May 21



I always took chocolate for granted. As a child growing up in the Ivory Coast, we always had a chocolate bar or two nestled in the cold of the refrigerator door away from the tropical heat. We made cupcakes and chocolate mousse just for fun: “gateaux au chocolat” on special occasions and “pains au chocolat” (chocolate croissants) during recess at school. As a teenager in upstate New York, I loved making brownies and chocolate chip cookies. It wasn’t until my reflexive phase in art school that I realized that my love of chocolate was more than just a phase.

During classroom break times in between illustration critiques and painting demos, I craved the warm chocolate croissants and brownies at our campus café. The epiphany came as I bit into a brownie during class, after presenting my latest creation: a “star book” project inspired by my father’s childhood memories. What if the chocolate in my mouth came from my own grandfather’s farm????

In the five illustrations that I painted depicting scenes from my father’s childhood in the Ivory Coast for that “star book,” the one that I couldn’t get out of my head was of him, his brother and mother walking through a cacao tree plantation.

His father, who passed away when he was young, owned a cacao and coffee plantation in their ancestral village, which my dad eventually took over. Wait, wait, wait. I could be tasting MY OWN family’s heritage right now! *Mind blown*


As I asked my father questions about his childhood, my grandparents and their cacao plantation, I became more and more obsessed with learning about the cacao growing and harvesting process, and how chocolate is actually created. I made cacao and chocolate the subjects of just about every class I took from then on: a hand-made chocolate family tree, a cacao tree with hanging cacao pods made of paper and fabric with chocolate bonbons inside, ceramic pod-shaped beads sewn onto my graduation gown and hideously painted ceramic cacao pods that fused to the inside of the kiln. I couldn’t stop! My college career culminated in my senior project: a picture book about chocolate. Since then, I’ve been pondering the possibilities of this book for about 13 years, moving it from the back of my mind to the focus of my attention. After endless research, rewrites and re-sketches, paint, collage and silk-screen, that chocolate obsession takes its form as this picture book; Grandpa Cacao: a Tale of Chocolate, from Farm to Family is my love letter to family traditions and to those who came before us.


In my experience as a picture book illustrator, mostly of non-fiction biographies, character design takes center stage. In the past, I’d had reference pictures of my book subjects, but in the case my own Grandpa Cacao, there are no photographs that I know of. He died in the late 1940’s in a village in the Ivory Coast, where most likely no one had a camera. Part of my drive to make this book was the fact that I have never seen his face, just heard descriptions of him from my father: he was tall and strong, with medium brown skin and a fine nose, he broke out into a sweat when eating spicy stews, and was a respected elder of the village who was called upon to help solve conflicts. I’ve searched for his face in the faces of my father, my aunt, my brother, my cousins, and myself, piecing together his unknown features from those that I’ve known. I used myself as a model to illustrate Grandpa Cacao’s story.


Reference photo, sketch, early and final painting… I gave Grandpa Cacao the traditional fabric wrap of a village chief.


Another issue was how to depict Grandpa Cacao in the book when the illustrations show him in the past, as the father and little girl are talking about him and the work he did on his farm. From hearing all of my father’s stories, my grandfather lives as a mythical figure in my mind – bigger than life and almost impossible to picture. That’s why I decided to illustrate those scenes of Grandpa Cacao in the past as flat, white silk-screened images over top of my traditionally painted tropical backgrounds.


That is how I brought Grandpa Cacao to life!


Today, I treasure my chocolate and have begun hoarding it. Thirty-two chocolate bars in various stages of consumed-ness occupy a vegetable crisper drawer in my refrigerator, a vintage chocolate tin on the kitchen counter, and a drawer in my studio…for emergencies. Not to mention the cacao tea packets, cacao shell tins, packages of cocoa powder and organic chocolate chips stashed away. I’m endlessly grateful to the hard-working cacao farmers who make our chocolate addiction possible. I hope to honor them in shining a light on their work.


Elizabeth Zunon was born in Albany, New York, and grew up in the Ivory Coast, West Africa. As a little girl, she loved to draw, paint, make up dances, and play dress-up in a household that was never devoid of chocolate. As she grew up, she didn’t really change! Elizabeth now lives in Albany, where she explores a multicultural world through painting, silk-screening, collage, and pondering the endless possibilities of chocolate. Grandpa Cacao is her first authored-illustrated book, and a love letter to the grandfather she never knew. Visit her at or at @ElizabethZunon.