Making Ice Cream and Making News

The Sweetest Scoop: Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream Revolution – written by Lisa Robinson, illustrated by Stacy Innerst
Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2022

Any picture book biography for young readers will necessarily simplify its subject’s life.  Even the most laudable people usually have acted in ways which make them vulnerable to criticism.  Authors need to decide, based on the length, scope, and audience of the book, what needs to be included.  Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield are incredibly successful entrepreneurs who created a product and figured out how to market it.  They deserve credit for their accomplishment.  In Lisa Robinson’s account, the pair’s social activism really sets them apart, perhaps even more than their Chunky Monkey or Cherry Garcia.  The result is a kind of iconography, but with clever text, lots of humor, and outstandingly expressive pictures by the inimitable Stacy Innerst (see other of his books I have reviewed here and here).  The book is indeed sweet, even if Ben and Jerry’s ostensible role as revolutionaries is a bit overstated.

First, the best part of the book is Innerst’s art.  Whatever subject he illustrates, his pictures become an embodiment of that person and his or her era.  There are lifelike drawings that capture Ben and Jerry’s personalities, and fanciful elements such as joking cows and possible ice cream ideas floating over their inventors’ heads. Innerst’s color palette shouts “ice cream,” but the reader does not live by food alone. There are the boys’ bicycles with playing cards in the wheels’ spokes, the young pair confronted with a broken toilet in their gas station, and the serious faces demonstrating for peace in the 1960s.  Pictures offer free association, as in the small American flag atop a serving of Empower Mint, or again, those cows, this time taking a meeting with Ben and Jerry outdoors, under pastel clouds.

Young readers will be engaged by the legitimate story of Ben and Jerry as underdogs. They me as kids. They loved biking, art, science, and, of course, food. They showed an impressive work ethic, but met with many disappointments. When they decide to start their own business, “they will be their own bosses,” a goal attractive to children and adults alike.  Conceiving and developing every aspect of their unusual plan, Ben and Jerry go from mixing ingredients to getting it onto store shelves. When the corporate behemoth Pillsbury threatens to shut them down, these two socially conscious guys from Long Island complain to the Federal Trade Commission. Eventually, they have the last laugh, selling huge quantities of their ice cream all over the U.S. 

But this part of their story is almost a preamble, because “…the believed that they could use ice cream to help make the world a better place.”  Robinson describes their committed environmentalism, their foundation they started to fund social activism, and their advocacy for inclusion and diversity.  All this information is valuable, and inspiring to kids who may not have thought about corporate success linked to corporate responsibility. In fact, Ben and Jerry, like most people, have not always lived up to their own standards. Although the book emphasizes their concern for workers, they have sometimes opposed unionization in their company and their relationship with migrant workers in the dairy industry has included conflict. It is to Robinson’s credit that she includes on her “Timeline,” Ben and Jerry’s sale of their company to Unilever, “a multinational food corporation.”

Here’s an obvious part of Ben and Jerry’s biography which Robinson chose to leave out; they are Jewish.  So many aspects of their lives, from their Long Island beginnings, to Jerry’s rejection from medical school leading to better things, to the bagels and cream cheese, and the very social activism which defines the book’s message, are partly rooted in their Jewish identity. This identity is conspicuous by its absence.  Another absence from the book is their stand on selling ice cream in Israel’s Palestinian territories. No, they do not support the BDS movement, just Israel’s policies in that contested part of their country. But whether or not readers disagree with Ben and Jerry on this decision, there is no disputing its prominence in their public image.  They have every right to take that stand and to publicize what they consider to be an important issue.  Given Robinson’s explicit mention of so many causes espoused by them, from Black Lives Matter to LGBTQ rights, reparations for slavery, environmental protection, and giving their workers “free” ice cream, one can only assume that the author avoided the one issue which she thought would be controversial. Yet, there are undoubtedly readers who oppose all of Ben and Jerry’s other causes as well.  Who is the audience for this book?  Most likely, they are generally sympathetic to the Ben and Jerry story.  At the end of the day, Ben and Jerry’s persistence, creativity, and drive made a lot of ice cream lovers happy. Whether or not this equals a revolution, kids can learn a lot from their tale.

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