“The transformation of cultural and legal taboos against plants fascinates me,” says Ricardo Cortés at the end of his new picture book, A Secret History of Coffee, Coca & Cola (Akashic). If you have ever wondered about the coca in Coca-Cola, the caffeine in coffee, or the irrational pharmacological prejudices in our drug laws, this charmingly eccentric combination of detailed historical research and child-friendly drawings is worth your attention.
Unlike It’s Just a Plant, the 2005 picture book about marijuana that Cortés wrote and illustrated, but like Go the Fuck to Sleep, the 2011 “children’s book for adults” he illustrated, this one is not really aimed at kids. Even grownups may not make it all the way through Cortés’ painstaking facsimiles of correspondence between Bureau of Narcotics Commissioner Harry Anslinger and Coca-Cola lobbyist Ralph Hayes. But the main story is easily digested and full of interesting details about how psychoactive substances come to be accepted or rejected. —Jacob Sullum