NPR logo The Kids' Book 'A Fine Dessert' Has Award Buzz — And Charges Of Whitewashing Slavery

The Kids' Book 'A Fine Dessert' Has Award Buzz — And Charges Of Whitewashing Slavery

Illustration from A Fine Dessert Courtesy of Penguin Random House hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy of Penguin Random House

Illustration from A Fine Dessert

Courtesy of Penguin Random House

The world of children's lit has always traded in grisly topics — children's literature scholar Jerry Griswold deems "scariness" one of the five elemental themes of the genre. There's unalloyed cannibalism in "Hansel and Gretel"; "The Boy Who Cried Wolf" is the story of an exaggerator in short pants getting what he deserves, and Roald Dahl's The Witches is so full of trauma that the protagonist's short life span constitutes a happy ending. Real-life traumas from the Holocaust to the Great Depression routinely come in for picture book treatment, too.

Depending on the topic, these books can scare parents more than kids. How should authors, guardians and educators deal with stomach-churning stories? What gruesomeness is justified in pursuit of a moral? Is it better to tone down the horrors of history, or sidestep them altogether?

These questions have been raised over A Fine Dessert, a children's book published in January by author Emily Jenkins and illustrator Sophie Blackall that was recently flagged by The Horn Book, considered a must-read for children's educators, as a contender for the prestigious Caldecott Award. This week, the New York Times named A Fine Dessert one of the best illustrated children's books of 2015.

The book tells the story of blackberry fool, a dish that made its way from the 18th century English countryside to the back patios of present-day San Diego. Along the way, it makes a stop through slave-era South Carolina, where a mother and daughter prepare a field-to-table dessert for their masters.

A Fine Dessert, Dinner Scene, illustrated by Sophie Blackall Courtesy of Kathleen Dunn, Penguin Random House hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy of Kathleen Dunn, Penguin Random House

A Fine Dessert, Dinner Scene, illustrated by Sophie Blackall

Courtesy of Kathleen Dunn, Penguin Random House

Readers at major book-review sites like School Library Journal, Good Reads and The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books all praised the book for its intricate drawings and clever depictions of changing technology. In March, the New York Times called it a dreamy ode to "hearth-centricity" in the mold of Goodnight Moon.

The Times review paused from praising A Fine Dessert for "paying strict attention to historical accuracy" to note its "bold and somewhat unsettling choice [to] portray a smiling slave woman and her daughter in 1810 Charleston."

Some critics outside the traditional kid-lit world say that subject deserves more scrutiny. In a long discussion on Twitter, one called the illustrations "candy coated images of slavery." Commenters on the "Calling Caldecott" blog described them as "watered down," "troubled" and "horrifying." Another commenter on illustrator Sophie Blackall's blog questioned why she hadn't solicited feedback from African-American beta readers as to how they felt about the book's depiction of slavery.

We reached out to Jenkins, the author, and Blackall, the illustrator, for comment on some of these criticisms. Here's part of Blackall's response (more below):

"I did show my work to some friends, but I didn't ask them to vet it. It didn't seem reasonable to ask them to be representatives for the black community. I imagine the responses from beta readers would be nuanced and varied, and I wonder if there would be any consensus, just as there has not been in the conversation surrounding this book. It's an artistic process, not a scientific one.

"Ultimately, the way we look at pictures is incredibly complicated. I cannot ensure my images will be read the way I intended, I can only approach each illustration with as much research, thoughtfulness, empathy and imagination as I can muster".

As the book's publisher noted in a comment to Code Switch, Jenkins (who did not respond to our request within deadline — we'll update this post if we hear back) elaborates on her thought process in an author's note at the end of the book:

"This story includes characters who are slaves, even though there is by no means space to explore the topic of slavery fully. I wanted to represent American life in 1810 without ignoring that part of our history.

"I wrote about people finding joy in craftsmanship and dessert even within the lives of great hardship and injustice — because finding that joy shows something powerful about the human spirit."

On her personal blog, Elisa Gall, an elementary librarian and co-chairwoman of the Library Department of the Latin School of Chicago, shared some particularly thoughtful commentary on why the illustrations have bothered many:

"I appreciate the creators' efforts to not ignore that part of history, but I wonder: Showing smiling slaves might not be ignoring this part of history technically — but isn't it ignoring a huge, essential part of it? Is illustrating a watered-down snapshot any better than leaving it out all together?"

Gall offers a suggestion as to how the issue might have been addressed differently:

"In exploring the concept of slavery with young children, I've found that stories in which characters show courage and resistance are the most empowering, as they help learners process the ideas in ways that inspire them (ever-aware of contemporary injustices) to work to make the world more equitable. The scene in which the young girl and her mother hide in a closet to lick the bowl when they're not supposed to is one of these moments.

"My concern about this book isn't that the characters, despite hardship, share moments of joy together. I'm questioning if working to make a dessert and then having to hide to taste it is an honest enough representation of the experience of slavery in South Carolina in 1810."

Illustration from A Fine Dessert. Courtesy of Penguin Random House hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy of Penguin Random House

Blackall thinks some of the critiques about the depiction of the enslaved mother and child are misplaced. Here's more from her response:

"I feel some of the reaction has grown from the circulation of this understandably disturbing phrase 'smiling slaves,' and that this section of the book is being taken out of context of the book as a whole.

"Reading pictures is a subjective experience. In the illustrations the enslaved mother does not smile at all; she is somber and downcast when serving the white family, and tender and solicitous when alone with her daughter. The child smiles twice. I thought long and hard about those smiles. In the first scene, the mother and girl are picking blackberries. I imagined this as a rare moment where they were engaged in a task together, out of doors, away from the house and supervision, where the mother is talking to her child. It is an intimate moment, but the mother is not smiling. The girl has a gentle smile.

"I believe oppressed people throughout history have found solace and even joy in small moments, and this was my intent. The second smile comes as the girl completes her task of whipping the cream. It's hard work, which we see in the middle frame, and the smile was intended to convey pride in completing the task. She looks up to someone, presumably her mother, as if to say, 'I did it!' To my mind, in the greater context of this section of the book, those two smiles are not gratuitous. The words 'smiling slaves' suggest multiple, happy-seeming enslaved people. That is certainly not what I intended."

Illustration from A Fine Dessert Courtesy of Penguin Random House hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy of Penguin Random House

Illustration from A Fine Dessert

Courtesy of Penguin Random House

Though most mainstream reviews of A Fine Dessert don't take up the concerns raised by Gall and others, Gall says this controversy isn't happening in a vacuum. Conversations about "diversity, equity and justice" in children's lit are increasingly taking place in schools, conferences, neighborhoods, communities, blogs and social media, she says. For instance, the Cooperative Children's Book Center at the University of Madison collects statistics on diversity in kids' books every year. Latin@s in Kid Lit, Rich in Color and American Indians in Children's Literature all blog about their respective communities, and how they appear — or don't — in children's literature.

At Reading While White, a blog that launched this fall, librarians recently discussed Red Butterfly, a children's book published this year about a Chinese girl named Kara who is adopted by a white woman. The author is a white woman who adopted a child from China. "How do I know if her portrayal of Kara and her situation is accurate and authentic culturally, not to mention emotionally? (I mean that as genuine question, not one weighted with judgment: I really am not sure but I am struggling.)" writes one.

As these bigger conversations about representation in children's stories roll on, Blackall, the illustrator, says she welcomes the discussion that A Fine Dessert has sparked. "Children are capable of interpreting complex, layered stories and detailed, nuanced image," she says, "and those stories and images can inspire deep and reflective conversations." As for whether she would change anything about the book, based on the pushback? "I hope to learn from every book I make," she says. "It's very difficult to let a book go off to the printer. I always want to change something, always think there's room for improvement. I have never made a perfect book."

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