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Rebecca Rabinowitz
Michael Twitty works at the very intersection of black history, slavery, and cooking. Here's his article about A Birthday Cake for George Washington. (The picture book title is wrong in the piece; I hope The Guardian corrects it.)
 
 
Rebecca Rabinowitz
18 January 2016 @ 01:58 pm
Thanks to steepholm, who linked me to Sophie Blackhall's blog post about A Fine Dessert, I have now read it. It doesn't change any of my feelings about the book.

I agree with Blackall on these points: that enough enslaved kids stayed with their enslaved mothers (for evil reasons) that showing one such family is okay -- although the threat of separation hung always overhead, which is absolutely key and not okay to ignore; that of course enslaved people had moments of tenderness in their lives; that not being allowed to eat the very dessert they made is portrayed (and understood by child readers) as unfair; and that sneaking off to eat it secretly is not shown as worry-free.

But those were never my concerns. I was never someone who focused in on the smile as the problem, or who criticized the book without having read it. My problem is that overall, the book is pleasant, and the unfairness shown in this section looks for all the world like everyday unfairness.

Children's books portray everyday unfairness all the time. Slavery is the farthest thing from everyday unfairness. In this book, it looks the same.

Blackall's right on one thing: the only way to avoid this pitfall would have been to not include an enslaved family. They could have included a free black family, an indigenous family, or any number of other families instead. Slavery belongs in a book only when the creators portray some amount of its horror.
 
 
Rebecca Rabinowitz
Is there a name for that literary phenomenon where the narration shows a character feeling insecure and inferior due to a trait that actually -- though this is not acknowledged by the text -- is a culturally elevated trait?

I'm thinking especially (though I'm interested in other examples too) of white, thin teen girl characters who feel insecure because they are too pale and/or too thin, usually in comparison to a set of nearby girls who are tan and muscular -- also white and also thin, but in slightly different ways. The text can't get away with positing non-thin and non-white as culturally privileged categories, so it doesn't use them as the contrasts or even include them; instead, the text sets up tan-but-still-white and/or muscular-but-still-thin as red herrings, in order to set up too-pale and too-thin as unprivileged categories. If we didn't live in a white supremacist and virulently fatphobic culture, who knows, those things could be legitimate sites of vulnerability; but given our particular hegemony, they can't. Readers are guided by the text to feel sorry for the supposedly too pale and/or too thin girl, which simply gives whiteness and thinness even more sympathy and boosting than usual.

It's not that no individual could feel insecure about being too thin or too pale, especially when the comparison is to muscular-but-still-thin and tan-but-still-white. Of course individual people can, and do. But I'm talking about characters -- authorial choices inside a text. When a text sets up this type of insecurity in the context of a racist, colorist, and fatphobic society, there's something deeply disingenuous going on. Whiteness and thinness are set up to be even more desired than otherwise, because that thin, white character feeling insecure about her thinness next to the thin-musculars and/or her paleness next to the tan-whites is the very character readers are meant to identify with and long to be.
 
 
Rebecca Rabinowitz
First para (there are three total):

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.

Link to full statement.
 
 
 
 
Rebecca Rabinowitz
13 December 2015 @ 11:19 pm
I wasn't going to post about A Fine Dessert because many people have analyzed it better than I can. But I find that I need to.

The inclusion of an enslaved family in this book is inexcusable. The problem is not merely, as some defenders of the book have mis-characterized the criticism, about "the smiles." It can actually be profoundly humanizing to portray enslaved people as people who smile sometimes. But that must be in a context of showing slavery as the utter horror it was.

The problem here is not about the smiles. It's about the overall vibe. A Fine Dessert is mellow and pleasant cover to cover. The enslaved mother and daughter have a life that looks to be mellow and pleasant, with some mild inconvenience and limitation.

Being a slave, here, looks exactly like being a servant.

It's not that slavery should have been portrayed differently in this book. That would be a different book. This book is about dessert. It's that an enslaved family should not be in this book at all. The family could have been a free black family, or a non-black family.

Make no mistake: slavery, wars, holocausts, genocides, and the horrors of the world do belong in children's books. They belong in children's books that show the horror, at least to some degree. They don't belong in books that for whatever reason, including audience age or artistic reasons, don't deal with any of the horror.

The inclusion of an enslaved family in A Fine Dessert is unconscionable.
 
 
Rebecca Rabinowitz
02 October 2015 @ 12:03 am
Head over the American Indians in Children's Literature to read Debbie Reese's post about a big change in Mary Hoffman's Amazing Grace. (I'd been posting about that very issue just this summer.)
 
 
Rebecca Rabinowitz
17 July 2015 @ 03:28 pm
"I do not exist to be your tragedy. I do not exist for you to find special meaning in your life. I do not exist to teach people Lessons or to give people Feels." Over at Disability in Kidlit, S.L. Huang reviews John Green's The Fault in Our Stars.
 
 
Rebecca Rabinowitz
If you have or know young kids who have a loved one who is in prison, or if you have or know young kids who know other kids who do, or if you have young kids in your life who you want to know that some kids go through this, I'd like to recommend Jacqueline Woodson's picture book Visiting Day. James E. Ransome illustrates it in rich acrylic paintings. The cover looks like this. This book is warm, loving, serious, and layered. It has sweetness and it has mournfulness. Ransome does a lot of that, using visible brush strokes and stark value contrasts, and painting complex and nuanced emotions into his characters' faces and bodies.

In her author's note, Woodson mentions her beloved Uncle Robert, who went to prison when she was young. There's more about Uncle Robert in her 2014 verse novel Brown Girl Dreaming, which, if you haven't read yet, you should. It's a gorgeous middle-grade book that's also friendly to teens and adults. Get it. Get them both.
 
 
Rebecca Rabinowitz
03 July 2015 @ 02:21 am
There are so very many picture book versions. Over many years, I've been trying to look at as many as possible. I'm quite fond of this particular one: Little Red Riding Hood by Jerry Pinkney. Just look at this art: Cover. LRRH when the wolf is in bed. This blogger has scanned in many of the pages very large.