The “Chocolate Mountain” & the adventure of searching for a childhood book

STEEPED BY SAMIA #7 | 10.23.22
On nostalgia & things from your childhood that you can’t remember clearly, that feel like an itch you can’t scratch.

My elementary school memories are filled with warmth and wonder. Making stone soup and having an autumnal feast with my class in fourth grade. The school library transforming into the Scholastic Book Fair for a couple of days. Learning about arugula and sage at the school garden. 

There is a particular memory that surfaces in my mind: I was sitting sprawled on a bright blue rug in my first grade teacher’s classroom one day after school, reading a book. It was about two kids journeying to a chocolate mountain, and seeing whimsical, Candy Land-like things along the way.

Something about the “Chocolate Mountain” book stuck with me, over the years.

Except I didn’t know what it was called or who wrote it. Whenever I tried to do a casual search online, I couldn’t find it. I even tweeted about it a couple of years ago:

Earlier this year, while retracing my steps with writing, I set out to search for the book. I did my usual keyword search and checked the Library of Congress database with no luck. So, I typed into Google, “What to do when you can’t remember a children’s book you read.” What popped up was the Old Children’s Books Forum: hundreds people like me, with vague recollections of a book, call upon well-read minds of the internet to point them in the right direction.

I cobbled together a description and posted it on the forum:

“Hello! I’m looking for a picture/chapter book I read in elementary school in the early 2000s. From what I remember, it’s about a pair of siblings who’s uncle is an explorer and tells them about a chocolate (or candy) mountain. The uncle disappears, so the siblings follow a map or clues to find him at the chocolate mountain. An element I remember is “I spy” questions throughout the book, where it will ask the reader questions like, “Can you spot the uncle’s monocle?” And the object would be hidden somewhere in the room or setting. I do not know the title or author, but the phrase “journey (or adventure) to the chocolate mountain” sticks out to me. Thanks so much in advance!”

Within a couple of days, someone responded:

“I can’t find a description of it, but there aren’t all that many books with ‘chocolate mountain’ in the title and in the correct time frame, so maybe take a look at The 20 Ton Chocolate Mountain by Helen Muir? They guy on the bike holding up the picture of the mountain could be an explorer uncle.”

I hurriedly typed The Twenty-Ton Chocolate Mountain into Google. But as the commenter suggested, I couldn’t find a description, and there are very few copies circulating (a copy on Amazon is selling for $88??). I had a feeling this wasn’t it, though — the art style didn’t quite match my memory.

I wondered: Does this book even exist or was it all a dream?

A thing from your childhood that you can’t remember clearly — a book, game, song, TV show, etc. — feels like an itch you can’t scratch.

As you’re reading this, are you thinking of one right now?

It’s something that flickers in your mind and keeps you up at night. Or has you pushing aside your work for an hour to do some Googling (with no concrete answers tossed back from the void, lol). Sometimes, it’s something you experienced but you can’t attach a name or physical evidence to it. Other times, it’s a memory that feels so vague, that it could very well have been a dream.

While cleaning up after dinner one night, I told my brother, Sufyan, about the book. We talked about that unsettling curiosity of vague childhood things. Sufyan, our resident video game enthusiast, had this experience with a flash-player game. In this game, you are a kid playing a card game in a small town with other kids. The adults in the town occasionally remind you not to go near the fence — intriguing 👀! The game was so compelling and unusual that he wanted to relive it. When he couldn’t find it, he consulted a Subreddit (r/tipofmytongue), and found his answer: it’s called “Don’t Go Near the Fence.”

One day in September, I tried to look for it again.

I had found a story on my laptop that I thought I deleted on accident, so I was feeling a little lucky. On Google Images, I clicked on a book called “Isaiah and the Chocolate Mountain.” In the images that pulled up underneath, something caught my eye: Chocolate Island by Karen Dolby (1995), part of the Usborne Young Puzzle Adventures series. The Google Books description read: “When two friends find themselves macarooned on a dessert island, they find that almost everything is made of chocolate.” I looked for an online copy and found a PDF under a random forum.

This was it — I found the book!

It was exactly and not exactly as I remember it: In Chocolate Island (not Mountain), two kids, named Tom and Grace, tell their Uncle Ollie about the local chocolate cake competition. Uncle Ollie* says that he might be able to win if he uses Granny Truffle’s “stunningly chocolatey cake” recipe — but the recipe calls for chocolate from the Chocolate Island Well. Tom and Grace set out to the island get some chocolate for Uncle Ollie’s cake. They have an exciting adventure, seeing my sweet sights: Hansel & Gretel’s gingerbread house, the Chocolate Chip Mine, Chocolate Falls, and eventually, to the Chocolate Well deep within the Mallow Maze. Along the way, the book prompts you to look for things hidden in the setting, like Uncle Ollie’s spectacles (not monocle) in the living room. Tom and Grace return with the chocolate and help Uncle Ollie win the baking competition. The End — 10/10, so riveting.

*Contrary to my memory, Uncle Ollie did not disappear on Chocolate Island and the kids do not journey there to find him — nothing remotely sinister afoot, lol.

Finding the book after many years felt…melodramatic. Like, Really?? It was right there this whole time?? Reading the book again was such a joyous experience, though. I can see how my love for whimsical, tiny-fairy-door-in-tree-trunk kind of things is fueled by early reads like this one. It is rewarding that I have this in my personal archive now, and I can look at it when I need creative inspiration.

Nostalgia is such bizarre & fascinating thing, isn’t it?

Scrolling through forums like the Old Children’s Book and r/tipofmytongue, it feels strangely comforting that so many people have that “itch they can’t scratch” feeling with various memories they want illuminated by others. A snack commercial they watched as a child but can’t find online. A pop song that they only remember one or two lyrics of, plus the melody. Nostalgia can be as universal, as it is personal.

In a podcast episode about the psychological purpose of nostalgia, Dr. Kristin Batcho beautifully explains:

“[Nostalgia] helps to unite our sense of who we are, our self, our identity over time. Because over time we change constantly we change in incredible ways. We’re not anywhere near the same as we were when we were three years old, for example. Nostalgia by motivating us to remember the past in our own life helps to unite us to that authentic self and remind us of who we have been and then compare that to who we feel we are today.”

Speaking of Psychology: Does nostalgia have a psychological purpose? by American Psychological Association

When you try to relive this thing you’ve been searching for, it can feel so fun and giddy. At the same time, you know that the context of that experience is no longer there. You can’t go back to that. The uncomplicated days. As an adult, you see other layers and facets at play, in addition to your current perception projecting onto your past. Things going on in your home life or society that you may not have known about. Things that shattered your world when you realized what was happening to you or your loved ones.

A simple yet profound realization arose from this adventure of searching for the “Chocolate Mountain” book: You really can’t go back, but you can certainly feel something. —S.A.

Book & illustration credits: “Chocolate Island” written by Karen Dolby, illustrated by Caroline Church, Usborne Young Puzzle Adventures series, published by Usborne Publishing Ltd. (1995 & 2007)


Steep On This:  


Catch Up:  

9.30.22 | Read this when you feel like you’re not “doing enough”

STEEPED BY SAMIA #6: Sometimes, things feel up in the air and a little off in every part of your life.


About This Blog:

Steeped by Samia is a space where I can simmer on thoughts & curiosities in the scope of digital culture, creativity, life, & more. Far too often, my writing ideas fizzle out in energy; I never get to see them to their full potential. While building my rhythm with writing, I want to share these ideas with you. 

Stay Up-To-Date on my blog by clicking the ‘follow’ button at the bottom of the page, and you will receive an email every time I post. I aim to post a new installment at least once or twice a month. Thank you for supporting my storytelling!🧡

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