A Fine Dessert was published earlier this year and has received several starred reviews by major reviewers such as School Library Journal and Booklist. It is a book that is loved by children and teachers everywhere. It has been talked about as a possible Caldecott contender on the blog Calling Caldecott (here and here).
Then issues were brought up about the book and its depiction of slavery (A Fine Dessert: Sweet Intentions, Sour Aftertaste). Sophie Blackall responded, explaining her process and the thoughtful choices she made as illustrator. Honestly, it was something I completely missed and overlooked and like the author of Reading While White, I am a bit disappointed with myself for missing it.
(To catch up on the entire conversation, you can find many of the posts and a timeline of many events on Debbie Reese's blog.)
The conversation last month was a long, intense conversation that happened mainly through blogs and Twitter. I listened in to the conversation daily and tried to keep up with all that everyone was saying about this book and the issues surrounding it. Social media is a tricky way to have conversations like this because lots of people jump in and out of conversations and sometimes 140 characters isn't enough to dig into a topic this big.
So, what does this mean for teachers? As teachers we need to be readers. But we also need to be readers of discussions like this one so that we understand as much as we can about the books we put in our classrooms and in the hands of children. Here are the big take-aways I had after thinking about this for a few weeks. These are the things I've learned from the conversation:
1. This is one reason many of us are on social media--to hear different perspectives, to learn from people we did not always have the opportunities to learn from, to grow in our thinking. I've always believed strongly that teachers need to be readers, but this online controversy reminded me of the reasons I spend so much time reading book reviews, blogs, etc. Not only do I need to be a reader of books, but I need to be a reader of all that surrounds a book if I am going to make good decisions about the books to share with my students. Whether you agree with the opinions of others or not, being aware of perspectives of others is important in our work.
2. This is not about one book--it is much bigger than that. Even though the conversation felt focused on a book and individual people, this is really a bigger issue than that. And it has been an issue for a very long time. If you aren't aware of the campaign, We Need Diverse Books or the NCTE Resolution on The Need for Diverse Children's and Young Adult Books, they are important to know about. I also think Roger Sutton's piece, We're Not Rainbow Sprinkles, in last month's Horn Book is worth a read on this issue.
3. There was very little teacher voice in the conversation. And I believe that our voice needs to be part of this conversation. We need to respect the teacher-as-decision-maker in these and all conversations and I didn't see that happening in this conversation. Ultimately, we are the ones who make decisions about which books are in our classroom libraries. I remember years ago, reading the issue surrounding an Alvin Ho book. I realized then how many things we need to think about as teachers when we choose books for our classrooms.
4. Change happens because of the conversations. It doesn't happen overnight but it does happen. Betsy Bird recently shared a post about the new edition of Ladybug Girl and Debbie Reese shared many books whose stereotypic depictions have been changed in recent years. This is all good news for children.