The dessert, by the way, is BlackBerry Fool

A Fine Dessert becomes A Fine Mess

If you’re active on Twitter, Facebook or some of the children’s literature blogs, you’re probably aware of the controversy involving A Fine Dessert: Four Centuries, Four Families, One Delicious Treat written by Emily Jenkins and Illustrated by Sophie Blackall. (Schwartz and Wade, 2015)

I first became aware of the controversial aspects of the book in August when Debbie Reese Facebooked about problems she was finding in one of the images. Only recently did I actually pick up the book so that I could see what everyone was talking about. I took a very different approach by not reading the text. Because the book is being talked about as if it could be a Caldecott contender, I opted to read the images.

Have you read the book? As indicated in the title, it’s the story of families over time enjoying the same dessert. It takes on a rhythm appropriate for 4-8 year olds, but it’s that rhythm that I think causes the books problems. That rhythm of these families creates a likeness that is only true if you think living in America makes us all basically the same, trying to find commonalities in European and African American history. Well, let’s take a look.


One of the first images is of this young white family (sans father) and the young girl is looking up to her mother as they pick blackberries.

This is in opposition to s similar image where the young enslaved girl is looking down at her own mother (we know this is her mother because it’s stated in the text.)


The mother seems to have a look on her face that is hopeful at the least, happy at most.

FullSizeRender FullSizeRender-5

The likenesses of these individuals is certainly troubling. The same round faces, very similar clothing and even similar expressions that indicate similarity in their social and economic positions.


I think this is one of the most interesting images in the book because the artist conveys so much meaning. Look at those patriotic drapes. See the patriarch on the wall looking over his family? The father at the head of the table, leaning in? Such power there while at the other end of the table, the mother is demur and almost disengaged. The enslaved workers eyes are downcast and the mother is in a pose as if she is offering so, so much to this family that is not her own.

At the edge of these pages, the mother and daughter slip off to sneak some of the dessert for themselves.


Would not a 4-8 year old see the fun in hiding in a closet with their mother, rather than the dehumanizing fact that this cupboard offers the child more protection than her mother ever could?


Looking at these girls licking the spoons, can you even tell for sure which is White and which is Black?

Oh, and there’s the kumbaya moment at the end.


I admit to fumbling with this one for a moment. That rhythm is so alluring! But, I knew I’d never buy this book for my children or grandchildren. And, when I wondered how an African American would have done this book, I know they wouldn’t have. That realization make me dig deeper, have a conversation and get the nuances. I looked again, and yes pictures do speak a thousand words. Most of my problems with the book are not the same as what others have seen, yet we’re all seeing issues.

The author, Emily Jenkins has realized and admitted the book’s shortcomings and has decided to donate all her earnings to We Need Diverse Books. That, my friends, is a big deal. That is a HUGE indication that there is a problem with the book. I’ve read several things Jenkins has written and I do think she’s an ally to diversity. Diversity work is relentless! The revelations about how we reduce others, how we limit their power is continual. We have to admit how we do it on a personal level, accept the shame in that and also recognize how it’s done on an institutional level. There is no switch to turn that makes you a diversity worker one day, but not the next. Heck, I’ve even admitted that it took me a minute with this book.

Maybe you have to keep struggling with this one. Maybe you know there must be a problem because so many (INCLUDING THE AUTHOR) say there is a problem. Keep listen, keep looking. That white light is blinding and it can be hard to see through it at first.

And yes, Varian Johnson will buy the book and will read it to his girls. Varian will not read the book to his girls in the same way most white readers will read the book. He will see all the flaws in the text and images and he will know his girls well enough to know what they’re ready to discuss. Varian clearly has very high expectations for his daughters as he is preparing them with a well curated education. They will know the fullness of American history (not just the white version) and they’ll be able to read messages conveyed in text and in images. They will understand how authors and artists try to position readers, how they use their power to frame their message. Most in kidlit have said they’re saving these lessons for older students. We have to know our audience as well as ourselves when we’re having these sessions in critical literacy. Do we really see what messages are conveyed here?

Do you really see the messages conveyed?

Did you realize this post is not contextualized, that I have not linked to any of the posts containing historical evidence of the conversations and confessions relating to the book? As the owner if this blog, I used my privilege to frame this message to fit my world. That’s what people in power do. I use my power to fight the good fight.

book review: The Great Greene Heist

TheGreatGreeneHeisttitle: The Great Greene Heist

author: Varian Johnson

date: Arthur A. Levine; May 2014

main character: Jackson Green

middle grade fiction

Intriguing! Has Jackson Greene changed? And, just how bad was he that he needed to change? Will Jackson get the girl? Will the girl get the guy? Will Gabriela win the election?

The cast of characters for this middle grade caper includes Victor Cho, Bradley Boardman, Megan Feldman and Charlie de la Cruz and their talents range the spectrum from inventing high-tech inventions to environmental advocacy. These middle grade students put it all on the line to save their friends and the student council election for their school. What could be more important to middle grade students?

I found the 3rd person voice in this book so refreshing and accomplished in a manner that few other than Varian Johnson can do. The story Johnson tells is as much Gaby’s as it is Jackson’s. I think he successfully nailed the voice of his characters, who were quite well-developed. The guys sound like guys and the girls sound like girls.

And, then there’s Principal Kelsey who manages to rest firmly on the marker for ‘stereotypical character’ on the Scale of Character Development for Children and Young Adult Books. With so much going on in the story, using him as a stock character allows the story to move at it’s quick pace. How stock is he? This guy is so self-involved that he doesn’t take any effort to get to know his students. He confuses his Asian students with one another as easily as he confuses Latino students. The students are so different from one another, readers wonder how he could do that.

Embedding elements from Oceans 11, Westing Game, Sneakers, Thomas Crown Affair and Star Trek 3: Wrath of Khan in this book, Johnson appeals to the mischievous intellect of this daring age group. Jackson is one of the best-developed MG male characters I’ve read in a long time. While his character relate more to reader’s creative side, his escapades relate to why we read in the first place: for sheer enjoyment.

themes: Elections; friendship; technology; reliability; integrity


Author Interview: Varian Johnson

TGIF!!!  After a week of standardized testing, I’m ready for the weekend! A chance to step away from the workplace and chillax. I’ve got quite a pile of books to get to that I just can’t find the stamina to read during the work week. It looks like we might have a few storms going through and that using provides a nice atmosphere for reading.
I can’t think of a better way to start this weekend than an interview with Varian Johnson. I haven’t done a lot of author interviews here, so you have to know this a special event! Varian’s new book, Saving Maddie (my recent review) was just released on Tuesday. Varian’s first YA book was My Life as a Rhombus, an enjoyable book about Rhonda, a high school student who is a math genius trying to solve the problems in her own life. And, she’s rhombus! Not only does Varian live virtually in 2.0, but he’s an engineer, educator and family man. Living proof of that to whom much is given, much is expected. He has so many talents!

I have a short interview with Varian today, but do also take the opportunity to visit one of the other blogs on his recent tour and learn more about the man behind these wonderful books. Varian also maintains his own blog. AND!! I’ve got a little giveaway! Any and everyone who shares a little comment on this blog will be entered for a chance to win a copy of “Saving Maddie”. I have two copies. You will have until midnight on Saturday 13 March to be entered into the drawing.

Monday, March 8thAuthor’s Tent, Melodye

Tuesday, March 9thReading In Color, Ari

Wednesday, March 10th – Gwenda at Shaken & Stirred

Thursday, March 11th – Melissa at Book Nut

Do you see Saving Maddie as appealing to boys, girls or both? Both! I actually have a slight problem with the “boy book / girl book” label—while it works in general, I worry that when one says a novel is a “boy book,” someone may automatically think that ALL boys should like it, or that NO girl would want to read it. That being said, it’s very true that some books will appeal to girls more than boys, and vice versa. Cover art aside, I think Saving Maddie is a novel both genders can enjoy and relate to. 

I don’t know how easy it will be to answer this, but your books have really deep issues in them. How difficult is it to let your characters work through these issues without becoming preachy? How do you stray away from letting your author’s voice bleed through? Maybe what I’m really trying to ask his how do you perfect your skill? 

 I work really, really hard at trying to keep the authorial voice separate from each specific character’s voice. Most of my secondary characters tend to start off as quite didactic and two-dimensional—it takes multiple revisions to transform them into real characters.  

Also, my characters feel like my children at times—I don’t want all of these bad things to happen to them. I want someone to swoop in set them on the right path (I especially felt this way about Rhonda in My Life as a Rhombus, and Madeline is practically breaking my heart right now as I work through the companion novel). But at the end of the day, my job as an author is to make it hard for my characters. There’s no such thing as an easy answer in my books.

 I found Maddie to be a very intriguing character! I am really looking forward to finding out more about her in your next book. In your writing process, how far do you develop your characters? Does Maddie have a theme song? Birthday? Favorite TV show? Or does she just kind of come to your imagination?   Maddie has a full life outside of the pages of Saving Maddie. While she doesn’t necessarily have a theme song or favorite show (yet), she has a birthday, and she most certainly feels like a real person to me.  

What are some of the books you remember reading as a child? I was a Judy Blume disciple—I loved all her books. I was also a huge fan of Virginia Hamilton and Walter Dean Myers. 

Twitter or Facebook? OhI love them both. But if I had to choose, I’d pick Facebook. Sometimes it’s tough to get things down to 140 characters. 

American football or soccer?  Football! (Go Sooners!) 

Mountains or oceans?  Oceans. I grew up an hour from Myrtle Beach, SC. 

Meat or vegetables As my Dad used to say—it’s not a real meal if it doesn’t have meat! 

Rain or snow?   Um…neither? 

Where is the furthest away from home you’ve ever traveled?  India. I travelled there for 10 days with my wife while she was in graduate school. We saw everything from the beaches of Goa to the Taj Mahal.  

What’s the last thing that made you smile?   That question about meat! I really, really love my meats!

Thanks, Varian for the great interview! Your passion for writing is as obvious as your concern for your readers. I wish you much success!

Thanks, Jessica for the promotional materials!