I’m still on maternity leave so I headed to the library with my kids last week. While perusing the picture book section hunting for Don’t Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late with my 4 year old, I came across a book I had been meaning to read. A Fine Dessert by Emily Jenkins and Sophie Blackall has been criticized for its portrayal of happy slaves (see this npr piece for example) and the author penned an apology for the section of the book depicting slavery. At the center of the controversy is the depiction of an enslaved mother and daughter happily making blackberry fool together and then hiding in the closet to enjoy licking the spoon.
It is certainly a problematic portrayal of slavery for young children. It also makes a fascinating point of discussion for my survey class when we talk about slavery and the way Americans talk about slavery today. In fact, I’ve started collecting these children’s books about history for this very purpose. The stories we tell children about our past says a lot about the way Americans think about our history. These picture books are short and can be passed around before class starts or during a group work activity.
These books also pair well with primary source material—often newer picture books include or reference primary source documents so that they align with Common Core curriculum. My students then have a natural platform for discussion; what interpretation are children being driven towards? Is that interpretation different from what our class is discussing? Why is there a difference? Etc.
In the case of A Fine Dessert, my survey class can think about how we should talk about slavery—how we can portray both the brutality of everyday life for the enslaved and the reality that enslaved people had complicated lives, opinions, and interests. When I’ve previously asked my students HOW they learned about slavery in school, the underground railroad is usually the first thing students reference, often along with the book Follow the Drinking Gourd. The book is a wonderful children’s book but it is centered on the small number of slaves who escaped. Usually my students ask the question themselves; why are stories about the underground railroad their main memory of learning about slavery?
It is a complex question with complex answers. And, at the college level we can weave together historical narrative and historiography to answer it. I use children’s books in the survey precisely to get to that moment of synthesis.
Have you used children’s material in the survey? Or do you have any book recommendations for me?