It is such a pleasure to welcome my friend, Michael Leventhal. He is best known as the publisher of Green Bean Books, but Michael is also an author. His upcoming book, THE CHOCOLATE KING (Green Bean Books, 2021) beautifully illustrated by Laura Catalán, celebrates the Jewish history of chocolate through the eyes of a young boy named Benjamin. I was fortunate to see early versions of THE CHOCOLATE KING and it is truly a delight!
It is a treat to chat with Michael about the research and writing process of THE CHOCOLATE KING and other projects he is cooking up!
THE CHOCOLATE KING is such a delightful story! Tell me how you discovered the history of chocolate? Are Marco and Benjamin based on real people?
Firstly, thank you, I’m so pleased that you like the tale. I’ve published more than 1,000 books over the last 20 years but it is utterly terrifying launching my first children’s book.
I discovered the history of chocolate when I was leafing through the pages of Britain’s Jewish Chronicle newspaper. There was an interview with Rabbi Debbie Prinz about her book, On the Chocolate Trail, which traces the connection between the Jewish community and the global chocolate trade. That piqued my interest and, a year later, I went with my family to Bayonne – the ‘chocolate capital of France’. Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition crossed the border and started making chocolate and selling there. They introduced France – and then other countries – to the joy of chocolate.
I did visit the Jewish cemetery near Bayonne, which was a moving experience, and I tried to find details of any real-life Jewish chocolatiers, but had no luck. I don’t think records or any families from the early seventeenth century exist. So the family in the book is fictional but I’ve tried to not be too outlandish and get the details right. The names of Benjamin, Marco, and Carlota are taken from Spanish-Jewish friends, and I sent the illustrator photos of those friends too, but their characters are very different in the book!
As a writer, how did you balance creating a storyline with historical facts? Are there any fun facts that didn’t make it into the final version of the book?
I found this one of the hardest challenges of all: the responsibility and desire to be accurate, but at the same time the wish to entertain and engage readers – both children and the adults that will hopefully be reading the book to them.
I did want to pack more information into the story, but decided the best thing to do this was include a timeline at the back of the book. As with all histories it is necessarily selective, but at least it gives proper credit to the Maya and Aztec for their all-important role in the history of chocolate.
I’m working on a more comprehensive chocolate history timeline that’ll be on the Green Bean website, so teachers, parents or readers can download it and print it out. Reading about the history of chocolate is a good way to learn about the history of the Jewish people: it shows their emigration around the world and, time after time, how they were forced to find new trades in new homes.
Sometimes being accurate might even be a bad thing! In one of the double page spreads the illustrator was a small mound of sugar, which looked like a mouldy candle. I think that’s an accurate depiction of how sugar would have looked and been served in the 1600s – but we thought that readers would mistake it for an oddly-placed candle so it was removed!
Tell me a bit about Laura Catalán’s beautiful illustrations. What were your thoughts when you first saw her work for the book?
I had never seen Laura’s work until my art director, Tina Garcia, showed me her portfolio.
I was immediately impressed because I felt she had the ability to depict historical things accurately, but with a sense of humour. I thought she had the perfect balance and, in the final artwork, I think that really shows. Laura has worked incredibly hard checking references so that the details are correct, but at the same time she has introduced such lovely touches.
Laura deserves to win prizes for this work.
What unique challenges did you face as an author and publisher?
I wanted my editors to give me honest feedback on the text so, at first, I removed my name from the top and used a pseudonym. Fortunately most of the feedback was very encouraging. I don’t publish many children’s books – less than 10 new ones every year – because I like to spend a lot of time crafting each ones very carefully, but I’ll admit that I devoted more time than usual to this project.
Because I also publish history books it was extremely important for me to get the historical details correct – even incidental art points like the sword hilts and ship hulls – so I spent a lot of time looking at seventeenth century paintings and contacting appropriate historians. I also didn’t want to appropriate the Maya and Aztec history, and consulted several experts around the world to be sure that everyone was represented fairly.
You have another chocolatey book coming out. Can you share a bit about BABKA, BOULOU AND BLINTZES and the special mitzvah project you have established?
I’ve been interested in Jewish food for many years and, a long time ago, I started a Jewish food charity name Gefiltefest. As a result of that work I was in touch with a lot of well-known Jewish writers and cooks around the world, including Joan Nathan, Claudia Roden and many more. When I had nearly finished writing The Chocolate King I started collecting Jewish chocolate recipes and reached a remarkable total of 50 recipes from 50 writers. The end result is my first cookbook! From the outset, the idea was to raise money for Chai Cancer Care – a British Jewish cancer charity – and all profits, all royalties will go straight to them. I’ve set a somewhat ambitious target of raising £10,000. So please buy a copy of one too! I promise it is packed with delicious recipes.
Thank you, Michael! Wishing you much success with these wonderful new books.
Michael Leventhal is the publisher of Greenhill Books and Green Bean Books. The Chocolate King is his first book for children and won a PJ Library Author Incentive Award. Previously he founded Gefiltefest, a Jewish food charity which organised Europe’s biggest Jewish food festival. He is co-author of Jews in Britain and edited The Hand of History (illustrated by Chris Riddell). He eats a lot of chocolate. You can see more of his work at www.michaelleventhal.co.uk