There’s been a lot of talk about A Fine Dessert, written by Emily Jenkins and illustrated by Sophie Blackall. I won’t rehash everything–you can check out posts at American Indians in Children’s Literature and Reading While White to learn more.
A lot of people are upset about the book.
I am not.
Some background–in many ways, I see myself as the ideal purchaser of this book. I am African-American, with two picture-book age daughters. I grew up in South Carolina, about 120 miles from Charleston. I am descended from slaves from South Carolina (at least as far back as we can tell; history is not kind in that regard.) Most importantly, I love blackberries. (I even featured them in a YA novel, which is sadly out of print….)
So I was extremely excited when I first heard about this picture book. I was especially happy that the author and illustrator showcased a diverse set of people in the book. And then, very quickly, I learned of the book’s troubling content. What reviewers were saying made sense, but I wanted to read the book for myself before passing judgement.
I finally purchased A Fine Dessert. I read it. And read it again. And again. And studied each illustration.
And you know–it works. For me. What especially makes it work is the Author and Illustrator’s notes at the end. This book was made for discussion; more so, the creators seem to be urging for that discussion to take place. (I wonder–should the creator notes be considered part of the “book”? A discussion for another day.)
I see why many people view the book as insensitive. The illustrations of the slave girl certainly made me pause. But I also see the illustrations of the slave family as a gateway for meaningful conversations with my daughters–about slavery, artistic choice, and finding joy in the midst of great sorrow. That being said, I don’t know if the book works for young readers without an adult there to facilitate discussion–which perhaps is a fatal flaw.
I understand why many people are upset about the book. And I don’t want (or have the right) to invalidate another reader’s feelings about the book.
But for me, A Fine Dessert works.
Thank you for sharing your insight.
I appreciate your input on this too, Varian. For me, this book has provided an opportunity for me to talk with my daughter about slavery, and also about the changing role of women over time. And we made blackberry fool. I do agree that it's a book that is better read with a child than by a child alone. And after reading some of the discussion around the book, I expect that I'll broaden my discussion with my daughter the next time we do read it.
I appreciate the perspective shown here. Thanks for talking about seeing the book from more than one angle.
I appreciate hearing a differing opinion. I haven't read the book, but I plan to.
Varian, I'm glad you like this book, because I do too. The picture of the slave girl hiding while she ate part of the dessert seemed very real to me.
I'm a history major and have learned a lot about how people treated servants and slaves and restriction to food was a rule heavily enforced in some households – which led to sneaking bits of food by some servants and slaves. The pantry was often locked after meals, in order to insure that food could be kept secure and available for the next meal. The housekeeper kept the keys. The tea chest was locked and often the mistress had the only key.
How many times to you or your kids wander into your kitchen to have a snack? This is a time of abundant food. Throughout history, food was not that available and was doled out at mealtimes. Everything was eaten during its season of availability. Blackberry season is very short and won't come around again for another year, so of course whatever you make with your fruit in season is going to be eaten right away. And if there is a small bit leftover, why not take it yourself if you were the one who made it? Seems like a fully human response.
Thanks for this thoughtful post. My mom, who is a professor of education, talks about children's books as a conversation. A picture book can serve as the beginning of a conversation. A friend of mine talked about how one particular image in A Fine Dessert spurred a powerful conversation with her small children: That of the slave mother and child licking out the ball while hiding in a closet. To her kids, this crystallized the horror and unfairness of slavery in a way they could understand. And then my friend could explain the horrors of slavery in her own words and could direct the convo according to the way her kids were processing it; the book was the path into a dialogue.
As a comparison, from my own background, I think about the way we were taught about the Holocaust as small children in an Orthodox Jewish Day School. We were plunked in front of a film projector to watch black-and-white films of bulldozers and piles of corpses, crematoria, and hollow-eyed skeletal people in stripes greeting their liberators without any joy (or any expression at all). It was overwhelming and made us shut down. As an adult journalist covering Jewish subjects, I now know what we experienced was not pedagogical best practice. The US Holocaust Museum and others have written up lists of recommendations about how to introduce the subject to kids in ways that make sense pedagogically and developmentally, along with what strategies and books work for what age. Applying what I learned from them to this subject: I don't think A Fine Dessert stands on its own as an introduction to slavery, but I think almost all picture books that address difficult subjects require some heavy lifting on the part of an adult reader. Some children's books do their job well and some don't. I've UN-recommended (DIS-recommended! NEG-ommended! ANTI-recommended!) books (in both Tablet and the NYTBR) for the way they address race, ethnicity or religion — I think they're wrongheaded enough that even a conversation about them with an adult is not enough to overcome their flaws. Those books make clear that the author and/or illustrator hasn't thought deeply enough (or at all) about the challenges of depicting other races, religions, cultures. OK, sorry to ramble, and thanks again for your contribution to a difficult convo.
Thank you for sharing you reaction to "A Fine Dessert." Like you, I am African-American also, but my family comes from Alabama via, I think, Mississippi. As you mention, history can be unkind in this regard. I agree that this book is not a comprehensive examination of slavery. For instance there are no illustrations of cooks fitted with tin masks to prevent them from tasting the food being prepared.
However, I appreciate the illustration of the slave mother enjoying a treat with her daughter because I can remember reading editorial comments in newspapers in the 1950's in NYC (not the deep South). Typically, among those comments were statements that Negroes lacked the range and depth of emotions found in Caucasians. Negroes were supposedly incapable of loving their children or experiencing comparable grief over their loss such as a white person could feel. Sophie Blackall's image of an enslaved mother and daughter chips away at "the Negro is not fully human notion." The depiction of slavery is not nearly as horrific as it could have been but the fully human connection it does show is the reason I will add this book to my collection.