Thoughts: A Fine Dessert by Emily Jenkins and Sophie Blackall

The following discussion is less of a review and more of a rumination in this book. To discuss the book, I’ll have to talk about it in its entirety. I do not mean the discussion as an attack of anyone and if anything, I write this in an attempt to sort out my own thoughts while reading this book. With that said, let’s move forward.

14823980

Hardcover, 44 pages
Published January 27th 2015 by Schwartz & Wade
Source: Library

A Fine Dessert shows the creation of one dessert, a blackberry fool, in four different centuries. The synopsis reads:

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.

The writing is warm and engaging and the illustrations are beautiful. The section on the boy and his father creating the dessert in modern day San Diego is inclusive and POC are represented at the dinner party that the picturebook ends on. The point of contention is the depiction of the slaves in 1810 Charleston.

Debbie Reese has a wonderful post that discusses in detail the issues people have with this picturebook and includes links to responses by the author and illustrator and other people who have weighed in on the discussion.

I checked the book out from the library because I was curious about it. I wanted to know what the book contained that had provoked the ire of so many. Well I read it and though I have no ancestors who were slaves and I make no claim about knowing what it feels to be a slave, the depiction of slaves in this, otherwise charming, picturebook actually hurt. This puzzled me. So I decided to unwrap these feelings in the form of a post if only so I could work out for myself why exactly I feel this way.

The mother/daughter pair shown in 1710 are white as are the mother/daughter pair in 1910. The father/son pair in modern day San Diego are racially ambiguous (as is fitting considering the increasing diversity) though if pressed I would classify them as white. The parent/child pairs mentioned previously are all free and not considered property to be owned, sold, or traded. They chose to make the desserts and were not commanded to do so.

I think the major problem here is depicting a slave girl and presumably her mother making the dessert as somehow being equal to the parent/child pairs in 1710, 1810, and the present day making the same dessert. I mean, a slave mowing the lawn is not equal to you mowing the lawn. How could it be?

The loudest criticism is that slavery is depicted as unpleasant and not abhorrent. I don’t believe it was within the scope of this picturebook to show slavery with verisimilitude and yet, according to the author’s note, the slaves were included so that the slave-owning part of American history was not ignored.

What I’ve been trying to grapple with is this issue of inclusion. Obviously I cannot dictate anyone else’s creativity or the manifestation of it but in the interest of critical analysis, I do feel that the portrayal of slavery in less horrific terms than it occurred to make the issue more age appropriate does more harm than good. This is my opinion and you are welcome to disagree but I feel like children do need to know of the horrors that occurred (and are still occurring in some places) but they need an honest portrayal of it to fully comprehend the horror of it. And mind you, in this instance I’m speaking of children whose ancestors were not slaves. A child who is a descendant of a slave will have a very different experience reading this book than children whose ancestors have not been made to suffer through slavery.

For comparison, I offer you The Poet Slave of Cuba by Margarita Engle. That book deals with slavery too and it, too, is meant for child readers though of an older age than A Fine Dessert. Reading The Poet Slave is terribly difficult even for an adult reader but the book successfully imparts the horrendous ordeal of the protagonist. The two books cannot really be compared as one deals explicitly with slavery while the other mentions it in interest of preserving history. Only it fails because this so-called history is viewed through rose-coloured lenses.

I’m glad of the discussion that followed this book and though there are many people griping about the often loud criticism garnered by this book, I’m glad people are refusing to be cowed into silence.

The Book Wars always seeks to bring forward issues that are pertinent to children’s literature. This particular issue is a polemic one and I reiterate, this article is not meant as an attack but as a scholarly discussion of a text which exists independent of its creators.

  • CJ

    I agree with most of what you say but disagree with the idea that toning down history for young kids does harm. We do this with all sorts of ideas all the time. What point would there be in trying to cram all the ugliness that was slavery into a picture book whose target audience wouldn’t understand it? Also, the circumstances by which the slave mom and daughter are making the dessert are different than the other families but the relationship is equal. And, it’s still a book about a dessert.
    https://littlemisslitberry.wordpress.com/2015/11/06/a-fine-backlash-no-smiling-black-people/

    • As I said, that is the issue I am grappling with. Things are toned down all the time but should everything be toned down? If you cannot completely express the horror that slavery encompassed should you give a watered down version of it? What if the watered version of it leads the child to thinking that slavery wasn’t a big deal? As you know, the ideas that are cemented during formative years shade the following years–attitude towards slavery and the people (children who didn’t have a choice whether their masters would tone down their definition of the word slave because they were young) who were slaves need to form after the person has been fully informed about it. Sure, I agree that there are some things children should not have to face (and unfortunately they do anyway) so why not introduce children to slavery when they are old enough to fully understand what it meant?

      Also, one of the people offering a critique of the picturebook pointed that slave children were rarely left with their birth parents and often separated as another way to control the adults. So really, the relationship depicted here is probably not one that existed but a reality that is imposed upon those who no longer have voices for themselves.

  • I totally disagree. The book is NOT about slavery. It’s about dessert. As horrific as slavery was, there were isolated moments between a mother and child that were tender and I feel that is what is captured here.

    • I agree. The book is not about slavery and it *is* about dessert.

      However, I do take umbrage at your other assertions. Unless you have been a slave and have experienced for yourself what it feels like to be property, you cannot speak with any expertise about the lives and moments, tender or otherwise, of the people who suffered though that horror.

      What this book does, unintentionally, is try to create a parallel that does not exist. You cannot compare apples and oranges no matter how red you the orange. The book’s depiction of the slaves shows a lack of respect to actual people who went through it. To people who, generations down the line, are still recovering from it, still facing the stereotypes, discrimination attached with slavery, this depiction of slavery as something unpleasant but not horrific is disrespectful.

      Yes, the book is about dessert and if the book didn’t have space to fully explore the horrific nature of slavery, I feel like it would have done well enough to leave it alone.

      • There are a plethora of assertions going on here – ironic I think. This is the third of fourth time someone has told me how to think or speak regarding this topic. I find that more disturbing than the topic at hand. I am an African American woman, mother and author. I know first hand what is is like to face the stereotypes and discrimination attached with slavery. What is amazing to me, is that I am constantly told what to feel about it. . As a mother I appreciate the author not taking the full liberty to delve into such a complex and horrific topic without knowing if the youngest of the target audience (4-8) has the context to go with it. Rather provide a space for a serious conversation with the new reader and parent. Being that this is a picture book there will be no space to explore the topic of slavery the way it would need. If it were a chapter book, then yes.

        Leaving it alone has been the ongoing problem, it is a part of our history and it needed to be included in a way that BOTH is sensitive to the period AND sensitive to the reader. For me, the book did that with the solemness of the dinner picture and the author’s note. The one illustration of them smiling, it was at each other, not their plight. I found the rebellion of eating a dessert they would not otherwise be able to have, empowering.

        • Thank you for your comment. I appreciate your input into the issue. I don’t think I’m telling anybody how to think but I do know that though you may not feel that the book does anything to incite or provoke and that the discussion is unwarranted, there are others of the same community who feel that it does, and need and want the discussion. Obviously there is no one correct way to feel about the book but the fact that discussion exists surely means that steps are being taken in the right direction. I am curious though, as someone who has to unfortunately face the stereotypes created and perpetuated by slavery, don’t you think there’s a very real danger that portraying the issue in a toned down manner will affect the way children perceive it later on when they learn it? I truly am curious.

          I do want to reiterate that I’m not telling you how to speak or think about the issue. Just as you are making your disagreement felt about the topic, so am I. I feel like that’s the best thing about discussion.

  • readmefirst33

    I have seen the danger of ‘toning down’ literature in the interest of young readers and it is ugly. When I was teaching the book “To Be a Slave,” the biggest hurdle that I had was convincing my students of the fundamental flaws in the ‘kindly slave owner/happy slave’ narratives that they believed in before we started the book. Even in the face of the hard truth presented in “To Be a Slave,” my students continued to struggle with this. And do you know why? Because they had read or watched stories that allowed the “not-all-slaves-had-it-so-bad” narrative to dominate over the brutal, disturbing, and shameful truth about slavery.

    • Awesome comment is awesome.