Sophie Blackall Illustration

Drawings and Snippets and Breaking News, (but more snippets than breaking news).

Friday, October 23, 2015

Depicting Slavery in A Fine Dessert

It has come to my attention that some readers of A Fine Dessert have found the depiction of slavery troubling.

Every reader is entitled to their response and I don't expect to say anything which will change those concerns. I would, however, like to explain the choices I made so that a newcomer to the book might not be deterred from reading it and so that they may come to their own conclusion.

Here are some of the objections I read in the comments section of the Horn Book blog, Calling Caldecott.

"Based on the illustrations, there are too many implications that should make us as adults squirm about what we might be telling children about slavery:
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 [a] fun… moment of whimsy rather than a dangerous act that could provoke severe and painful physical punishment"

1) At the risk of sounding exactly as the writer of one comment predicted, ("But we included something hard! But I researched slavery!”), 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.
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The second smile comes as the girl completes her task of whipping the cream. It’s hard work, which we see in the middle frame, and the smile was intended to convey pride in completing the task. She looks up to someone, presumably her mother, as if to say, “I did it!”

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In the next spread, the girl smiles timidly as she enjoys licking the spoon, but looks fearful as she descends the basement stairs.

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The dinner table scene is set up to show the deep injustice of the situation. The people who worked so hard over the dessert don’t get to eat it. A very small enslaved child pulls a cord to fan the white family throughout the duration of the dinner. The enslaved mother and daughter are somber and downcast. This scene seems to really strike a chord with young readers.
I have shown isolated moments of their day which may appear pleasurable, but I don’t think I have made slavery out to seem pleasurable or fun. As another commenter wrote, “Why shouldn’t a child and her mother, no matter where they are in the world or what their circumstances, share love and a smile in the course of their day? No matter how trying, inhumane or unacceptable the circumstances. Love is the most triumphant of emotions, bringing us through unspeakable trials and ordeals.”

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 3) The act of having to hide in the cupboard to lick the scrapings from the bowl is the thing children have responded to most viscerally. They are horrified at how unfair it is. There is nothing whimsical about hiding in the cupboard. It conveys a complete lack of freedom.

Emily Jenkins says in her author’s note: “This story includes characters who are slaves, even though there is by no means space to explore the topic of slavery fully. I wanted to represent American life in 1810 without ignoring that part of our history. I wrote about people finding joy in craftsmanship and dessert even within lives of great hardship and injustice – because finding that joy shows something powerful about the human spirit. Slavery is a difficult truth. At the end of the book, children can see a hopeful, inclusive community.” I would add that this is a book for young children. It introduces issues of slavery in the context of a wider history. It is not intended to be the only story children will read. It does not fully depict the horrors of slavery, but I don't think such a depiction would be appropriate for this particular age group.

The way we look at pictures is incredibly complicated. I cannot ensure my images will be read the way I intended, I can only approach each illustration with as much research, thoughtfulness, empathy and imagination as I can muster.
Reading the negative comments, I wonder whether the only way to avoid offense would have been to leave slavery out altogether, but sharing this book in school visits has been an extraordinary experience and the positive responses from teachers and librarians and parents have been overwhelming. I learn from every book I make, and from discussions like these. I hope A Fine Dessert continues to engage readers and encourage rewarding, thought provoking discussions between children and their grown ups.

This blog has been edited to add the following:

It seems that very few people commenting on the issue of slavery in A Fine Dessert have read the actual book. The section which takes place in 1810 is part of a whole, which explores the history of women in the kitchen and the development of food technology amongst other things. A Fine Dessert culminates in 2010 with the scene of a joyous, diverse, inclusive community feast. I urge you to read the whole book. Thank you.


Jennifer said...

This is a thoughtful response, Sophie. I love this book and think it is not only beautiful in all aspects, but also an opportunity for important and age appropriate conversations.

Teresa said...

As a white woman who has spent many years exploring issues of equity and how I might best be an ally for my students, families and colleagues of color, I find one key piece missing from your explanation here. Did you at any time share your drafts and ideas with someone of color? Did you explore before publishing what the black community would want in your interpretation? Because that is what I would have done and do when I write about or present on the topic of race and equity. Because what I have come to understand through much conversation with my black and latin@ students and colleagues is that there are many times I might explain or rationalize something, but in the end it always comes from and is influenced by the fact that I am a white woman. I know it must be difficult to put your heart into your work and receive criticism. But what I see here is an opportunity to learn and to be open to the idea that, while we can research history and find facts, we must also research the communities we are depicting by talking to those within those communities to insure our depictions create cultural connections, not disconnects.

Deborah Evans said...

There is disagreement in the scholarly community about the percentage of slave families "allowed" to remain intact.

Sale, or the fear or threat of sale, involving a family member was a "silent terrorism" that made slave family relationships fraught with difficulty, fear, and longing. Take no comfort in the 1/3 statistic you located.

Like all people, enslaved people had moments of joy. Those moments should be acknowledged and remembered.

Slavery should never be portrayed as anything other than painful, destructive, and soul-killing. That is what it was.

A similar story could have been told and illustrated featuring free people of color. They existed throught the slavery period.

Slavery should never be portrayed as a semi pleasant chapter of American history.

The illustrations are lovely.

sophie blackall said...

Thank you for your comment, Teresa. I agree, in principle, that it’s important to research the communities we depict through illustration. I have been fortunate to work for Unicef and Save the Children on a number of illustrated projects advocating for immunization and literacy. I traveled to visit the communities I was depicting, rather than relying on photographs so that I might make the most authentic images I could. These trips have taken me to remote villages in Congo, Rwanda, India and Bhutan. I was incredibly privileged to be invited into homes and schools and hospitals. To see first hand how women tie their head scarves or wrap their babies. With all due respect, I think illustrating historical subjects is slightly different.
In answer to your question, yes, I have spoken to people of color about slavery. But no, I did not explore “what the black community would want” because I’m not even sure how I would go about that. I imagine thinking individuals of color would have a variety of nuanced responses.
Don Tate writes at length on his Facebook page about the challenges of illustrating slavery, and showing a smiling character.
Ultimately, I don’t want to hand off responsibility for my decisions to anybody else. I made these choices, I stand by them. I’m not averse to criticism and I hope to learn from every book I make.

sophie blackall said...

Thank you for your comment, Deborah. I appreciate the points you make. I don't believe I have portrayed slavery as a semi pleasant chapter in American history. That would be abhorrent. I understand it is too gentle a portrayal for some readers. That is a valid response. However, I believe it is a good, age-appropriate introduction to the subject for young readers. Children are able to identify and empathize with the injustice shown and it can be the springboard for deeper discussions. To have substituted the enslaved mother and daughter with a free family of color would, to my mind, seem like a sanitized account of the period. It would almost require a longer note at the back of the book on why we chose to omit this painful truth, than the one explaining why we included it.

FreetobeaChild said...

One of my first impressions reading this book was that I was so glad there was a depiction of slavery that was age appropriate for young readers but still managed to show the injustice. It led to wonderful discussions with my 6-year-old, who knows about slavery, but who is still too young to be told every detail. As a preschool teacher and homeschooling mom who owns literally thousands of picture books and a crazy huge pile of library books out at all times (yes, a wee bit obsessed), I love this book. I have also loved reading here all the research and careful thought that went into each detail.

Jen Robinson said...

Personally, I found A Fine Dessert, and the illustrations in particular, to be an age-appropriate forum for introducing the concept of slavery to my five year old. And I think that the illustrations are lovely, too.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joshua said...

I think one of the reasons you rightfully received backlash for this portrayal of slavery is that Americans has not yet taught a truthful perspective on slavery. So much of the literature, especially targeted for children, depicts a serene, sometimes whimsical view of slavery and not the brutal, terrible regime that it was. This depiction, within the context of how American history is taught, fits into those white-washed versions of slavery.

I truthfully admire what you attempted to do. Showing the fact that human beings attempt to find joy and sometimes happiness in their lives, regardless of how oppressive their surroundings may be is a very difficult thing to do. But African Americans must continue to fight to even have accurate depictions of our history, not just the right tones, or effective stories. And the collective memory we share about slavery is much more visceral that many white Americans. That fact is what makes this depiction so troubling. I am sure that this would not have been at such an issue if this were a country that at least agreed on what chattel slavery was like. But unfortunately it is not.

Sam Bloom said...

Sophie, thanks for taking the time to share your feelings. However, I think Joshua, Teresa and Deborah hit the nail on the head: good though your intentions obviously were, that section of your book is problematic.

But what is also problematic to me is that so many comments (at least four or five) have been deleted from this thread; I can't remember specifically, but was there profanity in every one of them? (I know one specifically was from Emily Jenkins, right? Her words seemed genuine and thoughtful to me.) That looks to an outside observer as if you're trying to silence voices that are speaking out in criticism of your work... which I can only imagine would be difficult and painful to hear, but still, I find that troubling. I hope there is another explanation for those comments being removed.

sophie blackall said...

Thank you for your comment, Sam. I am very much open to a dialogue on this important and complex subject. I had an email from a teacher who is using A Fine Dessert in her classroom, who was going to use this blog post and the discussion in the comments with her third grade students. I want my blog to be a place where teachers and students can come. To that end I decided to delete the posts which contained profane language and those which were an anonymous outburst of anger about the issue of slavery rather than how slavery is depicted in this particular book about the making of a dessert over four generations. Those commenters had clearly not read the book, and were also responding to me as its author, not its illustrator. Emily's response here implied that she would be reading all comments, but once I introduced moderated comments, I realized that would be technically untrue. Everyone has the right to free speech, but I reserve the right to maintain a respectful exchange on my personal blog. I hope that makes sense.

Unknown said...

Sam, thank you very much for highlighting the fact that some of the more direct and frank critiques, particularly from black women, have been deleted. And, I believe you are right in saying that they didn't violate either the letter or spirit of the stated guidelines. My frank and thoughtful response started, "I'm so angry I could scream." Which was true. But was not disrespectful or name calling. This silencing, this censoring of particularly black women's responses, is not only perpetuating the harm we tried to name, but compounding it. Again, thank you for noticing and questioning that decision.

Unknown said...

By implying that the responses that expressed anger were inherently disrespectful or unproductive, you negate a very real and legitimate response to the harm this book is causing. Anger is an appropriate response to the cultural misappropriation and corruption of history that this book represents. It is wrong to delegitimize emotional responses to an issue like this. The trauma and abuse that our Ancestors experience doesn't just live on a shelf in a history book. It lives in our personal histories, in our family legacies. in our very dna. It is appropriate and important that we feel passionately and emotionally affected by work like this. No one cursed you out. No one called you names. We were very gracious and generous in taking the time to confront this harm and attempt to provide you with perspective and clarity about why this approach is problematic and harmful. And your answer to that was to silence us. To negate us. To remove us from the conversation. To craft a dialogue completely absent those perspectives. You can rationalize that choice however you want, but please know that we see very clearly what you did and why. And we are also clear that you were wrong to do so.

sophie blackall said...

Dear Unknown, as I said above, I deleted the comments which included profane language; those which were an anonymous outburst of anger about the issue of slavery rather than how slavery is depicted in this particular book about the making of a dessert over four generations; those from commenters who had clearly not read the book, and were responding to me as its author, not its illustrator. If your earlier comment did not fall into any of these categories and I inadvertently deleted it, I apologize. Please resend. I have made myself open here and I'd appreciate it if commenters used their full names also. My intention was never to harm any reader of this book. I'm listening and trying to learn from everyone's comments. When you say "this approach is problematic and harmful" what exactly do you mean by "this approach"? Thank you.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the reply. It is true that I have not actually read the book. I did, however, read *most* of the characterizations in the other comments and ALL of your clarifications and explanations. I feel like this is specifically what I meant to engage in my comments. I can see how actually reading the content in question would be helpful. I would hope that you might also consider how doing so might compound the harmful impact.

Below is my original comment, posted with my name. I can not see how you might find my points invalid or irrelevant to the conversation. Specifically, I raise the issue of appropriation, questioning whether it's appropriate for you to profit off of these depictions. Secondly, I name experiences harm. And finally, I question the central rationalization and justification regarding age appropriateness. Which, I feel is very important.

Dannette in North Carolina said...

I am so angry I could scream. First, should you be profiting off of the real or imagined knowledge or experiences of formerly enslaved black women and girls? Did you actually consult with any real black women and girls when you developed this? Will those people share in the profits? Did you consult the real lived stories of the historical women you have chosen to portray in this white-washed and offensively skewed interpretation?

As a black woman descended from these enslaved women and girls, I experience this project as harm. Plain and simple. It is a slap in the face. A gross appropriation and twisting of the legacy in which I live every day of my life.

Finally, what about a youth audience translates to sanitizing and white washing of brutal history? That is not logical. It only sort of makes sense if you assume a white audience. We tell our children the truth about our history. We have to. Because, again, we are still living that legacy. We experience ancestral trauma from those 400+ years of degradation and dehumanization. We still experience economic and political disenfranchisement. We are still fighting to be recognized and granted the respect of full humanity as a result of that legacy. We can't paint pretty pictures about this history. We don't have that luxury. It is a function of white privilege in the US to pick and choose just how dirty and ugly a story we want to tell about our nation's history, whether we're taking about slavery, Indigenous genocide, Japanese internment, Jim Crow, etc. etc. An unearned and unjust privilege. Besides, it's not like white youth didn't participate in the degradation and exploitation of enslaved black people. Because, they did. Didn't all white children benefit from that system? Weren't black children enslaved, owned, abused, brutalized, dehumanized, and killed, too? Have you not seen the images of lynchings in which the entire white family brought picnics to watch black people hang to their deaths? NOW the harsh realities of American slavery and white racism are inappropriate for (white) youth? How convenient!

I read the reasoning and rationalization behind these choices, and they were as problematic as the choices themselves. Really, to me, lacking in awareness of things like cultural appropriation and exploitation, privilege, and, well, irony. Just not good enough. And very harmful. That's my two cents.

Unknown said...

I only meant the censoring. If it's true that the slavery depiction, particularly of enslaved mothers and daughters, is harmful and disrespectful to their legacies --- women like me --- then I would think finding ways to silence those voices and remove them from the discussion would be way out of bounds. Problematic and harmful. Again, I believe it is an act of great generosity on our part to trust your intentions well enough to attempt to engage. To name our pain, our connections to this traumatic and brutal history. So, to be met with removed comments and a rationalization that seems to negate our contributions feels problematic and harmful.

Elisa Gall said...

Thank you for adding your voice to this difficult conversation. I understand you did a lot of research and thinking when illustrating the book—and your body of work shows that this is not a matter of intentions, but one of outcomes. Thank you, Emily Jenkins, for responding that you are reading and reflecting on the comments. I am trying my best to do the same as I read and learn more about how others are responding to this book. Please do not silence, minimize, or discredit others’ voices which allow for further reading, reflecting, and learning.

Jessica said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kate Barsotti said...

Since I had the opposite reaction to the slavery section, and I did read the book, I want to say why.

I liked the subversiveness of the slaves. I knew they were fearful and suffering, but I saw they were also resilient and found ways restore their dignity. It made the story more frightening. These people still had something to lose.

I think if the author and illustrator had NOT shown that aspect of these people, they would be criticized for exactly that--for not showing the slaves had some kind of power and agency in spite of their enslavement.

That dining room scene with the slaves serving was like a punch in my gut. Only the man gets to speak and lean in-- you get the feeling only he has a voice and never shuts up. The elder son can read under the table while the ladies have to pay attention. The slaves are all downcast and tired. That little boy is so overdressed in a stuffy room. His job is dull, and repetitive, and he is in that ridiculous uniform that looks too tight.

And those clever, terrible windows. The red striped curtains and blue field of stars--our flag built on the abomination of slavery. The red stripes like cage bars, like the welts after a whipping, the stars that might help navigate escaping slaves to freedom.

Even that black horse on the mantle is disturbing, although I am not sure why.

Sam Bloom said...

Jessica, "anyone can become a picture book author or illustrator"? I find this extremely patronizing. I've heard stories and read blog posts/articles from many, many authors and illustrators of color and from First/Native Nations that would indicate that is not nearly as easy as you make it out to be. Heck, I'll even throw in some white authors and illustrators who can't get their books published (though they have far fewer hurdles over which to leap). I do agree that those titles you listed are worth a read, but I fail to see how those titles have anything to do with what you're arguing.

Also, Kate, I think your perception of the book is probably the way Sophie Blackall intended (I apologize if I'm misrepresenting you, Sophie), but it is a very sophisticated one. Do you really think a child will see the illustrations in such a nuanced way? Particularly a child of color?

Xena's Mom said...

Dear Sophie:

I have read all the comments at Calling Caldecott, Debbie Reese's American Indians in Children's Literature, Reading While White and of course, those voiced here. Conversations on social media are always problematic rather than speaking with one another face to face. The inflections in the speaker's voice, the look in their eyes and their body language is missing. I truly believe that social media while connecting us with one another in truly wonderful ways does allow people to abandon civility, be guided by emotion rather than reason and to focus on the negative rather than the positive.

In reading each and every comment I have tried to put myself in each writer's shoes which is not easy when you are white, sixty-four years old, and with thirty-four years as a certified teacher librarian as your professional experience. I can say with all honesty during my tenure in serving my students and their teachers, I was a champion for diversity in my schools at the high, middle and elementary levels. To not be so would be a disservice to my patrons.

I have read A Fine Dessert many times. There are those who will not agree with my assessment of Emily's and your representations as stated in my blog post, A Sweet Delicacy Travels Through Time. I choose to view the book as intimate moments when a parent and child could share the act of following a recipe and making a dessert and the methods used to accomplish this.

During our Mock Caldecott discussions with students I hope to have many conversations with students about the illustrations in this title. I long to hear the perspectives of these children. They see with a different set of eyes than adults.

I have enjoyed following your writing and illustrative career Sophie.

Most sincerly,
Margie Culver

Sara said...

Dear Ms. Blackall,

What I find most unfortunate is something a wonderful educator friend of mine said. I don't know if he'd want me to use his name, so I will just paraphrase. I think what is happening here is a case of adults using children's books to express anger and forward certain agendas. Don't get me wrong; that anger is justified and those agendas need to be forwarded. However, children's literature is not the platform to do it, and using it as such is very disrespectful to both you and the Ms. Jenkins. As a white person, I do not feel qualified to speak on the racially insensitive issue. A Fine Dessert never seemed racially insensitive to me the dozens of times I read it, but who am I to tell an African American that they are shouldn't interpret it that way? As a librarian, I can speak to two things, based on my advanced professional degree and 13 years of experience. If you haven't read this book in its entirety, you need to refrain from commenting. The first rule of challenges is requiring that the person making the challenge actually read the material they find offensive. Secondly, calling for censorship of the book is going too far. What is this? Fahrenheit 451? Put your torches away. I admire your work very much, and I look forward to both your and Ms. Jenkins future projects.

Sara Ralph
School librarian
North Carolina

Even in Australia said...

I love all your books, especially Ruby's Wish, Finding Winnie, and this one. People are free to disagree with the artistic choices you made; however, I find it shameful that the author was essentially bullied into donating money to We Need Diverse Books. I am glad you are standing by your work.

I discussed this with my children 7.5, and 10 years old, today. They first immediately noted that the book does not "show how bad slavery really was" but then the 10 yo quickly said, "But the book is not about slavery."

I appreciate that your choices were well-researched and carefully considered. Thank you!

girlgonewild said...

Sophie, clearly you thought a great deal about each illustration and I think that shows. I don't believe it's racist at all. In fact, I think it's a great catalyst for a parent and child to talk about slavery. One of the effects of books is to make us think and to give us opportunities for talking about important issues, including children's books. I think you are correct that depicting the horrors of actual slavery is not appropriate for children of this age, developmentally and psychologically. I appreciated what you said about "oppressed people throughout history have found solace and even joy in small moments." What a great message for children. It's something to unpack with a child, about resiliency and could be extended to talks even about bullying and ethics in general.

Anonymous said...

I loved this book when I first saw it and I love it still, maybe more in spite of the criticism which I think if largely off base. Keep up the good work Ms. Blackall!

Disappointed said...

As an educator, teacher and parent, I'm truly sad and disappointed things like this keeps happening. Worse, white authors and illustrators are simply given a pass by their racism by simply saying sorry. Why not just just pulled the book off the shelf completely and give the money to Title 1 schools to either buy books for their library or pay for more staff. This author apparently have lived a life far removed from people of color or worse believed that slaves were happy. The problem unfortunately is not just the author and illustrator but the publisher who didn't review this book well. The reason for their failure is sadly is probably similar to the author and in a white world where people of color are in the shadows and not given an opportunity to work in the "white world" of publishing or anywhere that doesn't follow their narrative beyond the "happy slave." Not surprising that the author and illustrator are two white women....depicting black women this way.

Jennifer said...

They failed to mention the end of the book where the last family is biracial. I thought that was the point where you saw progress. It's about progress and the last scene is mixed races sharing a meal and no one is hiding in the closet.

Unknown said...

There is no such thing as a benign Holocaust. There is no such thing as happy enslavement. There is no such thing as joyful stolen labor.

And yet you manage to communicate all of those irresponsible, reckless and bigoted fictions as you attempt to tell the story of American enslavement to children.

Many have commented on the impact of these self indulgent lies about enslavement on African American children. In the wake of the racist killings in Charleston, there is a more pressing need to have a conversation about the impact of these imagery lies on white kids and white grown ups.

You and your images continue to articulate a convenient untruth about American enslavement...that despite how bad enslavement was, something positive can/did come out of it. As your illustrations and you suggest, "An enslaved family was able to pass on this fine recipe, be OK with providing stolen labor and figure out a way to happily lick up the crumbs of those who rape, steal, and despise them."

This is kinda like saying yes, the Hitler Holocaust was bad, but at least Anne Frank was able to write a book about it. That notion is almost too awful to even say out loud. And yet your illustrations about American Enslavement make that argument.

You as a white person in America need to be brave and absorb the understanding that EVERYTHING about the Enslavement Holocaust was awful, horrible and a crime against humanity. And it is wrong to lie and frame the story about Enslavement from the perspective of those who were enslaved, in any other way.

Sheryl Gwyther said...

Well, that certainly was an interesting 10 mins of reading comments! As a non-indigenous person from Australia, I'm not qualified to voice any opinion on how it must feel for indigenous people (or African Americans) who have suffered under white rule. And still suffer injustice - indigenous people here in Australia cope with this every day of their lives.

But, I have the right to comment as a person with intelligent thought, as your commentators do. Not all stories are 'black and white' (not pun intended). The most powerful stories can be about the simple truths of how people cope in bad, tragic circumstances. And if you know human nature, you would understand how mothers (or parents) find ways to lift the hearts and souls of their children, in small ways just to give a little hope, a small smile to the people they love most, even under the most terrible of circumstances. That is what humans do.

And that is what this book depicts.

Ms. Watson said...

I find your lengthy defense of your critics even more troubling and doesn't do much to demonstrate that you thought about your version/perception/ideations of slavery from the perspective and experiences of those who are the descendants of slaves in our country. As white people, to center our voice this tragic history is wrong, inaccurate, and dangerous. I am really disappointed that your response didn't show any more care and concern than when you put the pen to paper in the creation of this book.

As an educator, I am making every attempt to make sure that we don't participate in the careless perpetuation of a revisionist history by allowing this book into our classrooms. We can and should do better than this. And when we mess up, we need to apologize and fix it, not make lengthly defenses and/or attempt to educate those who already know and are apart of the history we are trying to reframe.

girlgonewild said...

Ms Watson, I do believe reframing is one step in revising history. It's elemental, my dear Watson...erasing slavery is more damaging than depicting it. Would you show slaves being beaten for stealing the pie to this age group? You are full of critique but I notice no suggestions for improvement. It is after all difficult for most people to place themselves in others shoes, let alone forget that there's an "other".

Ms. Watson said...

Girlgonewild: Please don't get cute with me...or condescending for that matter. You have nothing of importance to contribute to my comment, so I suggest YOU do more evaluating of your whiteness, making assumptions and putting words into my mouth, and less talking. Also, I don't know what would make you the authority on how to present issues of slavery, but it isn't reframing and repackaging it to be a warm and fuzzy depiction. If you had exposure to children's books, written by African-Americans authors who address slavery, then you wouldn't be asking me how it should be done in an appropriate way.

girlgonewild said...

It's quite easy to read condescension into text - as far as my "talking" I do believe my comments are far shorter than yours. And when given the choice of responding to anger such as yours, I often choose humor over escalation via even more anger. Be well.

And DO illuminate us as to which books you are referring to. I'm always open to being educated.

Unknown said...

As a parent and an educator, I would love to know what teacher wants to use this book so that I can call the school and ensure it will not be done. This books is nowhere near okay. It is making slavery seem as if there was something good about it. I find it ridiculous and more than that, offensive. It is of no surprise to me that the white people on here think this is appropriate. I am assuming because they don't want their children to know how bad it really was and how privileged white people were and to every extent, still are in our society. It is sick and depraved. While you may have meant well, I will let you know, at the age of five, my daughter knew the truth about slavery. She knew the truth about the civil rights movement and the truth about Columbus. Why? Because I don't lie to my children. Age appropriate? Sense when is lying age appropriate? Introducing slavery? Hmmm how about having a real dialogue with them and explaining what happened? Worked for me and you would be amazed at how much they understand. This I'd the reason many problems still exist. You always have some trying to sugar coat and white wash our history while the others still suffer from it.

Ms. Watson said...

There are a host of resources out there, but I am not going to do the work for you. I honestly don't think you are as open to learning as you say, so I am not really going to waste my time with you. If you are that interested, you will do the work yourself. Don't confuse anger with my refusal to pander to your feelings.

girlgonewild said...

The dialogue you are carrying on, however, is not open. Words like 'refusal' and phrases like 'waste my time with you' are unfortunately part of the problem. I really do wish you were open to having a good dialogue about it. You are emoting too much for that.

If you want to get down to brass tacks and dig into it, ie, produce a more positive result, then I'm sure this thread will be here for you whenever you come around to that point.

Best of luck.

Zita Holbourne, Poet~Artist~Activist said...

Sophie the story is told about the enslaved mother and daughter from a position of white privilege. It glosses over & ignores the horrific conditions that enslaved African people went through, even from the start of their part of the story where they are picking berries their situation as enslaved people is glossed over - the reference to it being a plantation could have been followed by what that meant - that they were stolen or their families were, forced into enslavement, abused, tortured, that they were not paid to work but made to, yes everybody is entitled to & has moments of joy, but enslaved people had / have many moments of pain, sadness, anger - so why was a decision made to only show joy? There is no context to their story, no narrative on the brutal reality they faced - possible separation, rape, beatings, sub standard - and that's putting it lightly working conditions. Who was consulted from the African diaspora - the descendents of enslaved African people? As it is our histories are written out of the school curriculums and the history books - to mask the crimes of humanity we encountered , it is lacking in compassion and responsibility to trivialize these events, racism is deepening globally - the fact that's it's 2016 and we have to hold up signs bearing the words bLack Lives Matters should tell you something. We are still living with the legacy of enslavement treated as second & third class citizens , the far right is increasing - children learn racist views, the argument that this is for young children so it can't be truthful about that period doesn't hold up, it is essential that it is truthful & that children are taught from a young age about such events & educated about the horrors of racism & crimes against humanity - if a section of the book was set during the holocaust would you dare to gloss over & trivialize that? What you fail to recognise in presenting your defence is the real pain & hurt this has caused plus damage - it is saying that our lives & experiences don't matter, were not that bad and it's just a period in history. It's a dangerous way of perceiving our pain and the impact to this very day of those historical events. When I shared details of this book on so ill networking , people did not believe it,they thought it was a wicked joke being played, I had to convince them that it is a real book and actually published by a major publishing house. Was there consultation, was there an equality impact assessment carried out? Who authorised the publication of this book because there ought to have been checks and consultation?

girlgonewild said...

I don't know how I would approach this either...I mean how do you write a book about diversity using the event of making a pie but still show rape/murder/brutality - and for 5 year olds?

How could this have been done differently? Literally what images and words would have been more truthful while remaining age appropriate? In curious.

Unknown said...

I am continually struck by white unwillingness to listen, and to respect the perspectives of Black people and their allies. Open up, folks, and acknowledge that the author and illustrator of this book and so many others, assumed they could write about an experience completely alien to their heritage, while apparently isolated from any authentic Black feedback during the creative process. And now, when being challenged, the illustrator wants credit for her beautiful artwork, despite the scenario she was illustrating - as if that is removed from the content of the story. And several white people immediately comply with compliments. Brave Black people continue to extend themselves in educating privileged folks about the imbalance of power, but defensiveness and need to be right insulated privileged people from learning and growing and contributing to much needed change in this society. This thread feels to me like so many microcosms of missed opportunities for real dialogue because of unwillingness of white people to open up to reality. And white people don't seem to recognize that unwillingness to open up is a strong signal of privilege. White people can move on and ignore how hard they are stomping on people who do not have that insulating privilege. Here's a good chance to listen and learn.

Ms. Watson said...

A bit of advice Girlgonewild. Stop tone policing and start listening to what several people are saying on here.

girlgonewild said...

The thing about text (instead of face to face conversations) is that it's easy to read what you want into what other people write.

So, actually, I asked a direct question. I'm genuinely intrigued by HOW one would cover a subject like this for such a young audience.

Any suggestions on what images and plot points/words she could have used in the context of making a pie, if one were a slave in that time period?

Or maybe any time period, or any race - for example, there were a great many indentured slaves of European descent in the same time period. If I recall my "black history in film and literature" course correctly, I'm pretty sure the concept of slavery (with all its brutality) did not start in Africa. Nor has it ended there, unfortunately.

An interesting spin for that section of Sophie's book could have been to instead use the invisible, low-paid (maybe even underaged) workers in Asia making our Nike shoes as her subject.

sophie blackall said...

I thank everyone for their comments over the past few months. I am listening and learning from this discussion.

Poetry of Motion! said...

The only reason anyone would write and furthermore invest money to publish this type of filth is because they are part of the racist society that promotes and minimalizes slavery. In the US there is still something called free speech, so this would be the premise on which it is based. Truly irresponsible.

Unknown said...

Ms. Blackall - I am a professional historian, librarian, and also a parent. I have read your book. You note that research suggests that 2/3rds of enslaved families were kept together, and therefore it was not unreasonable that mother and daughter were depicted together. I would encourage you to read some of the correspondence by Henry Laurens and other southern planters who lived in the late 18th and early 19th century. Henry Laurens wrote a number of letters where he justified his continued enslavement of Africans by pointing out that he kept families together and didn't mistreat them. The point of these letters was for planters to depict themselves as "benign" or "humane" slave owners. It was a common argument trotted out by more than a few slave owners, as they were criticized for their participation in the slave trade. Their protests more or less that they were good masters and their slaves were happy were obviously disingenuous. At the end of the day, they were proponents of slavery.

I think that reading these letters might help you understand why your depictions are problematic, and also why you're getting the angry responses you are. The Papers of Henry Laurens have been published and can probably be borrowed through interlibrary Loan. I believe the letters I described are in later volumes. There's one he wrote to Richard Oswalt in Volume 16, pages 266-267. In reality, there was nothing benign about it. Among other things, the keeping together of or separation of families was a tool of control used by masters. Children were sold away from parents as punishment if the parents were "bad." And that's only part of why it's important to look into the entire context of the separation of enslaved families. The history of slavery is full of all sorts of attempts to excuse and trivialize it from the days of slavery onward. I do hope a look at these sources will help you appreciate why your illustrations rubbed salt in a wound.

I know that your work is for a different audience, but I encourage you to think too of the response by well-educated movie critics to 12 Years a Slave. One of the Washington Post movie critics wrote that he was shocked to see that slavery really was that violent. (I'm afraid I can't remember who at this point.) Obviously, you are illustrating for children and not adults, but do think what it means when a well-read, well-educated adult doesn't understand that slavery was horrifically violent. It shows just how far the white-washing of history has gone. We have it at all levels now. Look at the McGraw-Hill textbook last year that referred to slaves as "servants" and implied that it was voluntary labor:

The "happy slave" myth has been trotted out too from time after time. Consider this article from the NY Times that covers the essence of the "happy slave myth:"

Robin Santos Doak's book Slave Rebellions might also provide more food for thought. (Out of print, I believe, but a used copy can be had for under a dollar on Amazon.) I hope this all gives you a better appreciation of the reaction you've received.

Aran said...

As a parent, I cannot dictate what books my children listen to. If my children don't want a book, my children leave the room. I cannot strap my children into chairs and force them Clockwork Orange style to look at any book I choose.

My children are extraordinarily good at judging a book's tone from its cover. They know immediately if a book will be about something sad, and, if so, they refuse to let me read it to them.

Thus, any book whose artistic tone accurately reflects the terrible reality of slavery will be immediately rejected by my children, and as a result the subject matter becomes incredibly difficult to introduce to my children during their formative years, which I feel might be a missed opportunity.

My children were happy to read A Fine Dessert with me, because the presentation of the book was so rosy and whimsical. The book is subversive on this level, because it tricked my children into engaging with a subject matter which they normally wouldn't allow me to introduce. And they DID feel a sense of injustice during the slavery section. I think it is a powerful thing that my two, white, male children, found themselves identifying with the injustice of the girl who did all the work, but didn't get to enjoy her dessert.

The genuine question that I think the debate about A Fine Dessert prompts is:

Under what circumstances, is it appropriate to tone down the depiction of a reality so that children will more readily choose to engage with a subject matter rather than reject it out of fear? This applies to other subjects: war, refugees, sexism, gun violence, religious intolerance.

Who should be the decision makers on these judgement calls? What should the process be?

What should be the consequences when the decision makers make a decision that ultimately runs up against popular opinion? Should the book be pulled from shelves?

Tom Barrett said...

I am glad I read the book before commenting as that gave me a whole different perspective. At first, reading others' negative comments here, it was easy to get defensive. However, having seen and read the book and the pictures, I understand somewhat the issue people are having. However, the only rough spot I saw was the depiction of the black mother and daughter hiding in the closet. Understanding how severe some might have been punished, I am confident that hiding in the closet to get a taste of a dessert would not have been worth the risk. Perhaps a better depiction would have been the both of them leaning toward each other quickly licking a spoon or something. But, as they say, hindsight is 20/20.

That being said, I do feel that the majority of the naysayers on here and other places are blowing this issue WAY out of proportion. While I too think that slavery should never be depicted as anything other than horrifying, I think we would all be remiss to believe that slaves never experienced any times of happiness or joy inspite of their circumstances. And to continually harp on this author and illustrator for their capturing what is in essence a very miniscule moment of time in the grand scheme of slavery, is a sad and unnerving reflection of our current society. And many here are commenting as if the author and illustrator had attempted to depict all of slavery within 5- 6 pages, which, for anyone, would be virtually impossible. It is a fictional story — what "might have been" if you will, from someone's imagination — and to take it any other way is very short-sighted. I would venture to say that if this same story were written and illustrated by people of color, there would be no issue, and I would not be writing this comment. My prayer is that we can get past these minute personal agendas and work together to make the change that we want to see happen, as Ghandi said so well.

Tzrdkd said...

As an African American, I can honestly say that I have nothing but praise for this book. It is quite incredible that some people are finding anything negative to say abut this beautiful, well-researched, inclusive book. I am thankful that both author and illustrator included whites, blacks, females and males as main characters in the story. My heart was thoroughly warmed when I reached the end of the book and there was a party that included blacks and whites together, including a mixed-race couple with a biracial baby. It was so forward-thinking to have a boy and father as the cooks at the end; historically, women have been the cooks, and men who wanted to cook were sidelined because cooking was deemed a "girly" pursuit. As a mother of biracial children (and having a husband who loves to cook), I sincerely appreciate all that the author and illustrator did to make this book exactly the way it is. I would not want anything changed.

The depiction of slavery was accurate for some families that lived in the 1800s. Yes, many slave owners were cruel, but not all slaves were always being tortured endlessly at all times of the day. This book kept it realistic and age-appropriate. I would not have appreciated a more grotesque depiction in this book. I spoke to my daughter about the ills of slavery long before this book entered our home. We will continue to discuss it long after she is grown up. There is always more to a complex subject like slavery than can be depicted in a few pages of a children's book, which, arguably, was not written solely to address slavery in the first place--it is about a dessert! Thank you for not asking the black community how to proceed with depicting slavery; the book may never have been finished. I really feel sorry for both Emily Jenkins and Sophie Blackall. I will not reply to every critique of this book; suffice it to say, the author and illustrator are darned if they do, and darned if they don't. There will always be someone to split the proverbial hair in search of a problem. In which case, just "do you", as the popular saying goes.

This beautiful book is only 1 piece of the cultural pie that I am serving to my children; this book is one of our favorite slices because it is well-researched, inclusive, and fun. I was pleasantly surprised to see how much my daughter enjoyed turning pages back and forth comparing the cultural and technological differences between the 4 different families! Thus, this book quickly become a favorite of ours. We read it for the first time only 2 days ago. My daughter and I are now planning on making blackberry fool for a dinner party we have been invited to. My daughter and I will make a practice batch of blackberry fool tomorrow, to ensure we can make it properly for the dinner party (and because we want to have the whole bowl of dessert to ourselves--yum!) By the way, the family inviting us is a white family. I can't help but see a similarity between our upcoming dinner party with blackberry fool for dessert and the depiction of a dinner party at the end of the book. Come to think of it, our dinner party will be like a blackberry fool itself: black and white all coming together in a deliciously fun way! Comparing a blackberry fool to my friendships with people of other races will stick with me forever because inclusiveness is beautiful and delicious, just like a blackberry fool. Thank you so much for A Fine Dessert just the way it is.

Ms. Napturale said...

I see that this blog has already gotten a lot of feedback - some of which I wholeheartedly agree with and some of which I am genuinely disappointed to read. Especially from my fellow Black people who make excuses and share misguided interpretations of it. But so goes the world.

Clearly the author is within her rights to defend her book (albeit as culturally insensitive as it is) and makes no apologies for this. I would encourage those who are in praise of this book however, especially any teachers who are thinking of incorporating this into your class reading, to consider the perspective of young Black children in this. Parents can share what they want with their kids. Teachers have a greater level of responsibility and accountability.

There is a shared history of Slavery within the US and indeed globally. Our ancestors and many of our elders (both Black and White) experienced slavery but from varying perspectives. One fact however is that slavery was a brutally horrific experience for people of color. One day of rest where a slave and her child might smile does not equate to a happy slavery experience.

My biggest concern with this book (that is in addition to what has already been said) is that it perpetuates an image of Blacks that, while we cannot (and should not ) forget happened, most of us in the Black community are actively working to overcome. And all this done quite unnecessarily and without a proper context.

While I can agree with the author that it might be an accurate depiction of what was happening in 1810, unless you are addressing (or at least attempting to address) the context of the situation, there is no place for it. What's the purpose ? You literally painted a picture of what life was like back then, with no images that might allow a parent or young reader to come to any positive conclusions.

This book reinforces negative images of Blacks and perpetuates a form of 'mental slavery' and I am deeply troubled by that. Although the author did her research (please note that observing and researching might encourage empathy but it can never take the place of first hand experience), the messages communicated in the 'beautiful illustrations' is one that I believe should be for a much older audience. Would it be great to dialogue about in high school, or even middle school literature? sure. We could spend hours in discourse talking about the negative impact of slavery, the true sentiment behind the smiles etc., the power and resolve shown in the imagery of the mother and daughter hiding in the closet etc. At the end of the day though, this book was written for and geared towards our young children. Grades 1-3. Children who are now learning to read, now discovering their identity and who of course would be drawn to the great illustrations depicting black people in servitude to white people. This is not going to be the way my young black child learns about the beautiful differences that make us a part of the cultural tapestry. It is not going to be the way she learns about the painful aspects of her history or what we've overcome. It definitely won't be the way she learns about who she is as a beautiful black girl, free of the limitations and the subjugated roles that others try to remind us of. I know the author won't be able to relate though.

I am writing this now because it somehow made it to my child's 2017 elementary school summer reading list. Now that I have READ the book (I do my research before drawing conclusions), I will be working actively to ensure that it is removed from our reading list. For a book that tries to espouse inclusiveness, it feels as if the author thought, "let's throw in some somewhere", and chose to depict the worst possible history of our people.

Apart from the controversy surrounding the Black depictions though, while the book had a creative concept about weaving a common thread through centuries, it was actually very plain and really at the end of the day, not worth the read.