In 2015, acclaimed children’s book author Emily Jenkins and Caldecott Medal-winning illustrator Sophie Blackall published A Fine Dessert: Four Centuries, Four Families, One Delicious Treat. The book, named a “Best Illustrated Children’s Book” by the New York Times, was described by the publisher as:
a fascinating picture book in which 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 an enslaved 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.
As a confirmed children’s book junkie, I bought A Fine Dessert for my own kids when it came out. It even has a recipe for blackberry fool in the back. We made it, and it was delicious.
Soon, however, a controversy erupted over the book in the high-stakes world of children’s book publishing. The controversy was over depictions of the enslaved mother and daughter smiling.
One reader wrote:
I am so troubled by this book. . . What information is portrayed about slavery through the depiction in the book A Fine Dessert? . . .
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.
The illustrator, Sophie Blackall, countered:
1) . . . Evidence shows that many mothers were able to keep their children nearby, usually because it suited the plantation owners to increase their workforce. Historian Michael Tadman estimated that one third of enslaved children in the Southern States experienced family separation, which suggests that two thirds did not. Jennifer Hallam writes, in Slavery and the Making of America, “The bond between an enslaved mother and daughter was the least likely to be disturbed through sale.” This does not imply that those relationships were not constantly under threat. But it seemed reasonable that we might show a mother and daughter working together. I believe the author, Emily Jenkins came to the same conclusion. There is no father to be seen.
By showing an enslaved mother and daughter together, it is certainly a more positive portrayal of slavery than showing them wrenched apart. But it is not inaccurate. And the book is about different families making blackberry fool over four centuries.
2) 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.
While Blackall defended her work, the author, Emily Jenkins apologized for her insensitivity and pledged to donate the fee she earned for writing it to We Need Diverse Books, an organization working for diversity in the children’s and teens’ publishing industry. Her apology, though, was itself treated with suspicion. As members of a group discussion on the blog Reading While White, written by a group of white teachers and librarians concerned about the lack of diversity in children’s books, said,
I’m . . . discomforted by Emily Jenkins’ apology for A Fine Dessert, at the same time that I respect and admire it. . . . To me [her apology] ties into the White Lady tears phenomenon somehow, though I can’t quite put my finger on exactly how this is all working.
One thing that both the naysayers and the apologists are overlooking is that happiness can be resistance. Listen to this song by Our Native Daughters:
As my friend, writer and educator Melanie Bettinelli, remarked in a private conversation about the book:
I’ve been thinking about A Fine Dessert, too, as I read the Michael Twitty book [The Cooking Gene]. . . It’s fascinating how that smile sits at the meeting point of two different arguments. On the one hand there is the myth of the happy Negro cook, a subtype of the happy slave, whose personhood is totally effaced, buried under the smile they put on for the white people: Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “The Mask.” On the other hand there is as you say, that subversive element, the ability to make music, art, to find personhood in subversion, the need for transcendence. So there’s definitely a flashpoint there, the smile can be read both as the mask that is necessary to appease the white gaze, but also as the secret subversion, the We Could Fly moment dreaming of beauty and a secret inner life that the cruel reality of slavery cannot touch . . . [The] hard, uncomfortable truth [is] that at the root of much of American cooking in the South is slavery, that trauma that no one wants to acknowledge. And here’s a picture book for kids that dares to go there and a lot of people are uncomfortable going there and even thinking about it. On the other hand since it’s just one episode in a picture book that doesn’t give a greater context, maybe it isn’t contextualized enough to tell a nuanced story and that is worth pondering. . . does the smile support the stereotype of the happy Negro or subvert it? . . . I think that’s precisely why the book shouldn’t be canceled, but rather discussed, but the zeitgeist is to shy away from having those conversations and sweeping them under the rug, while claiming that of course we want to have the conversation.
The poem Melanie references, “We Wear the Mask,” by Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906):
We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.
Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.
We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!
This haunting reading of the poem by Maya Angelou, and her response to it, was brought to my attention by student Nicole Corbin.
Another valid criticism of the book is the way it portrays privilege. As Paula Young Lee notes, the book
doesn’t trace Blackberry fool (a “fine dessert” referenced by the title) as prepared by 18th century leather tanners, by 19th century prostitutes, and 20th century truckers living in rusted-out double-wides, to echo the chronological arc of the book. It doesn’t even feign the sentimentalized pauper’s kitchen featured in kid lit from Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” to Roald Dahl’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” No, the interpretative lens focuses on the social privileges of the leisured class, and that’s why the horrors of slavery are downplayed.
The beauty of ordinary, everyday life is one of the themes of the 2020 Disney Pixar movie Soul, which features a jazz musician who tutors an unborn soul in living on earth.
Here is a collection of essays, articles, and statements on the book.
Check out the Twitter hashtag #SlaveryWithASmile.
UPDATE, JULY 2022:
This year, Reading While White objected to another New York Times award-winning children’s book, On the Other Side of the Forest. Read the linked blog post. What do you think?
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