The Progress of Sugar: Consumption as Complicity in Children’s Books about Slavery and Manufacturing, 1790–2015

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This paper analyzes “production stories,” a genre of information literature and media responsible for teaching children how everyday things are made. As nineteenth-century families increasingly consumed tropical commodities produced by slave labor, including sugar, tea, coffee, rum, and tobacco, the production story developed in Britain and the United States as a way to explain to children where everyday household goods originate, making global trade networks visible in the home. These “production stories” developed strategies for raising or eliding ethical questions posed by who makes things, under what conditions, and for whom. Focusing on stories of sugar production, I find that production stories reveal surprising details about technical processes for making things, but conceal the human cost of production. They also end with consumption, when children use the products, symbolically affirming the conditions under which they were made. Drawing on scholarship from the history of technology and the history of the Atlantic slave trade, I contend that problematic representations of manufacturing processes feed into and support whitewashed histories for children. I conclude by analyzing contemporary picturebooks that resist certain genre patterns and encourage positive identification with enslaved black characters, who like child readers, are at once makers, readers, and consumers.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)162-182
Number of pages21
JournalChildren's Literature in Education
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 2021


  • Abolitionist literature
  • Children’s nonfiction
  • Consumerism
  • History of children’s literature
  • Manufacturing
  • Production story
  • Race in children’s literature
  • Representations of work
  • Slavery
  • Sugar

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Literature and Literary Theory


Dive into the research topics of 'The Progress of Sugar: Consumption as Complicity in Children’s Books about Slavery and Manufacturing, 1790–2015'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this