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A Fine Dessert

finedessert2

Biscuits. Cobblers. Sweets. Dessert. Those are my favorite things to cook. When I saw that Sophie Blackall had illustrated a book about a dessert, I was on it.

The book starts and ends with blackberries — literally. Blackall squished them into a paste and used it to paint the muted endpapers. The endpapers’ purple and black sets the scene and grabs the attention of the reader. The story is straightforward — the history, through four centuries, of one particular dessert: blackberry fool. “Mmmmm. Mmmmm. Mmmmm.” The first time the dessert is made, it’s 1710. The cooks (“a girl and her mother”) pick the berries, squish them, whip the cream with twigs, chill the finished blackberry fool in an ice pit, and later eat it at the table, warmed by a fireplace fire. The next time the dessert is made in the book, it is a century later, 1810, and another girl and her mother repeat the recipe. This time the cooks are enslaved people. And now the cream is beaten with a metal whisk, but the recipe is still the same, and the warm relationship between mother and daughter remains the same as well. As the recipe is prepared two more times, in 1910 and 2010, the reader realizes the gentle pattern of the story as she sees the differences between whisks (twigs to metal to egg beater to electric mixer) and strainers (muslin to tin sieve to colander to food processer) and plans (invented recipe to cookbook to internet recipe) and all the ways to refrigerate the whipped dessert. The delicious dessert and community around the table are the constants.

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.

In the book’s final dinner table scene (in 2010), we see Blackall’s current world: a community meal, filled with people of all ages and backgrounds. I imagine it is not unlike the dinner parties she attends in her diverse Brooklyn neighborhood.

Blackall’s art has a distinctive, recognizable style. Each face is round with eyes set wide across the nose. The background details — tiny leaves, stones in the wall, the way the chimneys smoke, the darkening skies as the sun goes down — add emotion to the text. The repeated motifs (four sepia vignettes on each dessert-preparation page; three vignettes of sweating faces working on whipping the cream per page; and the concluding dinner table scene) weave the book together in a gentle way.

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.

Extensive historical and illustrator notes add much to the story, and the source notes make me want to find an old recipe for blackberry fool and whip some up for myself. I think I will use my electric mixer, though.

 

 

 

Robin Smith About Robin Smith

Robin Smith is a second-grade teacher at the Ensworth School in Nashville, Tennessee. She is a reviewer for Kirkus and The Horn Book Magazine and has served on multiple award committees.

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Comments

  1. When I look at the Caldecott criteria I can’t figure out which criteria a committee member might use if he/she was going to ding A FINE DESSERT for it’s potentially problematic “plantation scene”. In the linked article the author calls it a thorny handling of slavery. But if this is a complaint against A FINE DESSERT it doesn’t seem to be a complaint about any of the specific criteria.
    a. Excellence of execution in the artistic technique employed;
    b. Excellence of pictorial interpretation of story, theme, or concept;
    c. Appropriateness of style of illustration to the story, theme or concept;
    d. Delineation of plot, theme, characters, setting, mood or information through the pictures;
    e. Excellence of presentation in recognition of a child audience.
    Looking at the above criteria I guess a reader could be of the opinion that the “delineation of information through pictures” is not distinguished during the “plantation scene” if that reader doesn’t think that the horrors of slavery were delineated in those spreads. But that would imply that Blackwell intended to precisely inform readers as to the horrors of being a slave in 1810 South Carolina during this scene.
    I guess I’m wondering, in the real committee, how much of the discussion of something (potentially) problematic have to come from the criteria?

  2. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Eric, in my experience on award committees, there is always somebody who brings up an objection not founded in the criteria but there is also always someone else to shut it down. The truly clever committee member, however, can state his or her objection in a way that makes it LOOK like it is driven by the criteria, however 😉 I remember the BBYA discussion of WEETZIE BAT, where one of the committee clearly had a hard time with all the free love, etc., the book portrayed. But after getting pushback from the rest of us, this committee member triumphantly threw out “But it’s not WELL-WRITTEN!” like it was a royal flush she had been hiding in her hand. It didn’t work, though.

  3. I love this book. My 9 year-old son enjoyed it too. And we made Blackberry Fool almost immediately. Delicious, although we opted not to strain out the juice and discard the berries. We put them in too. And, Robin, we used our then beloved whipped cream maker MagicBullet to whip up some mighty yummy whipped cream in less than a minute.

    This is a beautiful book. My first thought was wondering why a history lesson with a blackberry dessert. I was soon convinced of exactly why! Lovely, gentle pairing of writer and illustrator. Ms. Blackall’s illustrations are so, well, delicate. I think her setting choices are also very interesting. I liked all 4 of them.

    I hesitated at the bookstore when first reading this book when I saw the 1810 setting. I wanted to be sure I was up to the discussion about our shameful history of slavery in this country with my son around dessert. I decided that this would be a good place to renew our previous discussions about our problems with skin color and our history. It went well.

    It seems to me that the 1810 section is clearly thought through very carefully and the tragedy and inhumanity of the situation comes through in each page. Hopefully at an appropriate level for the children the book is intended for.

    I have read the linked-to blog comments and I don’t completely agree with what the writer has said. I think that every human being has a range of emotions and relationships. Why shouldn’t a child and her mother, no matter where they are in the world or what their circumstances, share love and a smile in the course of their day? No matter how trying, inhumane or unacceptable the circumstances. Love is the most triumphant of emotions, bringing us through unspeakable trials and ordeals. That choice doesn’t need to ruin a book, or even dim a book’s chances with the Caldecott Committee.

  4. Robin Smith Robin Smith says:

    I have to say, every time I read and reread this book, I love it more. Maybe it’s the baker in me. Maybe I’m remembering all the work I did in college about enslaved families on plantations. Or maybe it’s the boy cooking at the end (I have a son who is a tremendous cook). Or is it the repeated patterns in the story and in the art? I can’t put my finger on it, but this is one satisfying experience.

  5. Brenda Martin says:

    I sound like a broken record, but for this one I think it could once again come down to the committee members’ taste –or distaste– for Blackall’s illustration style. Not criteria-driven, of course, but certainly could tip the scales either way. In my experience with kids, librarians, book-people, I can hardly think of an artist that seems to get more polarizing reactions. (Very few *hate* her illustrations, I should clarify, but there is a sizable group of those I’ve encountered with less-than-enthusiastic opinions.)

  6. Susan Dailey says:

    I, too, love the repetitive layouts for each story with details specific to its era! The illustrations are filled with curved lines and circles so they have a comforting feel. This could be problematic for the slave portion of the story. I went back to see if perhaps this section has different lines and shapes, but I don’t think it does. Maybe others will see details that give this section a little more tension.
    My other minor quibble with this book is that I wanted to see the inside of the ice pit/ice chest in the first two stories–maybe because I have no idea what they would look like.
    For those of you who’ve seen Sophie Blackall’s other release this year “Finding Winnie,” how do you think this compares? I wonder how much time the committee will spend comparing the two or will they just deal with each book independently.

  7. Robin Smith Robin Smith says:

    Susan,
    I think the committee will talk about both books side-by-side. If they want to. The committee can arrange their discussion however they want–by artist, by theme, by media. Whatever. It’s fun to go book-by-book and see themes that can be discussed later.
    Members will sometimes call their year things like “the Darwin year,” or “the penguin year,” and “the farm year.” It happens. The word “look” appears prominently in a LOT of titles this year. It happens and it’s kind of funny.
    We all keep spreadsheets of course (BLECH) and that makes patterns pop off the page. I arrange the sheets by title and then flip to date submitted or another category and patterns are everywhere.

  8. I am so troubled by this book. In the criteria for the Caldecott, it states that Delineation of plot, theme, characters, setting, mood or information through the pictures should be considered.

    What information is portrayed about slavery through the depiction in the book A Fine Dessert?
    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.

    In his book on Multicultural education, James Banks describes five facets of multicultural education. One of them is content integration. And this seems to be where defenders of this book are seeking solace: but we included something hard! But I researched slavery!

    However, it is in the second facet, knowledge construction, that we see how this book fails utterly. Banks describes it as “the extend to which teachers help students to understand, investigate, and determine how implicit cultural assumptions, frames of reference, perspectives and biases within a discipline influence the way in which knowledge is constructed.”

    The implicit assumption and frame of reference in this book serves the author’s purpose of talking about desserts through our history, but does so while completely ignoring the facts of slavery as an institution. After the recent social media kerfuffle over the McGraw Hill textbook equating slavery to immigration, I think we should all be wary of whether or not the books we give to children are honest and true…or just letting us feel good about ourselves.

    I sincerely hope that this book does not win the Caldecott as it is undeserving based on the actual criteria for the award.

  9. Personally I think this is a lovely picture book, unquestionably one of the year’s best, and I sense that somewhere above Robert McCloskey is looking down, marveling at a the results of Sal and her mom’s passionate forays into blueberry collecting. I must say I completely agree with Robin Smith and others on this thread who extol the many virtues of this magnificent work, one that is benign in spirit and purpose.

    There is nothing remotely objectionable and so much that’s delectable. Another triumph for Ms. Blackall, one of our finest illustrators. Beautifully written and conceived review.

    The code work here is “Mmmmmmmm” :)

  10. Lolly Robinson Lolly Robinson says:

    Responding to Jennifer, I agree it’s important to take all of the ramifications of slavery into account as adults. But we also need to consider the audience’s age and level of understanding. As Hill and Collier understood when they created Dave the Potter, addressing slavery in a book for a very young audience needs to be done selectively. Any adult reading a picture book to a child should, of course, fill in the gaps as appropriate for the audience. But the text and art in the book need to be appropriate for the largest common denominator, namely that younger audience. I think Megan Lambert covered this subject superbly in her article “Dave the Potter and Stevie the Reader”: http://www.hbook.com/2011/07/using-books/home/dave-the-potter-and-stevie-the-reader/

  11. Elisa Gall says:

    I think that “excellence of presentation in recognition of a child audience” is where, depending on the committee, issues such as bias and authenticity might come into play. I also wonder if some committee members will question whether there is excellence in the delineation of the setting and mood through the pictures in the plantation scenes.

    There were many small components of the 1810 section that seem harmless in isolation (the girl wearing shoes, having a patched dress, being with her mom, smiling while working in the initial spread, appearing relaxed instead of stressed in the closet, etc.), but altogether create a gentle portrait of slavery. I’m not sure that “watering down” the experience of slavery—even in a book that isn’t only about slavery—displays “respect for children’s understandings, abilities, and appreciations.”

  12. Sam Bloom says:

    Arrggggggghhhhhh! The crummy wi-fi at the coffee shop I’m sitting at just ate my reply. But the gist: I appreciate this discussion so much. But please be careful with words, friends; saying “there is nothing remotely objectionable” in this book completely downplays the concerns of some very intelligent people. I appreciate Jennifer’s and Elisa’s comments so much, and really wish Blackall would have made some different choices with her illustrations of the 1810 section.

  13. Sophie Blackall says:

    Thank you all for these comments. I went back and forth about whether to respond, but finally decided in favor. http://sophieblackall.blogspot.com/2015/10/depicting-slavery-in-fine-dessert.html

  14. In my mind the first thing to keep in mind is that this is a book about the history of a dessert. I’m pleased that Blackall included the fact that slaves made this dish. It adds depth and curricular potential for teachers of many different grade levels. There is nothing in the art that dictates that slavery is fun and games. In fact, I think it suggests that slaves are complex human beings. The smiles seem to me to be private smiles or the smiles that you better smile if you know what is good for you. It is very clear to me by the fact that the mother and daughter have to hide to enjoy this amazing dessert, that even food plays a part in our social history. We have men making this dessert in this book. And do look at the final spread, delicious! Now off to read what Sophie has to say about her choices.

  15. For those who aren’t using Twitter, this book is being discussed there.

    Mikki Kendall (she has an article in the April 10 edition of the WASHINGTON POST on police brutality) wrote that it doesn’t seem that descendants of slaves were considered as readers of the book, and that the woman and her child would be beaten if they were caught. Another black mother, who tweets from FanGirlJeanne, wrote that it is a glossy misrepresentation of the reality of slavery.

    Listening to them, I’m reminded of my concerns with LOCOMOTIVE. What is on the page, what is left off the page, how things are presented—it did not feel to me that Floca thought of a Native child reading the book. That is precisely what people are saying on Twitter: it doesn’t seem to them that the author/illustrator of DESSERT imagined that black children would read the book.

  16. Mikki Kendall says:

    So I find it horrifying that so many are willing to ignore how this book harms the descendants of enslaved Black people. It’s a candy coated depiction of a multi generational crime against humanity. And the number of harmful myths that this imagery supports & teaches as normal to the apparently white children who are the target audience has a long term impact on how the brutal realities of slavery are downplayed in this country.

  17. The B criterion should also prompt discussion of the “let’s not hurt white feelings and while we’re at it, coddle white children and pretend like they are not aware of racism the second they get to their first play group or preschool,” since the “concept” of slavery should not lead to pleasant illustrations of smiling people. Private moments of love certainly must have happened in slave families, but that nuance should be left for when children are older. Starting them off with that idea doesn’t help them ease into the idea of slavery, it helps them see slavery as first and foremost a benign problem.

    I’m black. I knew about slavery and racism from a young age because I couldn’t avoid it. I’m also Jewish. I read my first Holocaust memoir at 7, and it was written FOR CHILDREN MY AGE, and it spoke frankly about getting through those first moments at Auschwitz and being separated into groups that would be potentially “saved” through work and those who were going straight to gassing. The author had no intention of pretending to readers that there was anything light about the experience of being sent to a death camp. Arnost Lustig, on the other hand, wrote about sex and love that happened during the Holocaust because he could trust that his adult readers already knew about the horrors and thus could handle the additional complexity of human needs and desires occurring even in the face of oppression and genocide.

    As others have mentioned, this is not about helping children understand slavery in an age appropriate manner. It’s about helping white parents avoid uncomfortable conversations with their white children about their complicity in ongoing institutionalized racism, because they learned themselves that if they avoid confronting their own whiteness, they don’t have to engage with realities of race and thus that racism isn’t a real thing in their world. So they are more than happy to create a new generation of future parents, textbook writers, teachers and librarians who will do the same.

  18. Kate Barsotti says:

    I thought this book made many smart and subtle decisions that would lead to many conversations between parent and child, including racism and slavery. I am pretty sure a young child will clue into the injustice of the treatment of the slaves right off, and those pictures, with their nuances, would give that child much to think about. That dessert scene with the slaves made me very uncomfortable, as it was meant to. It was complex. There were many examples of harm and unfairness. Will all kids get it? Perhaps not. But there is a lot to be said for the daily injustices, fears, and humiliations of racism, which a young child may grasp, and there are other books to describe the grimmer reality. The contemporary scene at the end, with warmth and fellowship, was a welcome contrast. Children approach these books differently than we do. They often grasp, absorb, and mull over the details adults dismiss.

  19. I’m not sure where I heard about this littlestory, but I really wish I hadn’t. Mind, the illustrations are beautiful… the author/illustrator is very talented. BUT… well, I don’t know how to explain the feelings this part of the story evokes. Not exactly. I’m almost 60 years old, though, and one reading of this swooped me right back to my own childhood, to Uncle Remus and all the other white-fantasy “docile, happy slaves serving their masters with a smile” stories and films that were pretty much all that were available then. Multiple viewings/readings of this book just made my stomach ache, not to mention my heart.

    And then I thought of reading about how white women (and men) campaigned after the Civil War to have statue of a Black person erected–that Black person being another favorite white slavery days fantasy, Mammy. To show how much they loved her, and how much she (fictional creation though she was) loved them and their white children. To show how things weren’t that bad, that slaves were almost part of the family, and blah, blah, blah. Needless to say, newly freed Blacks(along with some whites) objected strenuously, and the statue was never built. But that doesn’t stop white people from trying, over and over, to get it done.

    And that’s how this story, especially with the lovely illustrations, no matter the intent, appears to my eyes–as yet another glossy, imaginary Mammy statue replacement, 2015 version. Sigh.

    People can read/write what they want, and others can enjoy it as they wish, but I would not put this book into my Black grandchildren’s hands, and I heartily hope no well-meaning teacher/childminder ever does either.

  20. Sam Bloom says:

    If you haven’t gone to Sophie’s blog and seen the comments there, I recommend it. Especially if you’re unsure of why some are taking offense to the 1810 section… I highly, highly recommend it. I still think it is problematic (and I’m still troubled that Sophie deleted some comments that didn’t, to me, seem like they were doing anything wrong), but I appreciate the fact that Sophie is responding to commenters and engaging in dialogue.

  21. I’m having trouble getting my comment to load at Sophie’s website (I’m sure because of technical issues, not because she’s not uploading it), so I’m going to cross post it here.

    For those of you who might be interested to read the responses of those who find the illustrations “problematic and harmful” I’d suggest starting with this tweet by FanGirlJeanne. https://twitter.com/fangirlJeanne/status/658342412197085184

    Following her original post and the many hundreds of replies might help anyone understand a different point of view.

    Many other comments on twitter struck a chord with me, too:

    -Alison in Zombieland ‏@mitzy247 Oct 25
    The last picture is heart breaking when you think about it. The things that may have happened had they been caught doing that

    Mikki Kendall ‏@Karnythia Oct 26
    So we talk about how long it takes to beat whipped cream, but not the beating the girl & her mother risked if they were caught…I…

    Daniel José Older ‏@djolder Oct 26
    A book should be like a friend, and real friends don’t lie to protect us, they tell us the truth so we’re prepared for the world. The end.

    Mikki Kendall ‏@Karnythia Oct 26
    You dishonor my ancestors who fought to make a way out of no way with these syrupy sweet depictions of their suffering. It is offensive.

    Christi Belcourt ‏@christibelcourt Oct 26
    the artist is talented & art has power. that’s why this book is so dangerous. Nothing cutesy about history of slavery. Ever.

    As for myself, I am a white woman. My husband and son are black. My son is now 12, but almost every single book that this country about black children shows them in only 3 states: impoverished, imprisoned, or enslaved. Do anyone have ANY IDEA about how hard it is to find a book with black kids where this is not the case? The illustrations in A Fine Dessert made every hair on the back of my neck stand up. I am glad my son is too old to read it. Perhaps the book is historically accurate in some ways and , but very little thought seemed to go into the children *of today* who are reading it. Of particular concern is the idea that it is in any way appropriate to frame slaves as people who had pride in their work. This is incredibly problematic framing for slavery. The closest possible analogy I can think of is portraying Jews as workers in concentration camps. That idea is so patently ridiculous we can’t even fathom it happening, and yet we don’t blink at it when it comes to portrayals of happy, hard-working American slaves. To frame what they are doing as “work” and tasks they can be proud of? It’s jaw-dropping.

  22. At this point, I’m only echoing what others have said above. Please, please look to Twitter (start with the people Jennifer mentioned above) for a true conversation about this book, and why this conversation matters. A book like this, as others have pointed out, is for a white audience. It insults everyone’s intelligence to pretend otherwise. Depictions like this get rewarded for the same reason movies like The Blind Side and The Help get nominated for Oscars. They exist to pat white people on the back and address race without actually addressing it. So while it’s disappointing so many are defending this book as award-worthy, it is not at all surprising. Well-meaning White America wants black forgiveness; we want to portray a world that says, “See? Slavery’s over… MLK… Obama… etc. etc. Everything’s fine now.” *We’re* not racist, so racism must be over. But many of us don’t always look around and admit how much white supremacy still exists, and that, despite our best intentions, we might be contributing to that.

    This isn’t an attack on the author or the illustrator of this book. Both have wonderful children’s books and novel out there, and this book was obviously well-meaning. But it missed the mark and the response to the backlash has been troubling. Deleting “angry” comments is insulting and self-preserving. It moves the conversation backward, which is why nothing about this situation is surprising anymore. We’re in a loop. I’m hoping that *maybe this time* the conversation will be taken seriously and we’ll actually move forward.

  23. Sarah Cannon says:

    When I first saw these illustrations attached to the word “Caldecott”, I misunderstood utterly that I was looking at a new book. Instead, I took A FINE DESSERT for a book that had received the award many years ago…one of those that sometimes cause modern sensibilities to cringe. The illustrations of the plantation scene brought tears to my eyes, not because they were heartwarming, but because they were agonizing.

    It’s very hard for me to understand how children will view these illustrations as anything other than apologia for slavery, and as such, I don’t understand how A FINE DESSERT could possibly receive an award for meeting Caldecott criteria. The illustrations are conceptually flawed and inappropriate to the story, theme or concept, because they depict a positive view of slavery, without irony. I agree that this can and will spur discussion in families and classrooms, but that discussion will necessarily include questions about the author and illustrator’s motives, because it is not clear from the story and illustrations that they themselves understand the horror of slavery.

    As such, the book also fails the “Excellence of presentation in recognition of a child audience” criterion. As a teacher, I am already cringing at the pain and misunderstandings that will ensue as young black children who read this title search for a fuller context that is conspicuously missing, and white children expound on the misunderstandings they’ve developed from this sugar-coated presentation of slave life.

  24. Emily Jenkins says:

    This is Emily Jenkins. I wrote the text for A Fine Dessert. I want to say that I have read all the comments here and in other places. I appreciate how articulate they are and that people took the time to write them. I am hearing what you say and absorbing it. I am doing my best to learn and grow from this conversation.

  25. Kate Barsotti says:

    I also posted this on Sophie’s blog.

    Since I had the opposite reaction to the slavery section, and I did read the book, I want to say why.

    I liked the subversiveness of the slaves. I knew they were fearful and suffering, but I saw they were also resilient and found ways restore their dignity. It made the story more frightening. These people still had something to lose.

    I think if the author and illustrator had NOT shown that aspect of these people, they would be criticized for exactly that–for not showing the slaves had some kind of power and agency in spite of their enslavement. I cannot stress this point enough. Some of the very same people claiming kids are harmed by this depiction of slavery will say kids are harmed by one that shows only degradation and suffering.

    That dining room scene with the slaves serving was like a punch in my gut. Only the man gets to speak and lean in– you get the feeling only he has a voice and never shuts up. The elder son can read under the table while the ladies have to pay attention. The slaves are all downcast and tired. That little boy is so overdressed in a stuffy room. His job is dull, and repetitive, and he is in that ridiculous uniform that looks too tight.

    And those clever, terrible windows. The red striped curtains and blue field of stars–our flag built on the abomination of slavery. The red stripes like cage bars, like the welts after a whipping, the stars that might help navigate escaping slaves to freedom.

    Even that black horse on the mantle is disturbing, although I am not sure why.

    You have to read this book in its entirety to appreciate it.

  26. Elisa Gall says:

    The minute the choice was made to include people who are enslaved, the book became about blackberry fool and about slavery. Are the mother and daughter shown with power/agency in spite of their enslavement? When I first read the book I saw resistance in the closet picture. Now, after reflecting on this book and listening to the ideas of many other people, I’m not sure about that. It’s hiding. And what struggle is actually shown – that they don’t get to eat at the table? (I know some might point to the subtle clues in the table scene, but I don’t think these are adequate.)

    Of course, some people who were enslaved in 1810 found moments of joy. Sure, this story of the mother and daughter is historical fiction. Sure, this is only ¼ of the book. But as a whole, the picture of slavery that is painted is a rosy one. Even the text at the end of the section (“what a fine dessert!”) leans to the positive.

    I don’t think critical responses to this title can be connected back to just one element—it’s more complicated than that. It’s the smiles while working. It’s the lack of resistance. It’s the lovely style of illustration. It’s the absence of the word “slave” until the end matter. It’s the choice to show a scenario with the girl wearing shoes, having patched clothing, and being with her mother. It’s the words “Beat, beat…” printed over her head.

    I think it was courageous for the creators to include this section, even if I don’t appreciate the outcome. But if we’re talking Caldecott and “excellence of presentation in recognition of a child audience,” I think there are stronger books.

  27. A. Chandler says:

    The fact that this book is being considered for an award is APPALLING. How unspeakably tone deaf to put the history of a dessert above the history of an entire race of people!

    This is done by the depiction of slaves dutifally preparing the dish with no context to how they were treated. Children can read the book and get zero sense of how slaves we brutalized and dehumanized, only that they got to do fun things like bake dessert all day.

    Also…BLACK slaves in a book making dessert called BLACKberry FOOL??? Did this subliminal message slip by anyone? My black nieces are no ones blackberry fool….and I will NOT be reading this book to them. I vehemently protest, and I echo the comments made before mine. This book is a nightmare.

  28. Emily Jenkins says:

    This is Emily Jenkins again. 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.

  29. Sara Ralph says:

    Posted on Sophie Blackall’s blog:

    Dear Ms. Blackall,

    What I find most unfortunate is something a wonderful educator friend of mine said. I don’t know if he’d want me to use his name, so I will just paraphrase. I think what is happening here is a case of adults using children’s books to express anger and forward certain agendas. Don’t get me wrong; that anger is justified and those agendas need to be forwarded. However, children’s literature is not the platform to do it, and using it as such is very disrespectful to both you and the Ms. Jenkins. As a white person, I do not feel qualified to speak on the racially insensitive issue. A Fine Dessert never seemed racially insensitive to me the dozens of times I read it, but who am I to tell an African American that they are shouldn’t interpret it that way? As a librarian, I can speak to two things, based on my advanced professional degree and 13 years of experience. If you haven’t read this book in its entirety, you need to refrain from commenting. The first rule of challenges is requiring that the person making the challenge actually read the material they find offensive. Secondly, calling for censorship of the book is going too far. What is this? Fahrenheit 451? Put your torches away. I admire your work very much, and I look forward to both your and Ms. Jenkins future projects.

    Sincerely,
    Sara Ralph
    School librarian
    North Carolina

  30. Sharron A. says:

    Why do non-blacks continue to try to romanticize slavery? Slavery in America was a brutal institution. Stop trying to make it into your “Gone with the Wind” fantasy.

  31. One thing I did not see in this book remotely was a “romanticizing of slavery.” Nothing like that at all. As with virtually all great works, it comes down to what the individual derives. I am white, but have been obsessively race sensitive in behalf of blacks for as long as I can remember. Not only did the New York Times praise this book, but dozens of book critics did not deem the issues brought forth here as any kind of a deal breaker. The African Americans depicted in this book were from a time period -a time in our history where slavery was practiced. A terrible time to be sure- but a time nonetheless. But why do we have to look at this as a negative intrusion? Discussions on this subject could emanate in a constructive manner. As they are growing up children will be taught to understand racial tolerance as a result of our past. The characters in the book were not painted in the disparaging way that a few seem to believe. K.T. Horning is admittedly quite right when she asserts that the book is “nostalgic” and that “slavery can never be such. But this was not a book about slavery, it was a book about four different time periods, with one taking place in 1810 South Carolina. Is the author supposed to candy coat the accepted social order as abhorrent as it may be simply because of the reference point? This book is a period piece crossing generations and countries. What if the narrative were to include Germany in 1945 or South Africa in 1980’s? Our past shouldn’t be hidden or glamorized. The lesson to learn is that this can never happen again. But Emily Jenkins has spoken to a communal theme, universal in scope and humanistic in substance. I just looked at the book again with my wife, and I must say no power in the world would ever let me put it aside. It has well earned all its critical plaudits and reverence from picture book lovers around the nation. I will be proud to read it to my class again tomorrow in fact.

  32. Martha V. Parravano says:
  33. Christine says:

    “Hidden in the closet, the African American mother and daughter have a rare relaxed moment away from the eyes of their enslavers.”

    Please tell me you’re kidding. Please. Or better yet, read the book “Jubilee,” which addresses a similar topic. Only the difference is that the white slavery owner made the slave swallow ipecac day after day AFTER DAY to make sure that her slave wasn’t having a moment just like the one *you* find so tender. There is nothing relaxed about that moment – and why do you think they were hiding in a blasted closet, anyway!? That’s what you find charming? Slaves having to hide to eat scraps from Massa’s table? My God.

  34. Thanks for posting that Daniel Jose Older vid, MVP. Wow.

  35. Martha V. Parravano says:

    And here is a link to the full video of the diversity panel featuring Daniel Jose Older, Sean Qualls, and Sophie Blackall:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=youtu.be&v=Y2f0KRWH6OQ&app=desktop

  36. Thank you for posting the whole conversation. It’s so good to hear the different points of view with no shouting and no words taken out of contest. I love what Sean says at the end.

  37. As an educator, teacher and parent, I’m truly sad and disappointed things like this keeps happening. Worse, white authors and illustrators are simply given a pass by their racism by simply saying sorry. Why not just just pulled the book off the shelf completely and give the money to Title 1 schools to either buy books for their library or pay for more staff. This author apparently have lived a life far removed from people of color or worse believed that slaves were happy. The problem unfortunately is not just the author and illustrator but the publisher who didn’t review this book well. The reason for their failure is sadly probably similar to the author and illustrator…living in a white world where people of color are in the shadows and not given an opportunity to work in the “white world” of publishing or anywhere that doesn’t follow their narrative beyond the “happy slave.” Not surprising that the author and illustrator are two white women….depicting black women this way. No one should be making money on this book…no one. The author, illustrator and publisher should not be lauded for such a racist book.

  38. Bila Majina says:

    Contrary to the views previously expressed, I see the final scene of the book as the most problematic, and yet the most revealing, in that the scene of a generic contemporary dinner party depicts both the point-of-view and subconscious value system of the author and illustrator. In a book that explores issues of social dominance and progress over time, those now invited to participate “at the table” so-to-speak are indeed multi-ethnic, but have now cast off their heritage, as has everyone, in favor of an egalitarian culture where race and gender are seemingly interchangeable. If anything, this is the idealistic, self-congratulatory, “candy-coated” image that benefits the dominant culture in mass media, quite likely pervading both the New York Times and the Caldecott committee.

    In a Liberal, individualist-oriented society, social and technological progress now allow for a malleable identity, self-created rather than inherited. In such case, the homemade blackberry fool celebrated in the book represents a cultural artifact that is both real, wholesome and authentic. The nostalgia expressed nurtures existential insecurities of loss created when traditional values from the past have been cast aside or when objects that define our world are no longer created by our own hands.

    Not that this is a bad thing necessarily – for the point-of-view of the author and illustrator is one among many. Indeed, Emily Jenkins and Sophie Blackall are socially-responsible, intelligent and sophisticated artists uniquely capable of telling a complex, sensitive story in a nuanced manner. Yet because this view happens to correspond to the present default culture prevalent in media today, its dominance can hold precedence over the myriad of other viewpoints that may not have the benefit of the same level of exposure. More to the point, this view can be especially distasteful to those who are direct decedents of those who were enslaved and who now witness their own narratives far too often disregarded by the mainstream and at worst co-opted.

    In the image of the dinner party at the end of the book, some of my questions are these: What would the African-American woman at the party think of celebrating a dessert that her ancestors served to their enslavers? What does the blackberry fool represent to her? What would she have brought to the party instead that would be meaningful to her? Why are all the couples multi-racial? What dessert would be special to other guests of non-Western European heritage? Why are most of the guests fair-skinned? Why are all the males fair-skinned? To what extent does the image promote assimilation over true inclusion? What would the party have looked like if the hosts were African-American or something else? What would the party have looked like if the guests were mostly African-American or something else? Are we to surmise that the issues related to dominance and subjugation have now been fully resolved? Is the African-American woman today equally free to define her own identity in society as others at the table or is that a convenient myth? And ultimately, how would we interpret the images of the enslaved mother and daughter if the final scene were portrayed from a different perspective?

    Authors and illustrators of children’s literature are required to make difficult choices about relatively small, and often subtle, details given the required efficiency inherent in the medium. In this book, I actually don’t believe that the images of the enslaved mother and daughter white-wash their condition or themselves racially-insensitive. In fact, these images are consistent with age-appropriate images depicted by African-American authors dealing specifically with Slavery or with images contained in age-appropriate books that depict the Holocaust. The need to hide in the closet is a reasonable strategy to convey the brutality of the period to very young readers.

    Nevertheless, this allusion alone is not enough without a more deliberate indication of the brutality of this period. Unlike the Holocaust, the extent of the violence of Slavery and the effects of its legacy is a topic that has been consciously and systematically suppressed in this country. For this reason, the author and illustrator have an additional burden to present the truth of that time period, even if that is not the focus of the book, given that no shared accepted historical account of this period exists. The brutality of Slavery cannot be left open for personal interpretation by a potentially unenlightened reader. Diligent research and attention to detail do not alone provide an accurate understanding of this historical context nor of depth of the atrocities committed. Perhaps the true context would be made more vivid, if the enslaved daughter were of mixed-ancestry (rather than the boy at the party) or if the mother and daughter, after having labored so long to prepare the dessert, were ultimately denied the occasion to eat it at all.

    In the end, author and illustrator need to be particularly conscious, not only of historically accurate detail, but also of the depiction of historical context and the implications of their own vantage point. Ironically, the idealistic vision represented here can serve to hamper further social progress of the kind glorified in the book.

  39. Just read another 2015 book, Sewing Stories: Harriet Powers’ Journey from Slave to Artist. I noticed that this book, by a Caucasian author and African American illustrator, portrays Harriet as living in slavery with her mother well into her childhood; I would say she’s a teenager the last time her mother is referenced. Also, every character who is a slave is portrayed with a smile on his or her face. It’s a great book, yet I would say it whitewashes slavery and Reconstruction far more than A Fine Dessert, and I can’t find any of the sort of criticism that A Fine Dessert has received.

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