A Fine Dessert: Sweet Intentions, Sour Aftertaste

Cover image from http://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/205549/a-fine-dessert-four-centuries-four-families-one-delicious-treat-by-emily-jenkins-illustrated-by-sophie-blackall/

As a teacher-librarian, there are many ways I think about books. When I collaborate with children on their reading choices, we consider purpose: WHY are we choosing right now? Is it for a class assignment? For research? For fun? Together with teaching colleagues, I consider age of the learners, presentation of ideas, time restraints, curricular connections, and more. Different needs lend themselves to different questions—and ultimately different conclusions as well. Reflecting on these questions and our answers to them opens pathways and helps us determine excellent material for each reader and for each need.

As a librarian-librarian, I know and respect the First Amendment. I work to check my privilege and biases to ensure access and protect my patrons’ right to read. It’s a constant exercise (one that I hope I get better at every day). I understand that there is a difference between picking a book for a lesson or storytime or giving it a space on your library’s shelf. There’s a difference between saying a book doesn’t have the right to exist and raising concerns about it.

Which leads me to A Fine Dessert. There’s much to praise about Emily Jenkins and Sophie Blackall’s book, and numerous thoughtful people have already done so here, here, and here.

A Fine Dessert allows readers to ponder what has changed over four centuries, as well as what hasn’t. It shows scenes that leave room for young readers to question and reflect. But it also shows something that to me is quite problematic: smiling, working slaves.

Here is a sketch of the picture in question (posted by Sophie Blackall on 11/4/13 at http://sophieblackall.blogspot.com/2013/11/a-fine-dessert-part-5.html).

In the end matter, illustrator Blackall discusses how she considered the characters’ emotions when bringing her scenes to life. Jenkins writes in her author’s note:

“This story includes characters who are slaves, even though there is by no means space to explore the topic of slavery fully. I wanted to represent American life in 1810 without ignoring that part of our history. I wrote about people finding joy in craftsmanship and dessert even within lives of great hardship and injustice—because finding that joy shows something powerful about the human spirit. Slavery is such a difficult truth. At the end of the book, children can see a hopeful, inclusive community.”

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

In exploring the concept of slavery with young children, I’ve found that stories in which characters show courage and resistance are the most empowering, as they help learners process the ideas in ways that inspire them (ever-aware of contemporary injustices) to work to make the world more equitable. The scene in which the young girl and her mother hide in a closet to lick the bowl when they’re not supposed to is one of these moments. My concern about this book isn’t that the characters, despite hardship, share moments of joy together. I’m questioning if working to make a dessert and then having to hide to taste it is an honest enough representation of the experience of slavery in South Carolina in 1810.

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 result is a book in which the word “slave” isn’t used until the end matter, but the word “master” appears in the narrative. What message might this send to readers about what American slavery was or what it really did to people?

With the right guidance, I know my patrons will be able to use A Fine Dessert for a variety of purposes. But for me, the thorny handling of slavery is a distraction that will get in the way of me choosing to use it as part of a compare/contrast activity, how-to unit, or thinking routine about societal norms. 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).

I have confidence that Jenkins and Blackall toiled over each decision, none of which were probably easy and many over which they might not have had much control. I know that one book can’t and shouldn’t have to represent an entire experience, good or bad. I don’t have an easy fix or “should’ve done it this way” to offer. I am just disappointed. This book had such delicious promise and a few spectacular moments (including Blackall’s inclusive 2010 tableau in the final pages), but the misleading depiction of slavery is something I can’t overlook. As much as I wanted to savor it, A Fine Dessert just left me feeling sour.

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19 thoughts on “A Fine Dessert: Sweet Intentions, Sour Aftertaste

  1. Well I once had a similar feeling about a book about Colonia Williamsburg that failed to use the word slave and talked about indentured servants

  2. Thanks for this review! Those parts of the book bothered me, too. Some people thought hiding in the closet to eat the dessert was mischief on their part, like they were getting away with something. To me, it seemed not to understand the life of an enslaved person.

  3. Thoughtful post here, Elisa. This reminds me of “The Friend” by David Small and Sarah Stewart. Again, I’m sure the creators were well-intentioned, but…

    • My reflection above isn’t about whether or not smiles occurred, but about how the smiles are presented in this specific book and what story the images of smiling, “working” enslaved people communicate. Some might argue that the images show how people found joy in their “work” despite hardship, but I don’t believe the hardship and resistance shown are adequate.

      I recently read a book by Don Tate (titled Poet: The Remarkable Life of George Moses Horton) which shows smiles on enslaved people. The artist uses somber hues and other facial expressions to reflect honestly the horrors of the institution in an age-appropriate way. He shows smiles, but he also shows suffering. They are smiling when they are reading, writing, resting, praying, and dreaming. While they are being forced to work, they are not smiling.

  4. Will you be writing commentary about “A Birthday Cake for George Washington” by Ramin Ganeshram, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton? It has similar issues but does not seem to be getting much “buzz” on the internet. I look forward to your assessment of it.

    • Thank you for your comment. I am currently serving on a committee for ALSC so I will not be commenting on this blog about books published this year.

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