Works in Progress: Sugar Production Stories for Children and the History of Slavery, by Elizabeth Massa Hoiem

[We are pleased to kick off a new series of posts, “Works in Progress,” that highlights digital scholarship publications in development by our authors. These publications are not yet listed in our publications catalog, but they are live for interested readers to examine in an early phase of development and provide feedback to the author(s). Our inaugural post in this series features our graduate assistant Heejoung Shin interviewing author Elizabeth Massa Hoiem about her work in progress, Sugar Production Stories for Children and the History of Slavery.]


We are happy to feature Sugar Production Stories for Children and the History of Slavery, an Omeka S site developed by Elizabeth Massa Hoiem, a children’s literature scholar and assistant professor at the School of Information Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). Hoiem’s research areas are at the intersection of children’s literature, material culture, the history of education, and child labor.

Hoiem’s Omeka S exhibit was debuted as a beta site in July 2020 and was in part developed as a companion to her recently published article, “The Progress of Sugar: Consumption as Complicity in Children’s Books about Slavery and Manufacturing, 1790-2015” in Children’s Literature in Education. Both her article and exhibit look at “production stories” from a critical angle, as a genre of information literature and media used to teach children how things are made. In our conversation, we talked about her work and her perspectives on digital publishing.

Interview Questions

1) How were your ideas for “The Progress of Sugar: Consumption as Complicity in Children’s Books about Slavery and Manufacturing, 1790-2015” shaped? Are there any articles and events that inspired you to bring your work to fruition?

Years ago, I began digging through archives, trying to find how children in Britain and the United States learned about technology during the time of industrialization. I discovered that most of these children’s books are like early versions of videos that children watch today, showing how everyday things are made in factories. They try to help children grasp a global economy that they can’t really witness first hand. They also depict slave labor. Although I had no particular plan, I documented these depictions and saved the research for years. Then in 2015, there were critical discussions about two picturebooks with problematic depictions of slavery, both of them about how to make a dessert. The similarities between these books and the ones I found written centuries earlier raised questions for me: What if this is not a coincidence? If the genre of production stories began during the era of slavery, what does that mean for us today? Perhaps this history is so entrenched in the genre’s narrative strategies, that authors and illustrators continue to use this form without examining or understanding its origins.

I began reading more about the history of the Atlantic slave trade and ethical consumer movements, such as the boycotts of slave sugar. I especially enjoyed Laurence Glickman’s essay, “‘Buy for the Sake of the Slave’: Abolitionism and the Origins of American Consumer Activism.” I was also impressed by Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos’s young adult nonfiction book, Sugar Changed the World: A Story of Magic, Spice, Slavery, Freedom, and Science (2010), because it tells hard truths to young readers, and we have way too many history books that fail to do that.

2) Your Omeka exhibit, Sugar Production Stories for Children and the History of Slavery offers a visual analysis of the items, which are not included in “The Progress of Sugar.” Could you tell us what drove you to IOPN and the Omeka platform?

I have previously used digital publishing platforms for course assignments, with support from Dan Tracy [Head of Scholarly Communication and Publishing at UIUC] and other librarians, which made me comfortable with the idea. We are lucky to have experts dedicated to digital publishing at our university, who can partner with people like me to make a project like this one feasible. I knew that I wanted my readers to see images from the books I discussed, but publishing images in academic journals is challenging because the journals want explicit permission from publishers, who charge high fees for using their images, even though legally, I can publish these images under “fair use.” I decided to build a much more extensive resource online, so that everyone can see what these books look like, and I can include the historical materials next to the modern picturebooks. When I wrote the article, there was so much material that I did not have space to include, so I also decided to confine most of my visual analysis to the Omeka project.

3) You mentioned that your turn to Omeka stemmed from the limitations of publishing images in an article. What kinds of challenges did you encounter as you wrote content for the Omeka site? And what strategies would you recommend for authors who are contemplating sharing their research via multiple media?

First, If you haven’t done this kind of project before, make sure that you are working with people who can advise you along the way. I had plenty of questions for Dan Tracy and Sara Benson [Copyright Librarian at UIUC], and I relied on the spreadsheets and best practices they provided. They helped me to learn the parts of online writing that I had never done before, such as creating metadata that allows users to search items, writing alt-text to improve accessibility, and documenting my fair use cases.

Second, you can expect the project to take longer than you think. Since I already did the research for the article, I thought it would take weeks, but it actually took months to get even this one part of the project finished—although granted, that was during maternity leave and a pandemic. I was surprised to find that all the little bits of writing add up to something quite long. One reason the project was longer than expected is that I wanted the Omeka exhibit to stand on its own for people who find it online but have not read my article. Since the images and subject matter is potentially upsetting for viewers, I am responsible for providing an adequate interpretive framework for what I post, with enough resources for further reading. I see my students struggling with this challenge in my classroom. Students often want to create web projects about histories of oppression. It is quite easy to find troubling images and much harder to create effective text that transforms those images into something educational that will not perpetuate the trauma of the original event. Digital publishing platforms make visual materials easy to post, which means writers have to slow down and consider what is acceptable to post and how to encourage a productive reception of these images among site visitors.

4) Your compelling analysis of the books and images offer a critical lens to see how production and consumption fed slavery. Among the items you analyze, could you pick one that you hope your readers see the most?

My favorite images are from Dave the Potter: Poet, Artist, Slave (2010), an amazing picturebook written by Laban Carrick Hill and illustrated Brian Collier. These are beautiful, hopeful images that rework negative tropes, such as the visual reduction of enslaved persons to their “hands,” which happens all the time in technical books. In one image, Dave pulls out his pot from the clay. Although Collier focuses on Dave’s hands, we get a sense of interiority because he quickly switches to the image of Dave’s face and full body in the next spreads. To see the full image, readers have to pull out an extra panel that extends the book’s page, which invites readers to identify with Dave’s craft and his bodily movements. Also, the book draws on Biblical language that compares clay pots to the human body with a soul, so that whenever we see Dave shape a pot, we are reminded that God shaped all humans.

If you want to know more about the history of representing slavery in production stories, I recommend The Story Book of Sugar, which analyzes the reoccurring image of a cane harvester chewing cane. I found this same image in children’s books published over a 200 year period. Its possible origins in proslavery literature are worth considering, because similar images continue to be reproduced today.

5) Could you tell your readers why we need to attend to the relationship between how products were and are made and the human labor unjustly put into to bringing these products into existence?

That’s a good question, because that’s really what all this comes down to. We need to know when things we use are made under miserable conditions so that we might choose not to buy them, or hopefully influence companies to hold their suppliers accountable. However, one of the things that I learned that surprised me is that many abolitionists supported the boycott of slave-produced goods, and purchasing from bazaars that featured ethically sourced products, but they ultimately decided not to invest all of their time in those efforts because the whole economy was entangled with slavery. As consumers, everyone was complicit. The paper that abolitionists used to publish their words was often made by slaves. The really effective abolitionists, people like Frederick Douglass, chose to devote more time to eradicating the institution of slavery itself. That tells me that we need to think about the big picture, and not just where my coffee comes from, or my shoes, or whatever, although I appreciate the efforts of people who promote fair trade and investigate shady supply lines. But how do we redesign a new economy to make sure that people earn living wages and work in safer conditions around the world? How do we make sure that our consumption doesn’t ruin the planet? This is a big problem, and conscious consumerism is just one small piece of what needs to be a much larger disruption in how we conduct business. History suggests we cannot buy our way out of this.

6) Your analysis raises broader questions about the need for meaningful change and new economies, as we are all complicit as consumers. Turning from conscious consumerism of goods to the consumption of research, how does publishing in multiple platforms open up new spaces for conversations about children’s literature? How does a digital exhibition raise questions about labor practices in research and the ethical forms of interpretation?

I don’t think I am equipped to answer this question in the field of digital publishing broadly speaking, but I can reflect on some of what I considered. Pictures are emotionally powerful. Putting pictures that depict slavery online means making these offensive materials more readily available, some of which were originally created for the purpose of justifying slavery, when our labor could be invested elsewhere, for instance, in analyzing the work of contemporary black illustrators. This raises questions for me about how best to use the resources of the academy and my training as a literary historian. I want to challenge historical amnesia by contributing what I have found in archival research, but I also want to call attention to life-giving work for children.

7) What is your next research project?

I have to finish my current book. But I hope that my next project will be a book about production stories. Many of the early children’s textbooks about “everyday things” and where they come from have a chapter each on coal, cotton, sugar, tea, oil, etc. I want to write a scholarly book that is framed the same way. As a meta-production book, each chapter examines the social history of a commodity in children’s books along with its significance in the life of child workers and consumers. In anticipation of this project, I created the Omeka site hoping to expand it, eventually, into a broader exploration of the production story.