Describing her book as “racially insensitive,” author Emily Jenkins took to the web Sunday morning to apologize for her picture book A Fine Dessert (Schwartz & Wade, 2015), announcing her intent to donate her writing fee to We Need Diverse Books, which has been confirmed by the organization.
Jenkins’s apology—in a comment on the blog “Reading While White”—followed criticism of the story about four families set across 400 years making the same dessert, blackberry fool. One portion of the book depicted a smiling slave mother and her daughter in 1810.
“As the author of A Fine Dessert, I have read this discussion and the others with care and attention,” Jenkins writes in her comment. “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.”
Jenkins commented on a October 31 “Reading While White post.” In it, contributor Megan Schliesman, addresses her coming to terms with the initial enthusiasm she felt for Jenkins’s book, transforming into a deeper understanding of how the images of the mother and daughter could “be seen as perpetuating painful imagery of ‘happy’ slaves,’” she wrote.
Reaction to the Jenkins apology was immediate, with additional comments thanking the author for her courage and willingness to both listen to the criticism and act on it.
A Fine Dessert has received multiple positive reviews, including this one from School Library Journal. The New York Times named the book to its recently announced Best Illustrated Children’s Books of 2015 list.
Yet the book has met with other comments that questioned the choice to portray slavery as “unpleasant but not horrendous,” wrote librarian Elisa Gall on the blog “trybrary” in a post titled, “A Fine Dessert: Sweet Intentions, Sour Aftertaste.” Debbie Reese, editor and publisher of the “American Indians in Children’s Literature” blog, stated that the story “provides children with a glossy view of this country and its history that is, in short, a lie about that history.”
Kathleen T. Horning, director of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Cooperative Children’s Book Center and a contributor to Reading While White, says that her organization highlighted the book on its website. But as Horning followed the ensuing discussion and criticism, “we began to reconsider our choice with that new information,” she says. “And frankly we were all embarrassed that we hadn’t noticed the problem ourselves which was the images of the happy slaves.”
After seeing Jenkins’ apology, Horning says that she hopes the post would serve as a future model—not for every author to apologize, but to listen to the thoughts and comments of how their work is read, understood, and impacting readers around them.
“I can see why people are still angry about this book,” she says. “I think what [Jenkins] did is laudable because she is listening to what people are saying.”