On The Depiction of Slavery in Picture Books

“The past is never dead. In fact, it’s not even past.” – Faulkner, William. Requiem for a Nun. New York: Random House, 1951.

The following two paragraphs were added two hours after the initial publication of this post. Turns out I wasn’t quite done yet.

I’m not saying there’s only one way to depict slavery in children’s books, but I’m starting to wonder: has slavery become the new normal? It’s like the first paint you apply on a canvas, which becomes the background, and then you paint a happy portrait on it, one that is supposed to make the viewer smile and deeply reflect at the same time. How does that work? I’m still trying to figure it out.

New normal: because of last year’s big picture book controversy, will writers, and illustrators, and even editors working on a kid’s book depicting slavery (even just in the background), now explain their creative choices in every book they publish and on social media? Is it supposed to help me understand the book, impact my reading experience, will that change how a book ultimately makes me feel? I welcome the dialogue on all accounts. I think a dialogue still is needed, and maybe when we find a balance, or maybe when what appears to be morphing into a “new normal” stabilizes, will all these questions become obsolete. For now what I’m left with is the struggle to navigate the waves of joy and sorrow such books bring, not just in me but also in the sea of emotions of the young reader.

On the controversy of the smiling slave in children’s books: did Black slaves ever smile? 

Is that question really up for debate? The real problem with the picture of a smiling slave, in a children’s book, has more to do with the truth and atmosphere the story and illustrations convey – especially if slavery is only part of the background of the story and not the central element, and how the aforementioned may impact a kid. Images and words are not neutral. Again, the problem is not the smile. And the problem is not whether a Black or White person wrote the story, whether a Black or White person illustrated it, or whether a Black or White editor curated it.

The topic of slavery in picture books will remain a sensitive one as long as parents will fear for their children’s safety, every time they step outside of the house, and as long as children themselves will refrain from smiling or get nervous simply because they have spotted a police officer. It might stop being a sensitive topic (to the level it has reached today, I mean; the past has happened already, and we can’t changed it, and yes it was ugly) – when we’re able to sustain a conversation about racism that doesn’t stop at “Us vs. Them,” but takes us further and keeps opening spaces that will bridge history with present, and fear and pain of the other with healing and cross-cultural respect. Books either denouncing or simply showing a human being who is not equal to another one, or not free, are published in an era where young and old, whether they want it or not, are aware of videos about kids being arrested, handcuffed in the classroom or in the streets, or shot dead. The kid doesn’t even need to have a Facebook or Twitter account to be exposed to that information. A conversation among classmates during recess is enough to do the damage.

On the “Us vs. Them” atmosphere.

I challenge every Facebook user who hasn’t already done so, to not just post a video about police brutality against a person of color, fuel the anger and stop there. Ask the questions. Create a dialogue that stirs us up toward looking for a solution. I ask the journalist who hasn’t already done so to not just report or write about acts of racism and stop there, leaving us to explode when every where we turn we’re already saturated by viral contents on the same violent topic. Do your research about grassroots (literary) efforts in the same area, and please mention them in your article.

Though usually labelled “for 4 to 8 years old” and marketed as such, a fundamental difference between picture books as a category, and middle grade and Young adult novels, is the wide age range of the readers. Picture books uniquely bring the family together. Grand-parents and parents read the stories to the kids; sometimes the precocious kid reads the book to his or her parents; the older siblings also get involved, and read them aloud to the younger ones. If something is not accurately addressed in a picture book that has historical elements in it, it can impact a whole family, not just the child. It will make a parent uncomfortable, confuse a kid, and further extend a racial stereotype, to put it mildly.

Why did I feel the urge to write this post?

Hercules, President Washington's slave cook.

Hercules, President Washington’s slave cook.

After writing about the cultural and ethnic background of the writer (Ramin Ganeshram), the illustrator (Vanessa Brantley-Newton) and the editor of A Birthday Cake for George Washington (Andrea Davis Pinkney, VP and executive editor at Scholastic Trade Publishing), in an article titled Smiling Slaves in a Post-A Fine Dessert World,  Kirkus Children and Teen Editor Vicki Smith asked: “Had A Birthday Cake for George Washington come out a year ago, concurrent with A Fine Dessert, how would it have been received? It’s impossible to know, but I think one thing’s for sure: the conversation would have been a whole lot different.”

I doubt it. Again, given the climate in which any book depicting slavery is published, including textbooks, I don’t think the conversation is that much different. Anytime “slavery” will be brought up in children’s book, the following will happen: it will generate a conversation, likely lively, because slavery remains a sensitive topic. Whether relating to a food recipe or not, slavery is not an easy topic to cover with children, not even with adults, and this especially if the general feeling is that the book has missed the mark at some point. Though the wound of slavery has been treated through its official abolition, it’s still in the healing process. Its scarifications remain visible through the examples of racism our world is still fighting today, and this is observed through the socio-economic dynamic and inter-cultural relationships within and outside of a country, and not just in the United States.

 

For Further Reading – edited on January 09 2016 to add a few more links.
o I recommend Vicki Smith’s original article, Smiling Slaves in a Post-A Fine Dessert World, as well as Andrea Davis Pinkney Guest Post on Scholastic, A Proud Slice of History.
o From UK based online children’s books magazine Books for Keeps, here is an article written by Brycchan Carey: The Depiction of the Slave Trade in Children’s Books.
o Dr. Ebony Elizabeth Thomas once asked: “How can we inspire young people from all backgrounds while being honest about the pain and the hope of the African American story?” She answers in this Los Angeles article titled Four children’s books introduce African American experiences
o Many Thousand Gone: African Americans from Slavery to Freedom: ALA Notable Children’s Book by Virginia Hamilton, Leo Dillon & Diane Dillon. Knopf, 1993.
o The Child’s Anti-Slavery Book: Containing a Few Words about American Slave Children and Stories of Slave-Life, by Julia Colman & Matilda G. Thompson.
o From Debbie Reese, of American Indians in Children’s Literature (AICL): “These set of links are blog posts that are primarily on what-to-do about (…) broadly speaking, diversity in children’s/young adult literature.” From her blog post Not Recommended: A Fine Dessert by Emily Jenkins and Sophie Blackall.
o Slavery in American Children’s Literature, 1790-2010, by Paula T. Connolly. 1st ed. U of Iowa, 2013.

Addendum: I did read A Birthday Cake for George Washington. The book review will be posted separately.
01/17/2016: Scholastic has Pulled A BIRTHDAY CAKE FOR GEORGE WASHINGTON off the shelves and is accepting returns of the book. Read the publisher’s full statement here: http://oomscholasticblog.com/post/new-statement-about-picture-book-birthday-cake-george-washington

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About Nathalie Mvondo

Nathalie Mvondo lives in Northern California. She is a writer, a blogger, a community organizer and a social entrepreneur.
This entry was posted in Books, Essay, Multicultural Links, Picture Books and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to On The Depiction of Slavery in Picture Books

  1. debbiereese says:

    The notes… would be a fascinating study, Nathalie. Two others come to mind. In Karen Healey’s GUARDIAN OF THE DEAD, she has a note about how she researched Indigenous stories, and used them as inspiration, but not them precisely as they were written. She has that made-up one in the book, and the note is to let her off the hook for doing it, but I’m not ok with people making up stories and presenting them to children as if they are real. In GHOST HAWK, Susan Cooper’s note has a disclaimer, too, that her work is fantasy. Her book has made-up Native stuff, too.

    When Betsy Hearne wrote her CITE THE SOURCE articles in the 90s, she was asking people to “reduce the chaos” that the lack of author’s notes about what an author does to a traditional story created, but I think people are using that idea (of author’s notes) in a perverse way. Interesting.

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  2. Re: the notes. It’s interesting indeed, Debbie, your remark about both the content and the format of the notes. On one hand a note can give the additional information that can’t be inserted into a picture book, first because those books usually have to be as concise as possible. The word length varies depending on the type of the story and the editor’s recommendation, and of course not all the historical information can be written for the child. On the other hand, the note becomes needed because the focus of the story is not its setting in time. Regarding the content the question I’m asking in this article is whether we’ll see more and more notes in which the book creator(s) justifies, or explains, or dissects his writing or illustrating process, telling the reader why some elements are presented the way they are and why some are missing, and even what those missing elements are.

    For picture books, having to explain how and why you wrote the way you did is usually not encouraged at the time of submission. But again, here we’re dealing with historical fiction, so the parameters are different. And really this is a complex topic. Regarding the format of the note, I think there is something to be said when it is the book creator himself or herself who initiates the dialogue (emphasis on dialogue, not monologue), and notably by adding classroom activities or discussion guides to his/her book, and who by doing so, does leave room for a reply from the reader, the parent or another gatekeeper.

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  3. Anonynous. says:

    I was appalled by the smiling slaves of A FINE DESSERT, and even so, Smith is right and Mvondo is wrong. The conversation would have been hugely different. So much of the analysis of A FINE DESSERT had to do with the authors’ whiteness, and the implication that it was a casual hegemony of values that led to the smiling slaves of that book. No such accusation could be leveled against the creative team for A BIRTHDAY CAKE…., and that contrast would have to have been analyzed unless a critic wanted to be hypocritical. Some might be, particularly those who want to favor the work of people of color and judge their work by different standards. That’s their prerogative. It’s still hypocritical.

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    • “The conversation would have been hugely different.”
      Well, the conversation is happening right now. And as Smith expressed in her article, she is “Figuring Out That Intelligent People Can Disagree,” and she is not the only one. There is a diversity of opinions on this. Of course feel free to not count me as part of the intelligent crowd.

      So, which “conversation” are we talking about? The “smile?” I shared my thoughts on that in the article. I’m writing about the experience of talking about slavery to children (and A Fine Dessert provoked that aspect of the conversation as well), and I’m putting that into today’s socially and racially charged context, and that includes how social events impact a conversation like the one we’re having now, and how it can impact talking about slavery to children. I understand that this is a topic that probably makes more than one person uncomfortable. Somehow, and that is how I perceive your comment, your focus seems on whether or not I pointed the finger at the “creative team.” It would have been easier if I had just kept my thoughts to myself, right? Even though Ms. Smith did welcome genuine feedback in her article (otherwise the comment section would have been closed.).

      You’re implying that I accused the creative team of displaying a “casual hegemony of values.” I praise you for so vigorously coming to its defense, but I have no interest in attacking them, or anyone for that matter. I’m interested in talking about that dialogue we have when we talk about slavery to kids. I’m saying that regardless of the context of the smile of a slave in a kid’s book (and again in my opinion the smile is not the issue here), and the celebration of the accomplishment of said slave, the topic of slavery is not an easy one to talk about, certainly not easy to write about or easy to illustrate in today’s climate. Was that social climate the same for both books? What makes me wrong in pointing out that this conversation has a reach that goes beyond the skin color of a writer or illustrator or editor?

      I’m glad, though, that we’re not shying away from it and that the books that are published allow us to explore its connection from various angles.

      You seem well informed. If you have a resource that will help broaden my opinion, I’m certainly open to it and I invite you to share it. Until then, I thank you for your anonymous contribution.

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