Bitter and Sweet
Bitter and Sweet
As she tasted the sweet grape juice, she remembered her grandmother’s words – some bitter and some sweet.
But still Hanna wondered whether she would ever feel the same way that she had before.
When Hannah finds out her family is moving away from her home (which we can assume is Montreal based on some picture clues), she calls her grandmother for advice. Her grandmother lets her know that, while experiences like moving often seem bitter, there may be a sweetness to them as well. In Bitter and Sweet, Hannah goes in search of this sweetness. With collage illustrations and some interesting twists on well-trodden picture book territory, Feder and Brooker create a charming tale of adjusting to new experiences and the importance of self-reliance.
The prose used to describe Hannah’s situation is simple, yet beautiful. Much of the story is told through dialogue that flows naturally. In perhaps the most effective narrative technique used in Bitter and Sweet, hot cocoa is used as a metaphor for the moving experience. Maya, a young girl in Hannah’s new neighbourhood, gifts Hannah with some cocoa powder, telling her it makes the best hot cocoa. Maya forgets to tell Hannah to add sugar, and Hannah has a bitter surprise the first time she tries to make it. After Maya tells Hannah how to make it properly the next day at school, Hannah is much more successful. This leads her to the realization that she needed to ‘add the sweetness herself’. It’s a subtle, but effective shift away from the usual moving narrative where someone simply waits to find a new friend. Hannah comes to learn that there is sometimes work involved in finding happiness. This is an important lesson for children, and the hot cocoa metaphor is one that explains it perfectly. Many children have undoubtedly had the experience of sneaking a fingertip into a tin of cocoa powder only to be disappointed by the bitter-sour taste left in their mouth. Feder uses this common childhood experience to make a profound, yet easily understandable statement. She also includes bits of Jewish culture and history that help to enrich the story, adding depth to it.
Krysten Brooker’s illustrations are done in collage, using photographs and oil paints on gessoed watercolour paper. Generally, the illustrations are beautiful and serve the story well, but I did have a few concerns. Some of the photographs are so clear that they are in stark contrast to the soft oil paints, sometimes causing items to stand out when they aren’t necessarily the focus of the scene. I find this especially noticeable in the Shabbat scene where Hannah’s mother is lighting candles. The bread on the table is so photo-realistic that there is a bit of a ‘once you see it, it cannot be unseen’ effect. It draws your eye towards the photo and away from the action and the characters’ faces. This is also an issue with Hannah’s sweater in some scenes and on the cover. It is not always blended in with the oils and stands out as if it is something attached to her sweater, rather than part of its design. This is especially noticeable on the cover, where, her arms being crossed, it almost looks as if she is holding a notebook or something similar. All in all, this is a minor gripe, but one that did stand out. Brooker uses a very muted palette made up of lots of greys, blues, and muddy browns which serve the story very well in the beginning, but it would have been lovely to see some more colour incorporated towards the end. The pages which aren’t full-bleed and have some white space feel like a welcome breath of fresh air. More of this could have really invigorated some of the illustrations and provided a clearer space for text. Again, a minor detail that would have made a big difference. There is a particularly effective illustration of Hannah smelling her (correctly made) hot cocoa. There is plenty of white space, and Hannah’s head and the cup are huge in relation to her body. This skewing of perspective perfectly evokes the feeling of taking a deep breath and having the scent of hot cocoa completely fill your head.
An author’s note in the back of the book explains some of the concepts and influences used in the book’s creation. Many teachers and librarians love a book with back matter, and Bitter and Sweet gets it just right. There is a good amount of detail, without seeming dull or overwrought. Additionally, the back matter is generally respectful to the level of language used in the rest of the book, meaning that it could be read to a child rather than read by an adult and then translated into language a young child could understand.
Overall, Bitter and Sweet is perhaps not a book that children will flock to but is one that they will enjoy when read to them. It is a fresh take on the moving experience and deserves its spot amongst the canon. The illustrations are beautiful, and the prose is effortless.
Alex Matheson is a children’s librarian in Vancouver, British Columbia.