Jenkins, Emily & Blackall, Sophie. A fine dessert: Four centuries, four families, one delicious treat. Schwartz & Wade/Random House, 2015. 44 pages. HC $17.99 ISBN 978-0-375-96832-7.
A Fine Dessert is one of the more publicized and talked about examples of white privilege in children’s literature. The book tells the story of four different families living in four different times in American history, all making the dessert blackberry fool. The book sounds sweet, and it is, until you get the section set in on a South Carolina plantation in 1810. During this portion of a book, the family making blackberry fool is a young slave girl and her mother cooking dessert for their master and his family.
These images showcase the “smiling slaves” problem that often shows up in children’s literature. In an attempt to make slavery more palatable to young audiences, authors and illustrators gloss over the nasty truths of slavery, and instead focus on the “good” like picking blackberries and successfully whipping cream.
Young Lee (2016) explains the issue with these images of happy slaves saying “the trouble is that readers who have never considered slavery from the slave’s point of view will tend to interpret those smiles as benign, irrespective of whether the illustrator intended them as smiles of mother-daughter love, or smiles of pleasure at a job well done.” Without someone there to guide children and explain to them the truth of slavery, these smiles can tell dangerous falsehoods about our dark American history.
The author’s note of A Fine Dessert reads “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” (Jenkins, 2015).
This is true, the end of the book showcases a wonderfully diverse dinner party in which everyone, regardless of skin color, is welcome at the table.
However, this inclusivity does not override the lack of awareness that is so apparent in the section of the book that touches on slavery.
Below is a fantastic statement on A Fine Dessert from author Daniel Jose Older.
One particular quote from this video to highlight is this: “You knew that you were going to bring up an issue that you could not fully take in the whole berth of, and from my point of view, where I stand, if you can’t then you shouldn’t touch it. That’s how I feel about slavery. That’s how I feel about sexual assault. There are some things that we can’t sugarcoat” (Older, 2015).
Daniel Jose Older is right, there are just some things that should not be sugarcoated, and slavery is one of them. A Fine Dessert might center on something sweet, but the truths it hides from young readers are anything but sweet. Children, especially children of color, deserve honesty in the books they read. We can and should strive to do better.
Jenkins, E. (2015). A Fine Dessert: Four families, four centuries, one delicious treat. New York City, NY: Schwartz & Wade.
[Daniel Jose Older]. (2015, November 3). Daniel jose older on a fine dessert. [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CCArvF8N6Sw
Young Lee, P. (2016). Smiling slaves at storytime: These picture books show why we need more diversity in publishing, too. Retrieved from http://www.salon.com/2016/01/18/smiling_slaves_at_story_time_these_picture_books_show_why_we_need_more_diversity_in_publishing_too/