by Sam Juliano
Mmmmm. Mmmmm. Mmmmm.
Somewhere in the heavens Robert McCloskey is holding a copy of A Fine Dessert and is marveling at how the delectable results of berry picking have persevered over many generations. His own concern in his classic Caldecott Honor book Blueberries For Sal of course was securing the raw materials despite the unanticipated stalking of a benign black bear. The author and illustrator of A Fine Dessert – Emily Jenkins and Sophie Blackall – have brought homespun prominence to one of 2015’s most exquisite and irresistible picture books, one that confirms that time and place having little bearing on the universal appreciation of making something with your own hands, and then enjoying it with your loved ones. To be sure, the vital ingredients in this mouth watering confection are not blueberries, but blackberries, but the culinary implications seem to imply fool can be made with any type of berry. A Fine Dessert could well be the year’s most painstaking picture book in the way it integrates the strikingly ornate art with sublimely applied typography. Superlative spacing and color coordination bring four different periods to life in handsome vignettes seen in various encapsulations and expansive framings. Author and illustrator waste no time in sporting their remarkable artistic kinship on the opening double page spread, set in Lyme, England, one that recalls the work of the renowned Barbara Cooney. In the background sits a country stone house of everyone’s dreams, bordered with a rock wall on both sides, a gate, fields of crops and two trees. A woman wearing early eighteenth century outdoor garb is carrying a baby daughter on her back, while the other girl is actively employed in helping her pick blackberries. Jenkins opens the story superbly, giving her gifted illustrator the base for splendidly orchestrated art:
A bit more than three hundred years ago, in an English town called Lyne/A girl and her mother picked wild blackberries./Their hands turned purple with the juice./The thorns of the berry bushes pricked the fabric of their long skirts.
Blackall’s illustration is stunningly adorned with curling and weaving blackberry bushes, exhibiting the darker ripe fruit with the red ones that need a bit more time. Yet this minority splashing of rouge really makes for a veritable feast for the eyes. Then the riveting work in progress unveil the manner in which fool is negotiated. It involves skimming the cream off the top of two successive sessions of milking the cow, and some vigorous beating of the cream in a wooden bowl with soft twigs. The process is intense enough to require periodic stoppages by the family matriarch. When the cream has achieved the desired texture it is briefly put aside, while mother and daughter rinse the berries in well-gathered water, aided by a piece of muslin. They are then squashed and strained to expel the seeds, are then mixed with the cream and some added sugar. The completed mixture is then carried to an ice pit cut into the hillside, where is is chilled by way of winter ice, packed with reeds and straw. The dinner table setting is right out of colonial era America. The beautiful plates and other figures over the fireplace are a wonderful touch, and who could miss the faces of the two boys looking ahead as they lick their lips in anticipation. The main course – including cold chicken and meat pie- clearly pales in comparison of what is to come, and nothing more needs to be said aside from this books unifying alliteration: Mmmmm. Mmmmm. Mmmmm. Under the yummy typography that attests to this exquisite culinary experience is the young berry picker licking the bowl clean in the kitchen.
The second part of the picture book omnibus takes readers to 1810 Charleston, South Carolina, a time when slavery was practiced full force. Again Blackall answers the call to Jenkins’ establishment of the mise en scene with a magnificent rendering of a southern plantation mansion, enveloped by trees, while in the foreground an African American slave mother and her daughter are blackberry picking and are delighted by the activity. Again Blackall fashions those eye-catching bushes in all their evocative splendor. In this later time the cream is transported to them by a horse-drawn wagon from a nearby dairy, and the beating instrument is now made out of sturdy steel. The young girl follows her British counterpart from years ago with the same beating ritual, but at a later stage has the advantage of a tin sieve and a spoon to get rid of the seeds. Instead of a mini hillside ice fortress, they bring the mixture to the basement, where the cooling process is sounder. Supper is then served to the white masters while the mother and daughter happily devour their own share of the fool in a closet.
Very sad to say this section of the book attracted an outcry from a portion of the children’s book community six weeks ago, one that provoked intense discussion, some uncompromising condemnation and an equally impassioned defense of the book. The detractors resented that the African Americans were “smiling”, as that would send the wrong message to young children coming upon the book. The indignation was particularly curious when one considers that both Jenkins and Blackall have long proven their dedication to cross cultural projects, where both are proven champions of ethnicity. While some African-Americans registered their complaints at a watchdog site that monitored white-oriented picture books and the treatment of blacks, a number of African-American artists stood by the author and illustrator, downplaying the complaints and implications, with some of those saying the book worked for them, as reported in The New York Times. It was also asserted that the spectacular reviews the book received from the critics were to be understood in the context that the critics are white. But aside from the fact that the vast majority of the critics who review children’s books are white, they are all invariably the same people who regularly embrace the works from our finest African-American illustrators. Plus I found it curious indeed that a group of people (all of whom I greatly respect) made claim to missing the tell tale signs when they first read through the book, and all had to be “told” by the few original plaintiffs to change their opinion. Is it possible that almost everyone who eventually had issues with this book had to be told by others that their first look at it was short sighted? Surely at least a few would have noticed anything so obvious or glaring during the initial whirl. For my time and sense of appreciation A Fine Dessert makes no disparaging inferences, nor does it demean African-Americans. What it does do is tell the truth about slavery as the most shameful episode in United States history. A teacher using the book is well advised to speak to the kids about slavery before or after reading the book. Yes, Virginia, slaves did smile during their years of deplorable captivity. and these priceless moments revolved around love of family. One must conclude after this lamentable business that authors and illustrators must be ever vigilant as to what they produce. I’m sorry but I really think the two lovely women who made this book got a raw deal from the militant scrutiny of some who read things into the personifications that were not at all meant to be. When a number of African American authors and artists declare the questionable reference is innocuous enough, well you know there is something rotten in the state of Denmark. Let’s hope the Caldecott committee will appraise the book’s stellar craftsmanship, and set aside the debatable issues that have arisen. To be sure it is not much ado about nothing, but rather a perception of the individual. The vast majority of the nation’s children, book fans and critics have declared their love for the book.
Getting back to A Fine Dessert, the opening of the 1919 Boston segment, featuring a tidy row of two story houses that seem to be the forerunner of brownstones lie near an elegant, immaculately attired woman who purchases berries at a fruit and vegetable wagon. At this time in history cream is delivered to the front door and modernized rotary beaters make the task at hand easier. Even a recipe book can be conferred upon. A kitchen faucet and kitchen ice box sport a homey and progressive look. The 1910 kitchen and the bowls they eat the fool with is exquisitely adorned with green. Finally the action shifts to 2010 in San Diego, California, where the rage is organic food, internet recipes, electric mixers, colanders, a food processor and plastic spatulas. After dinner is served and the fool dispatched, the boy in the kitchen licks the bowl, much like those in different times and places. The couple in this section are inter-racial, which accentuates the fact that America has come a long way since the days of oppression. Lastly, it should be mentioned in a painstaking afterward Jenkins explains the “difficult truth” of slavery and envisions children seeing a “hopeful, inclusive community.” A blackberry fool recipe and a note from Blackall complete this grand package, a book conceived and executed on the highest plane of artistry.
A Fine Dessert in thought, word and deed is one of the finest picture books of 2015.
Note: This is the fifteenth review in the 2015 Caldecott Contender series that will be published at this site over the coming months, up until the January 11th scheduled awards date. The books that will be examined are not necessarily ones that are bonafide contenders in the eyes of the voting committee, but rather the ones this writer feels should be. The order they will be presented is arbitrary as some of my absolute favorites will be presented near the end.