Book Review: Freedom Soup – how can such a wrenching, important story be so joyful?

by Tami Charles, illustrated by Jacqueline Alcantara, Candlewick Press, 2019

My three-year-old daughter loves this book. I can feel her engagement from the beginning as Ti Gran and Belle start their cooking and the rhythm of the book begins. This book shifts its moods without ever losing its joy as Belle’s grandmother teaches her to make a special soup to celebrate – and tells her the story of her island, Haiti and the Revolution, the abolition of slavery and independence from France.

By the time we get to the pumpkin – the look on Ti Gran’s face as she guides her grandaughter is meltingly beautiful; love in one picture – my daughter is focused, following Belle and Ti Gran, watching, listening to them, ready. When Ti Gran starts the ‘story of the place she was born: Haiti’, there’s a shift in her, she leans into it, the power of Ti Gran’s narrative, the pictures of Belle watching as the images of the sugarcane fields unfold, drawing her in, the sorrow and triumph of the story thrilling through her. She’s rapt, by the revolution, the ‘colors of freedom’. Steam from the soup and the waters of the ocean swirl around.  She emerges the other side with Belle, checking for her in the pictures again.  Is that Belle? Is that Ti Gran? As the soup is served and shared and celebrated.

There are a number of children’s books linking food, culture and history. Many are rich, wonderful books – sharing food speaks to us all. This one feels special. The story, the fight, the tenderness and joy between Belle and Ti Gran. I love the way the illustrations pull away at the end, rooms of people eating soup and celebrating, not just on ‘the tan streets of Port-au-Prince’, but in this snowy city too, people carrying the story and the joy of freedom with them.

The author’s note provided me with some welcome historical information. My daughter is too young for the detail now, but she’ll remember the essence. That people fought for their freedom. And when the questions come later, I’ll be a little more ready. There were people in Haiti before; most of the Taino died or were killed and the new population, brought from Africa, were enslaved. It wasn’t just abolitionists and court cases. People fought too. Haiti is free, independent – but history doesn’t vanish. We need to know.

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