t want to know about fast food. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  • This young adult adaptation of Fast Food Nation describes the role of sugar, fats, chemicals, and other problematic elements of fast food and junk food in the United States.
Storace, Patricia. (2007). Sugar Cane: A Caribbean Rapunzel. Illustrated by R. Colon. New York: Jump at the Sun.
  • This re-telling of the Brothers Grimm’s Rapunzel story is set in the Caribbean and involves a stolen piece of sugar cane.
Mary Ann Cappiello About Mary Ann Cappiello

Mary Ann is a professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former public school language arts and humanities teacher, she is a passionate advocate for and commentator on children’s books. Mary Ann is the co-author of Teaching with Text Sets (2013) and Teaching to Complexity (2015) and Text Sets in Action: Pathways Through Content Area Literacy (Stenhouse, 2021). She has been a guest on public radio and a consultant to public television. From 2015-2018, Mary Ann was a member of the National Council of Teachers of English's Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction (K-8) Committee, serving two years as chair.


  1. Again I am so impressed with what you have included in this blog and how well it is written. I remember a brief discussion of this text when you were doing your Longfellow family research. MSM