November 10, 2015

NYT features Ebony Elizabeth Thomas on children’s literature and race

A controversial children’s picture book, A Fine Dessert, has sparked heated discussions about diversity and historical accuracy in children’s literature. In a November 6 article, the New York Times called upon Penn GSE Assistant Professor Ebony Elizabeth Thomas to weigh in on the debate, highlighting her perspective as an expert on children’s literature and race.

In the article, “‘A Fine Dessert’: Judging a Book by the Smile of a Slave,” Thomas states that the book presents a “degrading” depiction of an enslaved African-American mother and daughter in 1810 South Carolina.

Through stories of four families living in four different centuries, the book traces the history of one dessert, blackberry fool, as each family prepares it. The African-American mother and daughter are shown making the dessert and serving it to their white masters before hiding in a closet to eat what remains.

Published in January by Schwartz & Wade, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, A Fine Dessert has generated positive reviews and award buzz, yet a growing wave of criticism has questioned what message young readers will take away about characters of color and slavery in America. In response, the author, Emily Jenkins, recently apologized for the book’s racial insensitivity.

“Publishers are not thinking enough about who is reading these books,” Thomas said in the New York Times article. “Imagine reading A Fine Dessert to a classroom in Philadelphia that is 90 percent African-American. How are those kids going to feel?” 

Thomas’ research focuses primarily on children’s and adolescents’ texts; the teaching of African-American literature, history, and culture in K-12 classrooms; and the roles that race, class, and gender play in classroom discourse and interaction.