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. her share of the profits from the book to organizations working for diversity. 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:
Check out the Twitter hashtag #SlaveryWithASmile.
More on cancel culture in children’s and YA literature:
It’s not just writers who ought to be worried. The logical [conclusion] of a prohibition on cultural intercourse is a future in which each person is allowed to document only his or her precise subjective experience. A future, in other words, where fiction is history. And that sounds like a very dreary prospect for us all.
What do you think?
Do you think A Fine Dessert should have been published?
Do you think the illustrations should have been modified?
Do you think the enslaved family should have been included?
Do you agree with illustrator Sophie Blackall’s defense?
Do you agree with author Emily Jenkins’s apology?
If you were hired to write a book about the way an object (in this case, a recipe) or a cultural artifact (music, for instance) was passed down through generations across cultures, how would you do it?
I have put a copy of A Fine Dessert on reserve in the library.