This post is a long one - if you want to get a cup of coffee or tea, I'll wait :-),
As a writer and creator of content for young readers, as well as in my role as Regional Advisor for SCBWI Switzerland, I try to stay up to date with the news in the world of publishing for children and young adults. Which books are winning awards, are well-reviewed and well-received, and which ones are people talking about.
As someone who writes for middle graders, I have the luxury of pages - many of them - in which I can explore the themes and topics that appear in my stories. Picture book writers and illustrators? They have (most of the time) just thirty-two (32!) pages. Telling a story in such a short format requires an economy of language that makes it especially challenging when that story that includes a complex topic such as slavery. In the past year, two picture books have come out tackling the tough topic of slavery in colonial America.
The first, A Fine Dessert, written by Emily Jenkins, illustrated by Sophie Blackall, debuted to many positive reviews and award buzz.
"A Fine Dessert, a children's book published in January by author Emily Jenkins and illustrator Sophie Blackall that was recently flagged by The Horn Book, considered a must-read for children's educators, as a contender for the prestigious Caldecott Award. This week, the New York Timesnamed A Fine Dessert one of the best illustrated children's books of 2015." (source)
But slowly, more voices joined the discussion, and the book was being served up with a side helping of controversy. Should this book have received the accolades it had been given?
Daniel José Older's thoughtful response to the book, when he sat on a panel with the illustrator in the wake of this controversy, can be seen here:
It's 5 minutes long. Check it out. I'll wait. :-)
In the wake of the growing discussion of the book, the author Emily Jenkins eventually issued the following statement:
"As the author of A Fine Dessert, I have read this discussion and the others with care and attention. I have come to understand that my book, while intended to be inclusive and truthful and hopeful, is racially insensitive. I own that and am very sorry. For lack of a better way to make reparations, I donated the fee I earned for writing the book to We Need Diverse Books."
(Her apology appears in the comments of this blog post.)
The book remains in print and available for purchase..
Now another book, A Birthday Cake for George Washington, written by Ramin Ganeshram and llustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton, has also been accused of softening the realities of slavery within its pages, but with a dramatically different result: the publisher, Scholastic, has halted distribution of the book and issued the following statement:
"(January 17, 2016) Scholastic is announcing today that we are stopping the distribution of the book entitled A Birthday Cake for George Washington, by Ramin Ganeshram and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton, and will accept all returns. While we have great respect for the integrity and scholarship of the author, illustrator, and editor, we believe that, without more historical background on the evils of slavery than this book for younger children can provide, the book may give a false impression of the reality of the lives of slaves and therefore should be withdrawn.
Scholastic has a long history of explaining complex and controversial issues to children at all ages and grade levels. We do not believe this title meets the standards of appropriate presentation of information to younger children, despite the positive intentions and beliefs of the author, editor, and illustrator.
Scholastic provides a wide variety of fiction and informational books and magazines which teachers, parents and children rely on, including many devoted to African American experience, history and culture. We are also committed to providing books, magazines, and educational materials that portray the experience of all children, including those from diverse communities and backgrounds, and we will continue to expand that commitment through our global publishing channels."
In an article that documents the realities of life as a slave under George Washington, Fusion.net notes that "The book’s author, Ramin Ganeshram, is a former journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsday, and Forbes. She describes A Birthday Cake for George Washington as a way for children to learn about the “bittersweet reality” of being kitchen slaves. Understandably, many people took issue with what they saw as an ahistorical depiction of slave life that downplayed the cruelty and horror that comes with being owned by another human being."
The Guardian notes that "The trade publication School Library Journal called the book “highly problematic” and recommended against its purchase. Another trade journal, Kirkus Reviews, labeled the book “an incomplete, even dishonest treatment of slavery”."
This is a stark contrast to the positive review that Kirkus gave A Fine Dessert in October 2014, prior to its January 2015 publication.
"Blackall’s illustrations are as graceful and historically accurate as she can make them, as she and Jenkins take readers to 1710 Lyme, England, where a mother and daughter pick wild blackberries; 1810 Charleston, South Carolina, where an enslaved mother and daughter pick them in the plantation garden; 1910 Boston, where a mother and daughter buy their berries at the market; and finally 2010 San Diego… There is no other word but delicious." (source)
In Smiling Slaves in a Post–A Fine Dessert World, at Kirkus Reviews website, Vicky Smith says A Birthday Cake for George Washington "shares much of what A Fine Dessert’s critics found so objectionable: it’s an incomplete, even dishonest treatment of slavery. The back jacket's tailpiece vignette is a picture of a smiling George Washington, his arm around Hercules' shoulders. Hercules and Delia are likewise smiling; it's like a family picture—except it isn't."
As writers and illustrators, we inhabit worlds of our own creation. Inevitably those worlds are shaped and framed by our personal experiences. Whenever we attempt to write or illustrate something outside our own experiences, that which is "other" to us, it's important that we have as many eyes on our project as possible, and some of those eyes should belong to people who have experience of the other we are trying to portray.
Ms. Smith goes on to point out that "Blogger Edi Campbell, an African-American librarian at Indiana State University and advocate for diversity in children's books, wrote of A Fine Dessert, "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." Indeed, many voices echoed this sentiment, using A Fine Dessert as an exemplar of the cultural cluelessness of our white-dominated industry. But Ganeshram's mother is Iranian, and her father is Trinidadian. Brantley-Newton is African-American. And the book's editor, Andrea Davis Pinkney, is also African-American—and a winner of the Coretta Scott King Award."
She concludes: "That a white creative team and a creative team of color, each working separately, came up with two books so similar in so many ways proves only one thing: intelligent people can disagree."
Diversity was the theme of the SCBWI Europolitan conference in 2015 and it is an ongoing topic of discussion within the greater community of publishing for children and young adults.
There is pain on both sides of these discussions, for the authors and illustrators of these books are well-intentioned. Their projects are ambitious. They have attempted to tackle the tough and complex issue of slavery in 32 pages. Their intentions and efforts are laudable.
But the positive intentions of the creators cannot overwrite the pain of those who have experience with the issues we raise in our stories.
Once a project makes its way into the wider world, we as creators have no control over its reception, and it may be that we miss the mark, that our sincere intentions are not considered to be enough to offset issues that may be raised by those with a stake in that story. And if that's the case, like Emily Jenkins and Scholastic, we need to own that. Publicly.
I hope more authors and illustrators will continue to tackle these important topics for children of all ages.
I hope these discussions will continue.
Every book represents the best work of everyone involved: author, illustrator, editor and publisher.
Hopefully these discussions will mean that "our best" becomes better.