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 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.