J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, December 28, 2014

Just Desserts in a New Children’s Book?

A picture book to be published next month takes readers through three centuries of history following a simple recipe for blackberry fool, but it has depths that some people have found troubling.

The book is A Fine Dessert: Four Centuries, Four Families, One Delicious Treat, written by Emily Jenkins and illustrated by Sophie Blackall. It shows four parent-child pairs preparing the receipt in successive years: 1710, 1810, 1910, and 2010. At each stage, the technology for whipping the cream and otherwise becomes more sophisticated.

And at each stage, the family and its situation change, starting with a mother and child in rural England and ending with a father and child in a modern American city. That dimension of social history evidently troubled the reviewer at Publishers Weekly:
Unfortunately, an attempt at historical authenticity backfires as the 19th-century plantation family’s blackberry fool is made for them by their slaves. The African-American cook and her daughter are not permitted to eat the dessert they’ve made; instead, they serve it to the white family, and the two are left to lick the bowl in a dark closet. The historical facts are not in dispute, but the disturbing injustices represented in this section of an otherwise upbeat account either require adult readers to present necessary background and context or—worse—to pass by them unquestioned.
Parents or teachers supplying “necessary background and context”? Based on “historical facts”? How unfortunate indeed!

Evidently, this reviewer felt that American children aged four to eight wouldn’t have been introduced to slavery before, even at this basic level. And that families’ enjoyment of a simple luxury like blackberry fool or a full-color picture book should not be disturbed, even for a few pages, by the thought of injustice. That was enough for this reviewer to call the plantation episode, unaccountably, “an attempt at historical authenticity.”

Other early reviewers, such as Kiera Parrott at School Library Journal, saw more value in that history. And it’s clear that picture of change in everyday life was crucial to the conception of this book for both author and artist. You can follow artist Blackall’s visual research through her series of blog posts.


Chaucerian said...

I am very disappointed in Publishers Weekly. I had had no idea that their editorial stance was that children should experience only happy moments. What an odd way to introduce children to life.

Further, there is no need when reading this book to a little one to explain the entire history of the US Civil War and US race relations. I would probably just say, "This happened long ago, and long ago they had some silly ideas. Wouldn't it be strange if Aunt Sarah had to eat in the closet when she came to our house? Or if we had to eat in the closet at her house?" I think children are well able to realize that other families' rules might be different and maybe not what we want to do.

J. L. Bell said...

I suspect a big part of the reviewer's problem is that the book doesn't address the problem that episode raises—chattel slavery—by either fixing it within the story or finding some reassurance and hope. There is a big school of thought in children's books that all stories need to end with a "sense of hope." They don't need to be exclusively happy, but even stories about poverty, oppression, and disabilities have to end on an up note.

This one has that big, dangling loose end of race-based slavery, and the reviewer (perhaps projecting) felt that would be too much for readers to handle.

J. L. Bell said...

Here’s the Kirkus review of A Fine Dessert.

Jaime said...

I couldn't agree with you more, J. L.

This is one of those rare instances when I agree with Kirkus and not Publishers Weekly.