Welcome to STEM Tuesday: Author Interview & Book Giveaway, a repeating feature for the fourth Tuesday of every month. Go Science-Tech-Engineering-Math!
Today we’re interviewing Kay Frydenborg, author of CHOCOLATE: Sweet Science & Dark Secrets of the World’s Favorite Treat, a title in this month’s featured book pairs. School Library Journal gave it a starred review, saying, “This fascinating book presents a deep, multifaceted glimpse at a delectable dessert: chocolate. Engaging—even witty in places—and enlightening.”
Mary Kay Carson: How did Chocolate come about?
Kay Frydenborg: Chocolate was my second book for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH), following Wild Horse Scientists—a project that I’d loved researching and writing both for the subject matter (a long-time interest of mine that I’d tried to write about in different ways for years), and for the opportunity to join the ranks of Scientists in the Field (SITF) books, authors, and editors I so admired. When I started thinking about my next book, I was drawn to other subjects that might lend themselves to the series. So when I came across an article in the New York Times about scientists searching in the jungles of Peru for ancient cacao trees previously thought to have been extinct, I felt that little zing of recognition. I immediately pictured the scientists hiking along a tangled jungle path, and imagined the oppressive heat and the buzzing insects, the sweat and physical exertion along with the anticipation and sense of discovery that must have propelled them.
I learned that one of the principal researchers introduced in that NYT article was a USDA plant scientist headquartered in Beltsville, Maryland, within an easy drive of my home. I found his phone number and made sure he was actually there and would be willing to talk with me about his work, and I began to see a new SITF book take shape in my mind’s eye. But when I pitched the idea to my editor at HMH, I got a response I wasn’t expecting: she and her managing editor didn’t want the SITF book about chocolate scientists, but they did want a “big” stand-alone book about chocolate, for a slightly older (YA) audience. It would be longer, more complex, and broader in scope than what I’d originally proposed. Unlike wild horses, chocolate was a subject I knew little about except that I liked to eat it, so it would require a lot of research. I barely knew what a cacao tree looked like, or where it grew, or whether it was large or small. I thought about it for a bit, and then took a deep breath and accepted the challenge. It was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up, and luckily, I do love research.
MKC: Care to share a fun research moment or two?
Kay: The first was when I met and interviewed Lyndel Meinhardt, the United States Department of Agriculture plant scientist with the unusual name. He was so knowledgeable and generous in sharing his knowledge of all things cacao, and he introduced me to my first in-person cacao tree, which was actually living in a big pot on the floor of his office. Photos almost don’t do justice to this tree and its fruit, which seems about as different from chocolate as a spare tire is from a rubber tree. After introducing me to “his” cacao tree and showing me slides and maps from a couple of chocolate expeditions to the Amazon jungle, Lyndel led me to a climate-controlled greenhouse on the sprawling USDA campus, where rows of carefully-tended young trees of varying heights were thriving more than 3,000 miles from their natural habitat near the equator. Lyndel told me about the many diseases to which cacao trees in the wild are susecptible, about the closely guarded storage vaults where precious plants are stored in a few places in the world, and about how advances in genomic testing have opened a whole new world of chocolate science.
Another favorite moment? The day I received a surprise package in the mail from Dan Pearson, a California-based chocolate entrepreneur who was a major character in the book. He’d sent me a stash of his own fine Peruvian dark chocolate, in several forms, and even included some raw cacao beans. I didn’t eat the beans (although Dan told me you can), but I sure did enjoy the chocolate bars and nibs! A little went a long way, so they lasted forever, and knowing about where they came from and how they were created made them even more delicious. I could almost close my eyes and see that little tree in a steamy Amazon forest when I tasted that amazing chocolate.
MKC: What approach did you take for Chocolate and why did you choose it?
Kay: I wanted to approach this very big subject from the dual perspective of history and science—the approach I’ve followed for all of my nonfiction books. I’m equally fascinated by both ways of looking at just about everything, and find that starting by tracing the history of a given thing or event naturally leads into exploring the science around it. In the case of chocolate, the history is ancient and complex, and I was soon enthralled by stories of the ancient Mesoamerican peoples who first figured out how to transform cacao pods into chocolate, and then about the dramatic impact that European conquerers had on those ancient, rich civilizations.
Following the trail of chocolate opened a whole, fascinating world to me. This is why I love writing narrative nonfiction! I guess I write for myself, first—to satisfy my own curiosity, and I hope others—both young people and not-so-young readers—will be just as curious as I am. I read many books and articles over the course of my research, but fairly early on I also identified and began interviewing original sources, like Lyndel Meinhardt and Dan Pearson, as well as many others. Personal interviews make the story come alive for me.
MKC: How is your book different from other books about chocolate for older kids?
Kay: There actually aren’t a lot of other nonfiction books about chocolate for young adult readers (although H.P. Newquist’s is a good one), while there are quite a few books on the topic for younger kids and for adults. I think one thing that sets my book apart is its narrative approach. Once I started writing, the cacao tree itself assumed a prominent place in the narrative. It became a “character” in my mind—the central character in the long story of chocolate. It provided a specific image and focus that I thought made a vast, multifaceted subject more accessible—at least, it did for me! So I started by picturing one individual tree growing in a particular place, just as one might choose one particular person to be the central character of a novel. I spent a lot of time visualizing that tree and its surroundings and then describing the particulars of its fascinating features, and I often came back to that original image as I wrote. I imagined the forest animals breaking open and feasting on the cacao pods, and then the first humans to discover the tree and its remarkable fruit. Later in the book, when I introduced a larger cast of human characters past and present, I tried to ensure that the connection to that wonderful, fragile cacao tree was a consistent thread to pull the reader through the layers of history and intricacies of the science, the technology, and the business of chocolate. The little tree that opened the narrative reappeared in the form of the cacao tree in a remote Peruvian canyon that began a kind of odyssey for one of my central human characters, Dan Pearson, as well as Lyndel Meinhardt, the USDA scientist. I enjoyed tracing all of these connections through time and place.
MKC: Do you have a favorite chocolate treat?
Kay: I guess I most love a really dark fudgy treat like, um, fudge! The old-fashioned kind that is hard to find and tricky to make. Or a good, fudgy brownie or my grandmother’s recipe for fudge pie (which appears in my book!)
Win a FREE copy of CHOCOLATE: Sweet Science & Dark Secrets of the World’s Favorite Treat!
Enter the giveaway by leaving a comment below. The randomly-chosen winner will be contacted via email and asked to provide a mailing address (within the U.S. only) to receive the book.
Your host this week is Mary Kay Carson, unapologetic chocoholic and author of Mission to Pluto and other nonfiction books for kids. @marykaycarson