The Conversation About Portrayals of Slavery in Children’s Books

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If you’ve been listening to NPR, reading the newspaper, or following books and culture websites, you know there is a lively and hard conversation happening right now about how slavery is portrayed in children’s books.

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This recent round of questions about talking with kids about our country’s complicated past began with the publication of A Fine Dessert by Emily Jenkins and illustrated by Sophie Blackall. In that story, a slave and her child are seen eating their blackberry cake in a closet – after they have served their owners.

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Last week, Scholastic pulled a new picture book, A Birthday Cake for George Washington by Ramin Ganeshram – a book about the slave who made a cake for Washington, “narrated” by his daughter, Delia.

The focus of both books is on the sweet desserts and both include notes that explain the context more fully. But most children won’t read those notes, and the books are problematic.

I read A Fine Dessert to a group of middle school students and several of the students asked about the mother and child eating in the closet. We had a good conversation about the power of images, but these students are 13-years-old and have some context for the picture.  A five-year-old does not.

Here are links to some of the best articles about both books:

https://www.kirkusreviews.com/features/smiling-slaves-post-fine-dessert-world/

http://readingwhilewhite.blogspot.com/2015/10/on-letting-go.html

http://oomscholasticblog.com/post/proud-slice-history

http://www.npr.org/2016/01/24/464180274/children-s-books-embedded-with-racism-as-a-teaching-opportunity

If you’re looking for books with more honest depictions of slave life, Huffington Post has published a good list:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/books-slavery-young-people_us_569e6009e4b04c81376177aa

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2 thoughts on “The Conversation About Portrayals of Slavery in Children’s Books

  1. So complicated, right? As you know from NPR story, the Little House books are the focus of many of these questions. As the NPR guest said, conversation is the most important way to navigate some of these thorny issues.

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