Eds. Note, Nov 1, 2015:
Emily Jenkins, the author of A FINE DESSERT issued an apology this morning, posting it at the Calling Caldecott page and at Reading While White. Here are her words, from Reading While White:
This is Emily Jenkins. I like the Reading While White blog and have been reading it since inception. As the author of A Fine Dessert, I have read this discussion and the others with care and attention. I have come to understand that my book, while intended to be inclusive and truthful and hopeful, is racially insensitive. I own that and am very sorry. For lack of a better way to make reparations, I donated the fee I earned for writing the book to We Need Diverse Books.
Eds. Note, Nov. 4, 2015:
Daniél Jose Older was on a panel this weekend at the 26th Annual Fall Conference of the New York City School Library System. The conference theme was Libraries for ALL Learners, and the panel he was on "The Lens of Diversity: It is Not All in What You See." The panel included Sophie Blackall. Last night, Daniel tweeted about it and later storified the tweets. He also uploaded a video of his remarks:
What I see as a black woman is a skilled house slave training a slave girl how to be a proper house servant for the master's family. This skill actually would make her more valuable on the market, so it is important that she learns well. The master would usually have them doing small things like picking up garbage at 3 and fully laboring by 7 years old, so you have the age right. It's likely she would have never known her mother and was being trained to be a proper house slave by a woman she didn't know.The woman would likely be strict, maybe even beating the girl herself if a mistake was made on this dessert, for she too would suffer if it were not right. The girl would know she was property by then and the "beat" you mentioned would be the pace of her heart, for fear of the punishment, if she made a mistake.
Thursday, October 29, 2015
Not recommended: A FINE DESSERT by Emily Jenkins and Sophie Blackall
Some months ago, a reader asked me if I'd seen A Fine Dessert: Four Centuries, Four Families, One Delicious Treat written by Emily Jenkins, and illustrated by Sophie Blackall. The person who wrote to me knows of my interest in diversity and the ways that Native peoples are depicted---and omitted--in children's books. Here's the synopsis:
In this fascinating picture book, four families, in four different cities, over four centuries, make the same delicious dessert: blackberry fool. This richly detailed book ingeniously shows how food, technology, and even families have changed throughout American history.
In 1710, a girl and her mother in Lyme, England, prepare a blackberry fool, picking wild blackberries and beating cream from their cow with a bundle of twigs. The same dessert is prepared by a slave girl and her mother in 1810 in Charleston, South Carolina; by a mother and daughter in 1910 in Boston; and finally by a boy and his father in present-day San Diego.
Kids and parents alike will delight in discovering the differences in daily life over the course of four centuries.
Includes a recipe for blackberry fool and notes from the author and illustrator about their research.
Published this year, A Fine Dessert arrives in the midst of national discussions of diversity. It is an excellent example of the status quo in children's literature, in which white privilege drives the creation, production, and review of children's and young adult literature.
A Fine Dessert is written and illustrated by white people.
A Fine Dessert is published by a major publisher.
A Fine Dessert, however, isn't an "all white book."
As the synopsis indicates, the author and illustrator included people who are not white. How they did that is deeply problematic. In recent days, Jenkins and Blackall have not been able to ignore the words of those who find their book outrageous. Blackall's response on Oct 23rd is excerpted below; Jenkins responded on October 28th.
The Horn Book's "Calling Caldecott" blog launched a discussion of A Fine Dessert on September 23, 2015. Robin Smith opened the discussion with an overview of the book that includes this paragraph:
Blackall and Jenkins could have avoided the challenge of setting the 1810 scene on the plantation. They did not. They could have simply chosen a family without slaves or servants, but they did not. They clearly approached the situation thoughtfully. The enslaved daughter and mother’s humanity is secure as they work together and enjoy each other, despite their lack of freedom. In the 1810 table scene — the only time in the book when the cooks don’t eat the dessert at the dinner table — each of the African American characters depicted has a serious look on his or her face (i.e., there is no indication that anyone is enjoying their work or, by extension, their enslavement) while the children in the family attend to their parents and siblings or are distracted by a book or a kitty under the table. In its own way, the little nod to books and pets is also a nod to the privilege of the white children. They don’t have to serve. They don’t have to fan the family. They get to eat. Hidden in the closet, the African American mother and daughter have a rare relaxed moment away from the eyes of their enslavers.
Smith also wrote:
Since I have already read some online talk about the plantation section, I assume the committee will have, too. I know that we all bring our own perspectives to reading illustrations, and I trust that the committee will have a serious, open discussion about the whole book and see that the choice to include it was a deliberate one. Perhaps the committee will wish Blackall had set her second vignette in a different place, perhaps not. Will it work for the committee? I have no idea. But I do know that a large committee means there will be all sorts of readers and evaluators, with good discussions.
The "online talk" at that time was a blog post by Elisa Gall, a librarian who titled her blog post A Fine Dessert: Sweet Intentions, Sour Aftertaste. On August 4th, she wrote that:
It’s clear that the creators had noble goals, and a criticism of their work is just that—a criticism of the book (not them). But despite the best of intentions, the result is a narrative in which readers see slavery as unpleasant, but not horrendous.The Calling Caldecott discussed continued for some time. On October 4th, Jennifer wrote:
Based on the illustrations, there are too many implications that should make us as adults squirm about what we might be telling children about slavery:1) That slave families were intact and allowed to stay together.2) Based on the smiling faces of the young girl…that being enslaved is fun and or pleasurable.3) That to disobey as a slave was fun (or to use the reviewers word “relaxed”) moment of whimsy rather than a dangerous act that could provoke severe and painful physical punishment.On October 5th, Lolly Robinson wrote that:
... the text and art in the book need to be appropriate for the largest common denominator, namely that younger audience.Robinson's words about audience are the key to what is wrong with this book. I'll say more about that shortly.
On October 23rd, Sophie Blackall--the illustrator--joined the discussion at Calling Caldecott, saying she had decided to respond to the criticism of how she depicted slavery. She linked to her blog, where she wrote:
Reading the negative comments, I wonder whether the only way to avoid offense would have been to leave slavery out altogether, but sharing this book in school visits has been an extraordinary experience and the positive responses from teachers and librarians and parents have been overwhelming. I learn from every book I make, and from discussions like these. I hope A Fine Dessert continues to engage readers and encourage rewarding, thought provoking discussions between children and their grown ups.In that comment, Blackall talks about school visits and positive responses from teachers, and librarians, and parents. My guess? Those are schools with primarily white students, white teachers, white librarians, and white parents. I bring that up because, while Blackall doesn't say so, my hunch is she's getting that response, in person, from white people. That positive response parallels what I see online. It is white women that are praising this book. In some instances, there's a nod to the concerns about the depiction of slavery, but the overwhelming love they express is centered on the dessert that is made by four families, in four centuries.
Praise is not the response from Black women and mothers.
On October 25 at 12:37, fangirlJeanne's, who identifies as a Polynesian woman of color, sent a tweet that got right to the heart of the matter. She wrote that "Authors who assume a young reader doesn't know about slavery or racism in America is writing for a white reader." In a series of tweets, she wrote about the life of children of color. With those tweets, she demonstrated that the notion of "age appropriate" content is specific to white children, who aren't amongst the demographics that experienced--and experience--bullying and bigoted attacks.
At 1:00, she shared an image of the four pages in the book that Sophie Blackall has in her blog post, saying that these illustrations make her sick and sad:
The conversation about the book grew larger. Some people went to Blackall's post and submitted comments that she subsequently deleted. The explanation for why she deleted them rang hollow. And then sometime in the last 24 hours, she added this to the original blog post:
This blog has been edited to add the following:
It seems that very few people commenting on the issue of slavery in A Fine Dessert have read the actual book. The section which takes place in 1810 is part of a whole, which explores the history of women in the kitchen and the development of food technology amongst other things. A Fine Dessert culminates in 2010 with the scene of a joyous, diverse, inclusive community feast. I urge you to read the whole book. Thank you.Clearly, Blackall is taking solace in Betsy Bird's You Have to Read the Book. Aligning herself with that post is a mistake made in haste, or--if she read and thought about the thread--a decision to ignore the voices of people of color who are objecting to her depiction of slavery.
My hope is that the people on the Caldecott committee are reading the conversations about the book and that they will subsequently choose not to name A Fine Dessert as deserving of Caldecott recognition.
The book is going to do well, regardless of the committee decision. Yesterday, the New York Times named it as one of the best illustrated books of 2015. That, too, speaks to a whiteness that must be examined.
In this post, I've focused on the depictions of slavery. I've not said anything about Native people and our absence from Jenkins and Blackall's historical narrative. Honestly, given what they did with slavery, I'm glad of that omission. I'm reminded of Taylor, a fifth grader who was learning to think critically about Thanksgiving. She wrote "Do you mean all those Thanksgiving worksheets we had to color every year with all those smiling Indians were wrong?" The American settings for A Fine Dessert, of course, are all on land that belonged to Native peoples who were forcibly removed and killed to make way for Americans to raise their families, to pursue their American dreams.
I imagine, as I point to that omission, that people will argue that it isn't fair to judge a book for what it leaves out, for what it didn't intend to do. That "not fair" response, however, is the problem. It tells people who object to being left out or misrepresented, to go away. This book is "not for you."
This particular book is symbolic of all that is wrong with children's literature right now. A Fine Dessert provides children with a glossy view of this country and its history that is, in short, a lie about that history. We should hold those who create literature for children to a standard that doesn't lie to them.
What can we do about that lie? Use it, as Elisa Gall suggested in her blog post, when she wrote:
The only time I’d imagine selecting this book for classroom use would be to evaluate it collaboratively using an anti-bias lens (like the guide by Louise Derman-Sparks found here).
Update: November 2, 2015
As I see blog posts and media coverage of this book, I'll add them here. If you know of others, let me know (update on Nov 14, I added additional links and sorted them into distinct categories). I'm adding them by the dates on which they went online, rather than the dates when I read them myself.
This set of blog posts and news articles are primarily about the book and controversy. A Fine Dessert is not unique. For hundreds of years, those who are misrepresented in children's or young adult literature have been objecting to those misrepresentations.
- Aug 4, 2015. A Fine Dessert: Sweet Intentions, A Sour Aftertaste by Elisa Gall at Trybrary
- Sept 23, 2015. A Fine Dessert (Calling Caldecott discussion) by Robin Smith at The Horn Book
- Oct 30, 2015. The Kids' Book 'A Fine Dessert' Has Award Buzz--And Charges of Whitewashing Slavery by Leah Donnella at NPR
- Oct 31, 2015. On Letting Go at Reading While White
- Oct 31, 2015. Oh, Kelly at Jenny and Kelly Read Books
- Nov 1, 2015. The "Diversity Agenda People" at Ellen Oh's blog
- Nov 3, 2015. A Slightly Different Take by Varian Johnson
- Nov. 4, 2015. Daniel José Older on A Fine Dessert (video) by Daniel José Older at YouTube
- Nov 3, 2015. Emily Jenkins Apologizes for "A Fine Dessert" by Lauren Barack at School Library Journal
- Nov. 4, 2015. Full Panel: Lens of Diversity (video) by Daniel José Older's at YouTube
- Nov 4 2015. When Will We Stop Allowing 'Good Intentions' to be An Excuse for Whitewashing History? by Allison McGevna
- Nov 4, 2015. Children's author sorry for 'racial insensitivity' in picture book showing smiling slaves at The Guardian
- Nov 4, 2015. The dessert, by the way, is blackberry fool by Edith Campbell at Crazy QuiltEdi
- Nov 5, 2015. Children's author apologises for 'racially insensitive' smiling slaves picture book by Jess Denham at the Independent
- Nov 5, 2015. Critically acclaimed children's book criticized for depicting 'happy slaves' by Sadaf Ahsan at the National Post.
- Nov 6, 2015. Judging a Book by the Smile of a Slave by Jennifer Schuessler at The New York Times
- Nov 6, 2015. Thoughts: A Fine Dessert by Emily Jenkins and Sophie Blackall by Nafiza at The Book Wars
- Nov 7, 2015: Reflecting on a Fine Dessert by Kiera Parrot of School Library Journal
- Nov 10, 2015. Children's Book Depicts Smiling Slaves, Stirs Controversy by Kenrya Rankin Naasel at Colorlines
- Nov 10, 2015. A not so fine dessert at The Field Negro
- Nov 14, 2015. Episode 71 podcast at Interracial Jawn (at the 50:25 minute mark)
- Dec 10, 2015. Caldecott Medal Contender: A Fine Dessert by Sam Juliano at Wonders in the Dark (h/t: Elisa Gall)
- Undated. Texas Library Association's Statement on A Fine Dessert being listed on its 2016-2017 Texas Bluebonnet Award Master List
- Oct 27, 2015. "You Have to Read the Book" by Elizabeth Bird at School Library Journal
- Oct 30, 2015. "Editorial: We're Not Rainbow Sprinkles" by Roger Sutton at Horn Book
- Nov 2, 2015. "What We Talk about When We Talk about Children's Books" by Nina Lindsay at School Library Journal
- Nov 3, 2015. "Keeping the Channel Open" by Teri Lesesne at Professor Nana
- Nov 3, 2015. "Can We Talk about Solutions?" by Roxanne Feldman at Fairrosa Cyber Library
- Nov 3, 2015. "Do the Hard Work of Getting It Right" by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley at One Blog Now
- Nov 6, 2015. "The Power of Social Media to Change Children's Literature" by Debbie Reese at American Indians in Children's Literature
- Nov 10, 2015. "Kidlit Authors and Illustrators: Time To Step Up" by K. Tempest Bradford at tempest.fluidartist.com
- Nov 29, 2015. "A Fine Dessert... What Does This Mean for Teachers?" by Franki at A Year of Reading
- Dec 8, 2015. "On Needing Diverse Books" by Marion Dane Bauer at her blog
- Undated. "An Editor's Response" by Yolanda Scott, at CBC Diversity
- Jan 4, 2016. "Smiling Slaves in a Post-A Fine Dessert World", by Vicky Smith at Kirkus
- Jan 6, 2016. "What Will They Say" by Debbie Reese at American Indians in Children's Literature
- Jan 6, 2016. "A proud slice of history." by Andrea Davis Pinkney at On Our Minds (Scholastic blog)
- Jan 8, 2016. "On the Depiction of Slavery in Picture Books" by Nathalie Mvondo at Multiculturalism Rocks
- Jan 13, 2016. "Book Review: A Birthday Cake for George Washington" by Edith Campbell at Crazy QuiltEdi
- Jan 13, 2016. "So Scholastic is publishing..." by @LeslieMac on Twitter