Thursday, October 29, 2015

Not recommended: A FINE DESSERT by Emily Jenkins and Sophie Blackall

Scroll down to the bottom of this post to see links to discussions of A Fine Dessert, discussions I'm framing as what-to-do about books like it, and, 2016 discussions of A Birthday Cake for George Washington (another book that depicts smiling slaves) The list of books that have been revised is no longer on this page. It has its own page: "Stereotypical Words and Images: Gone!" 

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 2, 2015:
I'm seeing influential people in children's literature--from librarians to academics--decrying the discussion of A Fine Dessert as one in which people are "tearing each other apart" or "tearing this book to pieces." 

For literally hundreds of years, African American families have been torn apart. African Americans are objecting to the depiction of slavery in A Fine Dessert. 

Please have some empathy for African American parents whose lives and the lives of their children and ancestors is one that is characterized by police brutality, Jim Crow, and the brutal violence of being enslaved.

If you wish to use a picture book to teach young children about slavery, there are better choices. Among them is Don Tate's POET: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton. Watch the book trailer. Buy the book. Use it.

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:

At Reading While White, an African American woman wrote:
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.

This set of links are primarily on what-to-do about the controversy over A Fine Dessert and, broadly speaking, diversity in children's/young adult literature. A lot of them echo previous writings. For decades, people have been writing about how writers and illustrators and editors can inform themselves so they don't stereotype or misrepresent those who are not like themselves, and people have been writing about what we, as readers (parents, teachers, and librarians) can do to encourage publishers to publish books that do not misrepresent our distinct cultures. 

This set of links is to items about a 2016 picture book, A Birthday Cake for George Washington, which also depicts enslaved people, smiling.


Anonymous said...

Such narrow and self righteous views, compounded by a militant drive to define the world through it's colors, truly saddens me.

BrooklynPM99 said...

It's surprising that you're doubling down on the argument that you don't need to read the book in order to critique it, in order to understand how these eight pages operate in the work as a whole. It's not War and Peace. It's a picture book. It's a fifteen-minute read.

Kaethe said...

I quite liked the book when I first read it, and I recognize that my privilege is what permitted me to do so. I didn't notice what wasn't there. Thanks for being one of several commenters pointing out what I didn't observe.

Debbie Reese said...

Looks like Anonymous at 11:27 is of the colorblind crowd that refuses to see the racial disparities that exist in children's literature and society, and apparently, BrooklynPM99 stands with those who refuse to consider the largest context and experiences that people of color bring to a children's book. They are two people, I think, who wish to--intentionally or not--maintain the status quo.

Thank you, Kaethe, for listening. I've learned to listen, too.

In the early 90s, I was brought up short when someone asked me to revisit FIVE CHINESE BROTHERS--a book that, until then--I adored. They were right to ask me to take a second look. I felt embarrassed, but that's ok! Today, I share that brief story when I give talks. We're all carrying around ignorance about one people or another. To embrace and respect each other, we have to be willing to listen to each other and revisit books we've felt warmly towards. There's a huge power imbalance in children's literature--and society--and it will change as more of us are willing to listen, to hear, to respect, to grow.

Nanette said...

Thanks for writing this, Debbie. I really can't express how hurtful (and harmful) I find this story--so I'm glad others have no such problem :)

I went back to Sophie Blackall's site to read her update and look at the "makes it all better!" end of the story picture, and that... well, just cemented my belief that this was just another white redemption story, sweetened with blackberries and cream.

Anonymous said...

What does this have to do with Native Americans in children's literature? Or are you speaking for an group that you are not a part of, which you regularly criticize other people for doing?

Debbie Reese said...

Anonymous on Oct 29, at 7:17 PM:

The work I do on AICL is regarding depictions of Native peoples. Sometimes, it is about omissions, too. This one is in the latter category.

I think you have a misunderstanding about my work.

A Native identity is not necessary to write a book about Native peoples. Indeed, there are times on AICL when I've reviewed books that are not by Native people, but that are done well. I started listing those in 2014 in my Best Books list:

Anonymous said...

Debbie is amplifying the critiques of others, not speaking for them.

PragmaticMom said...

I agree that depicting the slavery scene as whimsy and fun time is inappropriate in light of how slaves were treated but I also wonder -- what is an appropriate depiction of slavery for a 4 year old? I wouldn't want children to get the wrong idea of slavery from a white privilege perspective, but as a mom, I don't want my preschool child to see unnecessary violence.

Mia from PragmaticMom

Debra said...

I wanted to offer my thanks for this blog. The "happy slave" narrative is an offensive attempt to remove the horrors of slavery from history. Further,sanitation of slavery is a denial of the courage, ingenuity, and resilience of the Black people who survived those horrors.

Anonymous said...

I hadn’t read A Fine Dessert because I don’t typically read picture books. However, the fuss about the book kept growing and we actually had it in my library. I decided to simply look at the images. There’s a lot in those images. There’s a little white girl looking up at her mother, while the little black girl is looking down at her mother. See how denigrating enslavement is? Images of the white family at dinner, the father’s hands on the table in one image, him leaning in in another and we see power. The humiliation of a mother hiding with her daughter in a cupboard to eat someone else’s desserts. I reached out and discussed what I saw while things nibbled at me. A black person would not have written, or drawn, this book. Why not?? And, I would not buy this book. But, why not?

In writing a book for young people that uses that repetitive story telling technique, this author and article, reduced the European American narrative and the African American narrative to being equivalent. On the pages with the three images of women and girls beating cream, all the women and girls have the same round face. Three women, three faces, beating, tired, and finally done. Mothers and daughters pick berries together, both black and white. Outside this story, there would be no problem with an enslave mother and daughter picking berries together, but here it is equated with the white mother and daughter… and they lived happily ever after. They all smile when they lick the spoon. It’s the message of sameness, of an overarching whiteness of history that ruins the opportunity to begin to tell children true history. Read Christopher Myers on disagreement, difference and diversity “Difference is real. The narrative that we are all the same underneath is a fear of difference.”

I don’t know that I’d want a book about enslavement for a 4 year old. There’s nothing about this time in history that can be glossed enough for a 4 year old to understand. Children at that age don’t have a concept of place or time, making past history difficult for them to conceptualize. They are ready to understand that people are difference, skin colors are different, that men can love each other and that some people have disabilities. They’re ready to see the richness of their world.

Debbie doesn’t hesitate to speak up for marginalized people. I applaud her for that.

Nanette said...

PracticalMom, I'm not sure I would talk to a 4 year old about slavery, because it's pretty difficult to do so without lying, I suspect. (That's part of the distress about this book, for me... it's a lie) But if you are going to introduce the subject, I would search for a book by a Black author, or at least one that is not written from a white perspective and within the context of a white story--one that shows Black people as complete, complex human beings. That's so important when dealing with the subject, when talking both to white children and children of color. All children deserve the right to see themselves (and others) as complete in themselves, and not just... I don't know.

One of my issues with Ms. Blackall's story, for instance, is that from first to last, it is a white story. A cute little tale of white families and how they made blackberry fool over the centuries... and just as that, it would have been a wonderful, visually brilliant little tale. Instead Black and (at the end) Asian characters are basically introduced as props in the service of telling this white story, which is one reason (whether consciously or no) the enslaved people had to be happy and smiling even in their oppression. A true telling of that time, for children or adults, is rarely (if ever) told in the service of whiteness. In that context, it makes sense that Ms. Blackall consulted the diaries of slave-owners, but not those of enslaved persons or their descendants, amidst all the other research she did. She was telling a white story--and, caveat, caveat, there is nothing WRONG with telling a white story--but if you include others, they should be more than props.

Anyway, I hope what I've read about Ms. Blackall backing away from being inclusive at all is not true. She's so talented. It's so frustrating when we are basically saying "do better" and others are hearing something between "you MUST do this and that" and "don't do it at all."

Also, yes... haven't read Debbie for long, but from what I've seen, when she is speaking on other than Native American issues, she does not speak for, she amplifies.

Gabrielle Prendergast said...

The most frustrating part of discussions about failed attempts at diversity like this is that they so rarely include feasible solutions other than "don't publish the book at all" or "don't include diversity at all". Neither of which really help. In this case I wonder if having the black family be living free in Canada in the 1800s might have been a solution. They would still have been poverty. And no doubt fear and exclusion. But also hope perhaps. And a story like this needs hope, which is why the slave narrative would never fit.

I suggest also, the author do ANOTHER book on similar themes, but about a dish cooked first by free people in Africa, then by slaves, then by post slavery but pre civil rights African Americans, then by an African family today. Still waiting n a very imperfect world but with hope.

That's my two cents.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the update, Debbie; yet my heart remains heavy with the sadness and hurt and humiliation that the illustrations alone created. I appreciate Emily Jenkins' heartfelt apology and financial gesture, but I still can't find it in my heart to subject any kid to that book. It breaks my heart. From McGraw Hill's textbook calling slaves "workers" to this, making it pass editors...What is going on, and what is next?

K T Horning said...

I love that Oh Kelly post so much. Thanks for linking to it!

jasandersda said...

I see another inaccuracy. In the book the mother is illustrated as a mammy slave. The mammy figure romanticised slavery depicting this warm, grandmotherly character, lovingly caring for her masters. When in fact that wasn't the reality. Most house slaves were young, slender, lighter skinned women. The mammy character was created to be non threatening to image of the white family. I don't want to see slaves beaten in a children's book, but I feel that the text of the book could have included more clues to the reality of slavery. Imagine if she wrote "As the overseer watched from a distance, a mother and her daughter picked blackberries." As a black women I would not read this book to my child.

Sara said...

Have you read this book Debbie? As a librarian, I caution you on posting anything warning people against an author/illustrator's book without doing so. At least the people at Calling Caldecott, write or wrong in their interpretations, have done at least that. Some words that come to mind: disrespectful, censorship, irresponsible. In your condemnations of two white women's work, you should know what their work is. I find it funny how this September post had little notice until NYT named A Fine Dessert as one of their Best Illustrated Books of the Year. This book has been out since JANUARY.

Debbie Reese said...

Yes, Sara, I have read the book.

Your timeline is off a bit. By August 4, when Elisa Gall wrote about the book on her blog, people in my reading circle had already been discussing the book. If you look at Elisa's post, you'll see that I commented there on September 21st.

And, it was being discussed on Twitter before the NY Times article. You may not have seen those discussions. What you see is largely dependent on who you follow. If your social media circles are lacking in diversity, you may not realize there's a lot of discussion going on amongst communities of color.

Sara said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sara said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nanette said...

Gabrielle, The most frustrating part of discussions about failed attempts at diversity like this is that they so rarely include feasible solutions other than "don't publish the book at all" or "don't include diversity at all".

I understand the frustration, and I don't have any definitive answers... just a few thoughts.

First one would be... reimagining your audience. This book, as mentioned above, is a book about white people, by white people and, ultimately, for white people. That was not the *intent*, maybe, but that is definitely the result. And I think one reason that is is because the author and illustrator failed to fully imagine their audience. There is simply no way a Black person, or someone who imagined a child with bright brown eyes, dark skin and braids with clicking barrettes looking up at them would have imagined the story in this way.

"Diversity", to me, is more than just plopping someone of another culture or color into a story, but writing their characters with them in mind.

That said, I'm not sure what would have worked. I think it would have been just fine as a book about how white families made a dessert through the years, sans the slave labor. Just simply slotting in a Black family in that slot wouldn't have had the continuity, I don't think. Or maybe it would have, and been a little transgressive and shocking (to some,) to find out that in 1810 US, there were any number of free Black families (no need to go all the way to Canada for them) and some were doing very well indeed, and not all living in abject poverty. Still, that would have been a break of sorts in the narrative--probably the only way it would work is if each of the four families was of a different culture.

OR, if the 1810 setting just had to be a slave labor camp, what I would have done is... well I don't know what would work for children at this age, and in this type of book. I just wouldn't have done it, I guess, unless it was a book about Black families so that one would have a rounded out picture, as you suggested.

Nanette said...

Also, I'm very glad to see the POET book added to this post, Debbie. What a great story, and I love the illustrations.

In fact, what I came here for was to talk about smiles, and to give my little opinion on the difference between the Poet book smiles, and this one. Or, rather, just to talk about the other smiles, probably.

Anyway, when I first saw the smile on the face of George Moses Horton, the poet, I immediately started smiling back... because what that smile said to me (even without knowing the story) was, "I won." And I wanted to know, just what did you win, young sir? And yeah, the smile fits the book perfectly.

It's not that enslaved people never smiled, or that one should never picture the happy times in their lives, it's just that context matters a lot.

And while I have not yet read it, I would also recommend The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch, on the strength of this Reading While White review:

What I love about this book, or at least what I've heard about it, is its honesty, and giving cause and effect, something that is rarely done in adult fiction or non-fiction when it comes to slavery and reconstruction, let alone in children's books. Too many Black kids wind up with the impression that enslaved persons, or those who were formerly held in US slave labor camps were incapable of thriving in any way, except for a fortunate few. Rarely is the context and cause and effect shown, and how the laws whites put into effect boxed Blacks in on every side, or tore down what they did manage to build.

This book, and the poet one, I need to get for my grandkids.

Sara said...

I apologize that the only way to correct my errors is to delete comments (saying a book should be censored when I mean it should not). I will try not make anymore comments when I have worked 13+ hours in my library.

I have enough respect for people of color not to argue against their perspective that a book is racially insensitive. As a white person, we cannot argue that it is not if that is their perception. I'm sure that was not the intention of the author and illustrator. I am glad that you have read this book; often people criticize without reading it. One person commented on Calling Caldecott that they only looked at the illustrations, and that is not good enough.

However, censoring books is against our ethics as librarians. We can choose not to select it, but these issues need to come up at the time of publication and review, not months afterwords, and after it has been chosen for a "best books" list. These conversations could help people who have not already purchased it however to not select it for their libraries. I urge everyone to focus on promoting the work of authors and illustrators of color more. Having alternatives for children to read is more productive than trying to yank books from white authors and illustrators off of shelves. I will order the Poet one so that there is that dichotomy in my library.

Debbie Reese said...

Hi Sara,

I wish there was a way to edit comments, too. Deleting is one solution but it leaves readers of the comments with a gap, particularly when someone has replied to your comment(s). In case you want to delete the comment at 6:04 AM on November 3, I'll copy part of it here (the part I'm responding to):

Sara said: "However, censoring books is against our ethics as librarians. We can choose not to select it, but these issues need to come up at the time of publication and review, not months afterwords, and after it has been chosen for a "best books" list. These conversations could help people who have not already purchased it however to not select it for their libraries. I urge everyone to focus on promoting the work of authors and illustrators of color more. Having alternatives for children to read is more productive than trying to yank books from white authors and illustrators off of shelves. I will order the Poet one so that there is that dichotomy in my library."

My response:

A significant problem with selection is that it is largely based on reviews. People who review for the review journals have copies of the book before they're released to the public. When most of the reviewers are white, and not in tune with POC, chances are very high that problematic content will not get the attention it gets when the public sees the book.

That's what happened with A FINE DESSERT. It got starred reviews. There is no un-doing the purchases that are already made, or the stars the books got either.

But we can--and do--read/reread--and change our minds about books. The discussion of the book over at Reading While White is an example of re-reading. I don't think a new understanding of a book means that anyone is going to remove the book from the shelves.

And I'm glad you're getting POET!

Sara said...


Maybe this is an opportunity for review journals to make sure a certain number of people review a book before it is given a starred review (since those influence purchasing decisions so much) and make sure those reviewers are a diverse group? I know that if I am spending my own money, I can take the time to read and reread a title before putting it into my collection. I am very hesitant about pulling a book from the collection because I feel that is censorship. Now, not featuring it, using it as a teaching resource, recommending it to others, etc. is a different message entirely.

I'm ordering it today.

Thank you,
Sara Ralph

Unknown said...

As rare as it may have been there were people of African decent who were free. They just as easily could have been depicted from the same era but above the Mason-Dixon. There they could have been joyful and celebratory within their own family context in their own home.

Nanette said...

Well, after reading various articles and comments all over the place and realizing just how widely distributed this book has been, I'm going to be a tiny bit contrarian and recommend that Black parents of young children buy this book. Or get it from the library. Reason being--my main takeaway from my reading is that white people-whether they be teachers of young children, librarians, parents or simply readers--love this book. They love the story, the illustrations, the ill-begotten slavery interlude, just everything about it--and even if you don't read it to your Black children, some of them have declared they will. EVERY DAY, if they want! No matter how many Black parents tell them it's harmful, *they* don't see the harm and, besides, pretty pictures and white accolades trump everything.

So, I think Black parents, if you can, should get this book and read it to your young children first, in self defense. Even if they are very young... so by the time their teacher inflicts it on them, or their white classmates start giggling about it and waving it in their faces, or those who insist that Black compliance is the most important thing begin pointing out how obedience to their "masters" would have kept "the slaves" happy, or how it's Black pathology that had the child and her mother "stealing from their masters" and hiding in the closet to sneak food that didn't belong to them, or any of the other benign and not-so-benign interpretations others will put on those scenes, your Black children will have a little bit of inoculation against it.

Am I overreacting? Looking at history (including my own) and present day incidents, I don't think so. Even the very best intentions can have terrible consequences.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the discussion. I've always understood that a work can be great on one level and problematic on another, but these types of discussions articulate all kinds of problematic details that white people are generally less attuned to (I'm white). I'd really like to hear more voices in kid's lit and I'm really glad to hear more voices responding to it.

Anonymous said...

Have you read the blog post by Varian Johnson?

Debbie Reese said...

Anonymous at 9:02 on Saturday, November 14:

Yes, I read Varian Johnson's post the day it went up. It is one of the links above, and has been since he posted it at his site.

Can you say more about why you asked the question?

Anonymous said...

Sam Juliano said...

Well, I just read this entire thread Debbie. As I say I am learning and absorbing.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...

Will you be discussing "A Birthday Cake for George Washington" written by Ramin Ganeshram and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton, which has similar issues?

Debbie Reese said...

Anonymous at 8:45 on December 19:

I am sure people will be discussing that and many others. If you mean will I (Debbie) discuss it? I don't know that book but will see if it is in the local library.

Sarah said...

It hasn't come out yet, Debbie. (Release date is January 5th.) Not sure why lack of criticism of a book that isn't out yet is somehow floating around as evidence of a lack of merit in criticism of A Fine Dessert. If anything, the similarities would seem to underscore the problems people have been speaking about.

Anonymous said...

I want to thank you for this post. I know it was painful work to gather all of the links and conversations you have included here. It is a very helpful tool for discussing A Fine Dessert with pre-service teachers who are studying children's literature as part of their undergraduate degree as my class has done. Your tireless work as a Diversity Jedi is appreciated.