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.