Reviewed by Marie Robinson for TeensReadToo.com
What a gem of a book! MY CHOCOLATE YEAR by Charlotte Herman starts out as a sweet story about 10-year-old Dorrie, who is a fifth-grader in Chicago just after the end of World War II. Dorrie is excited about the annual "Sweet Semester" contest run by her teacher. Every student is to plan a special dessert, which they will bring in to class at the end of the semester for a contest. The students sample each other's desserts and vote on the best one. They also write an essay explaining their choice of dessert, and their teacher judges the best essay.
Dorrie has been looking forward to her chance at winning Sweet Semester since her older brother, Artie, participated when he was in fifth grade. She is determined to win, and the book is interspersed with her attempts at various concoctions. It even includes actual recipes for some of the desserts, including Peppermint Chocolate Sticks and a scrumptious-sounding Chocolate Nut Torte.
While Dorrie is focused on the contest and on finding that perfect recipe, her family is adjusting to post-war life. They are Russian Jews who managed to escape the Holocaust, but not all of their relatives were so lucky. It sounds like a surprisingly sad topic to combine with the lightweight feel of the dessert contest, but author Herman executes this integration flawlessly.
In fact, her inclusion of the cultural elements of post-World War II Chicago make reading this book educational without ever feeling like it. For instance, I had no idea that there used to be "silver" pennies, or that chocolate chip cookies were invented by a woman named Ruth Wakefield, or that sugar was rationed.
It also makes perfect sense to show this time and place in American life through the eyes of a fifth-grader, and of course she is more focused on her big contest at school than with the letters her parents receive from relatives overseas. Dorrie does have a big heart, though, and it is that heart and conscience that guides her to what she eventually chooses as her entry for Sweet Semester.