Repository logo

Sweetness is Not a Guarantee: Disrupting Picture Book Depictions of Black Children as Comestible



Change log


McDaniel, Breanna 


This thesis examines the surveillance and respectability politics involved in the depiction of Black children in picture book text and images, focusing particularly on the representation of Black children as food. My corpus of texts consists of six picture books by five different Black creators: three with poems by Joyce Carol Thomas and illustrated by Floyd Cooper, two by Taye Diggs and illustrated by Shane Evans, and finally one written by bell hooks and illustrated by Shane Evans. The primary aim of the research is to interrogate how complementary elements of picture book illustration and design facilitate the consumption of “sweet” Black children in contemporary youth literature by Black creators. It explores how this representation, especially by Black creators, affirms the cultural consumption of Black children and contributes to their continued dehumanization. I build a methodological framework drawing on Black feminist epistemologies, with a heavy emphasis on the impact of bell hooks’ academic and creative contributions, as well as critical food studies, picture book criticism, Black literary criticism, and critical race theory.

The thesis begins with a letter to bell hooks, not only as an introduction to the origins of my interest in comestible kids, but to introduce the tension of critiquing intra-community racial violence. As a Black woman and an “insider” in the children’s publishing community, it’s critical that I pluck at and unpack this tension. The thesis then expounds upon the origins and role of contemporary Black picture books in creating didactic, moral expectations of literary Black children. Discussing images and depictions of edible children in children’s literature, the thesis examines the specific moulding of Black children as sweet and sometimes sour. I emphasize the global cultural influence of sugar as decorative material, spice, medicine, sweetener and preservative in shaping these depictions – and I read each through the lens of the ongoing conditions of surveillance and respectability placed on Black children. This in-depth analysis of the six books reveals how we as Black creators, in serving white supremacist capitalism, reproduce these images even when they are in direct contrast to our intentions and experiences.

The thesis argues that the corpus of picture books analysed presents immediate and peripheral relationships with adults who serve as the first “overseers” of Black children and replicate a racialized panopticon, where they, children and adults, are conditioned to be good, or sweet, under duress by white supremacist moral expectations. Goodness, however, is not a guarantee that they won’t come to mortal harm and or enjoy stable existences; hence, I posit that liberation from this system will not come through succumbing to it. Instead, it must come through finding alternative spaces in the margins away from mainstream representations of Black children to find comfort and connection in the afterlife of slavery. I use personal reflection and other devices that centre autoethnographic inquiry to support an emphasis on Anchoring, a process to interrupt our constant following in the Wake theorised by Christina Sharpe. The thesis finally proposes that the work to disrupt narratives of Black children as edible must be done in cooperation with Black children as collaborators and co-researchers in acknowledgement of the fact that they are the experts on their experience.





Sriprakash, Arathi


Black children's literature, Black feminist theory, picture books


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge