Children’s Book Depicts Smiling Slaves, Stirs Controversy

By Kenrya Rankin Nov 10, 2015

A picture book has become a flashpoint in a longtime controversy about the need for informed diversity in book publishing. A study found that while people of color make up 37 percent of the U.S. population, just 10 percent of the children’s books published between 1994 and 2012 featured any type of multicultural content.

A Fine Dessert,” written by Emily Jenkins and illustrated by Sophie Blackall, depicts four children throughout history baking a dessert called “blackberry fool” with a parent. Each pairing highlights how the times impact who is in the kitchen. One scene shows a girl and her mother on their tiny farm in 1710. Another shows an enslaved child and her mother preparing the dessert for their owners in a Charleston home 100 years later. The year 1910 brings another mother and daughter pair in Boston, and 2010 San Diego features a boy and his father baking.

The book bucks the trend of ignoring people of color, but it’s the depiction of the girl and her mother on the South Carolina plantation that has readers upset. Critics say that the book, which is intended for readers ages 4 to 8, makes slavery look like a happy time for the family. From The New York Times:

But “A Fine Dessert” has met growing criticism from those who say that an eight-page sequence set on a South Carolina plantation in 1810 puts too sugary a coating on slavery. The sequence shows an enslaved mother and her young daughter making dessert and serving it to their owner’s family, before hiding in a closet to “lick the bowl clean.” In some images, the daughter is smiling. …

While “A Fine Dessert” has found a number of defenders, including some African-Americans, detractors say that the book—which contains the words “master” and “plantation” but no overt reference to, or explanation of, slavery itself—leaves out too much.

Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education who has studied how children’s responses to books on slavery, told The New York Times that the scene is “degrading.” “Publishers are not thinking enough about who is reading these books. Imagine reading ‘A Fine Dessert’ to a classroom in Philadelphia that is 90 percent African-American. How are those kids going to feel?”

The illustrator posted a defense of her depictions of the family:

I thought long and hard about these smiles. In the first scene, the mother and girl are picking blackberries. I imagined this as a rare moment where they were engaged in a task together, out of doors, away from the house and supervision, where the mother is talking to her child. It is a tender moment, but the mother is not smiling. The girl has a gentle smile. She is, in this moment, not unhappy. I believe oppressed people throughout history have found solace and even joy in small moments….

The act of having to hide in the cupboard to lick the scrapings from the bowl is the thing children have responded to most viscerally. They are horrified at how unfair it is. There is nothing whimsical about hiding in the cupboard. It conveys a complete lack of freedom.

After hearing negative feedback, the author apologized in the comments section of an article about the book, which was posted on 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

(H/t The New York Times