Do You Speak Chocolate? by Cas Lester

How a piece of chocolate overcame the language barrier to friendship.  Never underestimate the power of chocolate! 

Do You Speak Chocolate? is about two Year 7 girls who are determined to become friends even though they don’t speak the same language. One of the girls, Nadima, is a newly arrived Kurdish speaking refugee from Syria.

At school, on the first day they meet, when British girl Jaz realizes that Nadima can’t speak English she offers her a piece of chocolate and asks: ‘Do You Speak Chocolate?’ Nadima’s face lights up and she offers Jaz a piece of homemade Turkish Delight in return. Their friendship is born from a gesture of friendship and a moment of sharing.  

But then friendships are all about sharing:  sharing our time; sharing our successes and celebrations, our troubles and woes; sharing food and sharing our stories, both past and present. It’s great to get together with friends for coffee and cake and a good old catch up. And I love it when my children invite their friends round for supper, or for a curry night, or all sit sprawl on sofas watching a movie together and sharing a huge pile of take-away pizzas.  Food seems to be a kind of glue in friendships. So I thought the act sharing food could be a good start to a friendship. And what better food to choose than chocolate!

Throughout the story I often return to the theme of Jaz and Nadima sharing food. They share each other’s packed lunches at school:  Jaz’s home made ‘Tuna Pasta Mayo’ and Nadima’s ‘Fattoush’. Going to eat at each other’s houses is a key part of their developing friendship – and central to sharing their stories with each other, and to sharing Nadima’s story with us, the reader. For instance, it’s when she goes to supper at Jaz’s house for the first time that we find out that Nadima, and her family, have fled war torn Syria.

When Jaz goes round to Nadima’s her mother has cooked ‘Mansaf’.

Jaz tells us: ‘It was some sort of spicy lamb stew on a bed of yellow rice with roasted almonds sprinkled on the top and slices of almonds around the edge. It looked fabulous and smelled even better.’

The theme of the two girls sharing food from each other’s cultures was a way of showing them embracing and enjoying each other’s cultures.

But in celebrating each other’s culture I was anxious not to portray ‘otherness’ as something that divides or separates us. In the first part of the story the other girls in the friendship group struggle to make friends with Nadima. It’s not just the language barrier – they’re anxious about their cultural differences.  Jaz points out cultural differences don’t make people different: ‘Maybe we should think about what makes her the same as us rather than what makes us different!’ she tells them.

I’ve always loved stories and novels with recipes in.  When my children were small we loved Margaret Mahy’s picture book The Witch in the Cherry Tree because it was about baking and included a recipe and template for witch-shaped biscuits in the back. I honestly can’t remember ever reading the book with my children without baking the cookies afterwards!

So we put some recipes in the back of Do You Speak Chocolate?. One for ‘Nad’s Mum’s Fabulous Fattoush’ and one for ‘Jaz’s Awesome Tuna Pasta Bake’ and finally, my personal favourite,  ‘Nad and Jaz’s Chocolate Turkish Delight’!

In the story, Chocolate Turkish Delight symbolizes an embracing harmony between Jaz and Nadima’s cultures. Back in Syria Nadima’s parents had made traditional sweets, including Turkish delight, and sold them in their sweet shop. When entrepreneurial Jaz gets Nadima to make some Turkish Delight to sell at school she gets them both into trouble. Much to Jaz’s fury she discovers that selling things is apparently against the school rules. However, despite this early disaster, later in the book, tasked with raising money for the whole school Charity Challenge Nadima suggests making chocolate covered Turkish Delight to sell. It’s an inspired idea, the sweets are a huge hit and their team goes on to win the Challenge.

Of course no friendship runs completely smoothly.  Jaz and Nadima have their share of arguments and fallings out, disagreements and upsets. I deliberately set the book in Year 7 since that seems to me to be a period when the shifting sands of friendship are put under a lot of strain. Existing friendships from primary school are often challenged, or set aside, to make way for new ones.

Inevitably Nadima’s arrival impacts on the existing relationships in Jaz’s friendship group but in the end all is well and all the friendships have grown and are stronger because of her arrival.

The final scene in the book is Jaz sharing Nadima’s family’s Eid celebrations – by going out to a restaurant and sharing a traditional Syrian meal with them.  Nadima gives Jaz a friendship bracelet she has made for her. It spells the word ‘N a d i m a’ in letter beads.

‘Is Kurdish friendship bracelet.’ Nadima tells Jaz. ‘It says “friend”.’

‘No it doesn’t! It says ‘Nadima’!’ replies Jaz.

‘Ah, but name “Nadima” means “friend’!’ explains Nadima.

Do You Speak Chocolate? has been shortlisted for the Redbridge Book Award and selected for the Summer Reading Challenge 2018 and has been translated into five languages. This is a guest post by Cas Lester and the views expressed do not necessarily represent those of the FCBG.

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