Glossary: Sugar

China’s Yangtze River (sometimes called Changjiang, “the long river”) is the 3rd longest in the world at 3,988 miles.  The Yangtze is home to many endangered species, like the Chinese Alligator and Yangtze sturgeon, as well as the extinct river dolphin.  It begins near the border of Tibet and ends in the East China Sea, spanning almost the entire width of the country.
The Yangtze is like America’s Mississippi River (the 4th longest in the world at 2,530 miles) in many ways.  Both of these long and winding rivers divide each country in half, marking important cultural differences from one side to the next.  Both end in large delta systems that are centers for trade.  Some of the most important cities in both China and America developed on the shores of these rivers.  People have tried to control these rivers with damns and huge levee systems in order to prevent flooding and harness the power of the river for human use.  Both rivers have been sites of international interest, with people from many countries around the world seeking to use and control the river for their own gain.

The Chinese Zodiac is an astrological system that relates each calendar year to an animal.  There are twelve animal signs altogether, one for each year of the zodiac. The animal signs repeat every 12 years, which is the length of the zodiac cycle.  The first sign of the cycle is the rat, who is fast and sneaky, and the last is the pig, who is slow but smart.  Each animal is associated with different traits, which a person born in that year is also thought to possess.  Someone born in the year of the dog would seem honest, loyal and friendly, while a person born in the year of the dragon would be strong, proud and fiery. Each sign is also enhanced by the qualities of an element, either earth, water, metal, wood, or fire.

The Chinese name for the Sichuan Opera, Bian Lian, literally means “Face-Changing” because of the elaborate use of masks. Performers wear brightly colored costumes and move to quick, dramatic music. They wear vividly colored masks, which they change within a fraction of a second.  Only the sons of performers are allowed to learn the secrets of the Sichuan Opera; no women, and no outsiders, are permitted to perform this masked dance.

In China, Buddhism is the most popular religion. It is based on the teachings of the Supreme Buddha, which means “the enlightened one.”  Like Christianity, Buddhism is based on an actual man, named Siddhārtha Gautama, who lived in India around 480 BCE.  Buddha taught his people that through meditation and moderate living one can achieve Nirvana, or perfect peace of mind.  Today the Buddha is depicted in paintings and statues all over the world. He is usually seated cross legged while he meditates, wearing robes over his round belly, a happy expression on his face.

In China, it was customary for men to wear their hair in Queues, or brained ponytails, until the early 20th century.  The hairstyle consisted of the hair on the front of the head being shaved off above the temples every ten days and the rest of the hair braided into a long ponytail, which would grow long enough to reach the man’s waist.  For hundreds of years every man in China was forced to wear this hairstyle; if a man refused to wear his hair in a queue, he would be executed for treason.  For this reason, it became very important to Chinese men to keep their queues, even after they immigrated to America, because it was a part of their identities.  Many Americans did not like or understand the queues, and sometimes even tried to force Chinese men to shave them off.

Br’er Rabbit is a central figure in the Uncle Remus stories of the Southern United States. He is a trickster character who succeeds by his wits rather than by brawn. The story of Br’er Rabbit, a contraction of “Brother Rabbit”, has been linked to trickster figures in both African and Cherokee cultures.  Many people believe that in the American stories Br’er Rabbit represents the enslaved African who uses his wits to overcome circumstances and to exact revenge on his adversaries, representing the white slave-owners. Though not always successful, his efforts made him a folk hero. Disney later adapted the character for their movie Song of the South, and today Disneyland’s ride “Splash Mountain” is based on his stories.

Read a Sample: Sugar

Everybody likes sugar.
Folks say, “There wouldn’t be any good food without sugar.” Like rhubarb cobbler. Blueberry pie. Yellow cake.
But I hate sugar. I won’t eat it. Not ever.
“No sweets, just savories,” I used to tell Ma. “Corn bread. Grits.” Even nasty okra and green beans are better than sugar.
There’s all kinds of sugar. Crystals that turn lemons into lemonade. Syrup that cools into taffy. Or pralines, brittle. There’s even sugarcane you can suck until your lips wrinkle and pucker.
In the mill, there’re mountains of sugar ready to be shipped from Louisiana to the whole wide world.
Ma would say , “Most folks think sugar is something in a tin cup or a china bowl. They don’t know sugar is hard.”
“Hard,” I’d echo as she poured well water into a bowl.
“Months of planting, hoeing, harvesting. Bones aching , sweat stinging your eyes. Dirt clings everywhere.”
“Beneath nails, toes. Even in my hair,” I’d complain before splashing my face with water.
Me and Ma always smelled of sugar, sweat, and dirt.

“What did I smell like when I was born?”
“Spring,” she’d whisper, wiping my face dry. “Not Planting-Day spring. Just spring. Blooming, lemony, and fresh.”

I wish I could remember that clean smell.
When I was two days old, Ma strapped me to her back and cut cane.

Nights, we ate cornmeal cakes. Then me and Ma would lie on our hay mattress on the packed-dirt floor.
“Sugar’s hard,” she’d sigh, kissing my cheek, twice, before sleep.
Before another day tending cane.

River Road is almost nothing but cane. There’re two rows of slave shacks. Mostly empty now. There’s the big plantation house where the Willses live. The mill where cane is boiled and dried into crystals. The stable and henhouse.
The rest is cane . Growing ten feet high, row after row, as far as the eye can see. When wind blows, cane hisses, comes alive, swaying like a dancing forest. Thin, pointy leaves lick the air, flapping like streamers. It’s pretty. ’Til you get close. Then sugar gets nastier than any gator.
Sugar bites a hundred times , breaking skin and making you bleed. Each leaf has baby teeth on all its edges. Even with work gloves, tiny red pricks itch everywhere. My cheeks get smacked. By harvest’s end, my face, hands, and arms are all cut up.

Outside River Road Plantation, nobody cares who cuts cane. Nobody cares my hand swings the machete, bundles, drags stalks onto the cart.
At River Road, my hands are the youngest. Everyone else’s hands, except Lizzie’s (she’s two years older than me), are old and wrinkled. Grown hands, stiff and scarred. Sometimes the old folks put their hands in warm water with peppermint to heal. Or rub them with fatback sprinkled with cayenne.

I’ve lived at River Road my entire life. Cane is all I know. Cutting, cracking, carrying pieces of cane. My back hurts. Feet hurt. Hands get syrupy. Bugs come. Sugar calls— all kinds of bugs, crawling, inching, flying. Nasty, icky bugs.
I hate, hate, hate sugar.

During harvest, Mister Wills sets lamps so folks can cut cane all night. “Cane won’t wait,” he says. He shouts, “Cane time, cuttin’ time.” Or he snarls, “Two bits extra for the most cane cut.” Then, everybody speeds up and there’re more tiny bites. Just like teeth chew rows of corn, sugar-teeth chew on you.
Mister Wills keeps complaining, “Not enough cane workers.”
I think, Why isn’t he helping, then?
Mister Wills just walks and watches everyone work. Behind him, Tom, the Overseer, cracks the whip, spraying dirt.

Since Emancipation, there’re not enough workers. Almost everyone young enough, without gnarled, crinkly brown hands, has gone north.
“Some folks are scared to leave,” said Ma. “They say, ‘The bad I know is better than the bad I don’t.’ They don’t believe they have strength left for adventure.”
“We’re ready for adventure. We’re strong.”
“That’s right,” said Ma, hugging me close.

We waited for Pa, who was sold right after I was born, to come back for us. We were going to run away. Head north. We waited and waited. When the war started, Ma whispered, “Pa’s fighting for the Union. I just know it. Helping to free us.” We waited for him, proud, hoping. The war ended. President Lincoln won. Still, we waited. Five years of freedom and Pa still didn’t come.
Then Ma got sick and died. Her strength drained like water.
I’m ten now. ’m not a slave anymore.
I’m free.
Except from sugar.

Trivia Questions: Sugar

1. Does Sugar like her name?


2. What animal does Billy ask Sugar about in the beginning?

The hyena

3. What are the names of the older workers that take care of Sugar?

Mr. and Mrs. Beale

4. Who gets to be captain when Sugar and Billy are sailing on their river boat?

Both Billy and Sugar are captain!

5. Which character does Sugar like to tell stories about the most?

Br’er Rabbit

6. Which friend of Sugar’s decides to go north early on?


7. Who first tells Sugar that Chinese workers are coming to River Road?


8. What continent do hyenas come from?


9. Once Sugar goes off to hunt for eagles, how many trees does she climb to find them?

15 tree

10. What year in the book do the Chinese workers come to the plantation?


11. How do you say “hello” in Chinese?

“Ni hao” (pronounced “Knee-how”)

12. Why are the other workers afraid of the Chinese workers?

They are afraid the Chinese workers will take their jobs.

13. What is the first Chinese word Beau draws in the dirt for Sugar?

His name “Bo”

14. Which animal year of the Chinese zodiac was Sugar born under?

Year of the Monkey

15. What name does Sugar give to the cat?

Emperor Jade

16. What kind of food does Beau teach Sugar how to make?

Rice balls

17. What’s the last word Sugar’s mom says to her before she dies?


18. When Billy has a fever, what does Sugar practice for him?

Her whistle

19. How does Rabbit get out of the well?

He tricks Hyena into jumping on one of the buckets on the pulley, bringing Hyena down into the well and Rabbit up out of the well.

20. Does Billy continue to cut cane during harvest?


21. What color is Beau’s kite?


22. What animals do Sugar and Billy show Beau?


23. What color is the dragon in Beau’s story?


24. What is Beau’s zodiac animal?


25. Why does Sugar go into the mill when it’s on fire?

To rescue Jade

26. Who started the mill fire?

Tom, the overseer

27. When Sugar’s healing, who tells her a different story every day?

Mr. Beale

28. What does Mr. Wills announce once Sugar’s done healing?

He says he has sold the mill.

29. How do Beau and Sugar say good-bye for the last time?

They bow to each other

30. Where are the Beales and Sugar headed at the end of the book?

North to St. Louis

FAQ: Sugar

Tell us about Sugar in three sentences or less.

Sugar is about a spirited, curious girl who wants to play with friends, listen to stories, and have fun. Instead, Sugar [my heroine], an orphan and ex-slave, has to work hard, all day, on a sugar cane plantation [tending cane]. When Chinese workers come to the plantation, Sugar—enchanted by cultural differences and similarities, reaches out to the new community and discovers friendship and dares to dream a new future for herself where she can be free to explore the world and fulfill her dreams.

In both Sugar and your first book for children, Ninth Ward, you write strong, [resilient] female characters. Why do you think this is important?

Sometimes life brings unavoidable hardships like a hurricane in Ninth Ward and lingering aftereffects of slavery in Sugar. But what always matters [to me] is how a person responds—how they use love, hope, and faith to remain resilient and strong. For me, Lanesha and Sugar as characters mirror the beauty and heroism of all girls and the society (neighbors, teachers, parents, foster parents, and friends) that support them.

How did you come to the idea of writing about the post-abolitionist South?

A friend emailed me a review of Lucy Cohen’s book, Chinese in the Post Civil War South: A People Without a History. Ed knew I’d been traveling frequently to Sichuan University in Chengdu, China to teach creative writing. He also knew I’d be captivated by an American history I’d never known. I kept dreaming of Chinese and African Americans in post abolitionist South, working side by side. Then, one day, I visualized a little girl, hands on her hips, complaining, “How come I have to work? How come I can’t play?” Sugar was born.

Why is writing historical fiction for children so important?

While teaching historical facts is important, fictional techniques allow readers to empathize with characters and feel, sense the events via concrete details. Readers “know” history in a fuller, more alive sense. I do believe all of us need to understand our historical past, our nation’s historical past to better understand ourselves, our common humanity and our country.

If readers can take away one thing from this book what would you want that to be?

Young people should believe that they, like Sugar, can make their dreams come true. Being resourceful, unafraid of new cultures and experiences, opens horizons and enriches our common humanity. So to every reader, I say, ”Be bold, be brave, expand your horizons!”

Teaching Resources: Sugar

Listed below are some fun and educational links having to do with Sugar. Explore the Laura Plantation as it is today. Visit the sites about Br’er Rabbit’s stories. Learn more about Chinese immigrants like Beau and Master Liu.

Laura Plantation is the inspiration for River Road Plantation.

This link gives info about the Br’er Rabbit tales as America folklore.

This link is an excellent resource re: Chinese exclusion—the time period when my Sugar’s Chinese friends had no pathway to US citizenship

A graphic novel: Escape to Gold Mountain: A Graphic History of the Chinese in North America

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