I just sped through Bootleg by Alex Shearer, because I was checking it out as a possible read aloud for my Grade 5 kiddies. So here’s the lowdown.
The Good For You Party is now running the country (the country being England I think, given the British lingo peppered throughout the book). The party is forcing citizens to lead healthier lives, and their first initiative is to ban chocolate consumption and production. Two kids, Smudger and Huntly (along with the majority of other British children and grown ups), are particularly horrified by this development, and decide to take matters into their own hands. The boys find a recipe for making chocolate, and conveniently, a hidden store of all of the necessary ingredients and they begin a bootlegging operation. The question is how long will they be able to keep things “under wraps,” since the Inspector, Trooper Police, and freaky little Young Pioneers (the junior branch of the party) are out to crush all who resist.
I think this story has a lot going for it, especially if you’re looking at it from a teaching perspective. The narrative moves along quite briskly, and the kids are enterprising and nervy which makes you want them to beat the bad guys. I can imagine many points of departure for interesting discussions (especially if you have to teach government / citizenship… even health). You could get into the whole underlying topic of chocolate production – its darker side and the associated social justice issues, fairtrade etc. Of course, you might make chocolate yummies, write imaginary letters to The Good For You Party or to chocolate/candy companies to find out about their production methods.
I found the characters a little thin, however. I think the two central figures needed to be more carefully drawn and more individual. I also wondered about exploring this kind of territory (oppressive governments and loss of personal freedoms) using chocolate as the framework. Does it offer lightness where it shouldn’t, or detract from the truly disturbing nature of the topic by making it a bit less serious? Or is this tactic desirable if you wish to begin to explore such ideas with kids? I haven’t really decided on that yet.
Anyway, I think many kids will eat this one up, and after I’ve finished reading them Spiderwick 1, I may just give it a try.