The Choco­late King

Michael Lev­en­thal, Lau­ra Cata­lan (Illus­tra­tor)

  • Review
By – January 11, 2022

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 TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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