When Doris Buchanan Smith set out to find a publisher for A Taste of Blackberries, what she got instead was rejection. Editor's believed the book's theme was better suited to adults than children. Yet its theme and style are what set it apart. If death had once been a common theme in children's books, think Oliver Twist, it had long since become taboo, and had remained so until Charlotte's Web, by E. B. White, made its debut in 1952.
Charlotte's Web had for many years been accepted as the template for addressing mortality in children's books, until Smith’s story appeared, a story in which animals do not stand-in for humans. In the 1970s, literary realism had taken hold, and Smith was at the vanguard of the movement, acquainting young readers with "the darker, harsher side of life." According to author and blogger Pauline Dewan; "Many writers believe that authors do not help children by sheltering them from the problems of the real world." Indeed, most young readers with whom the author spoke said "they liked it because it was sad." Interviewed for the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Smith recalled A Taste of Blackberries started as an adventure story, and then took an unexpected turn in her imagination. So upset was Smith with this tragic idea, she stopped writing the book. Smith did complete it, however, by focusing on the differences in the way children and adults respond to mortality, and writing from the point of view of the young narrator.
Rejected by as many as three publishers, A Taste of Blackberries was accepted by Thomas Y. Crowell Co., now HarperCollins, and released to wide acclaim in May, 1973. "Smith deals honestly and emphatically with the range of emotions," wrote Cynthia Westway in The Atlanta Journal, "the story is not, however, an elegy; but a celebration of the continuity of the life-death cycle." In the Times Literary Supplement, David Rees wrote, "It will be difficult to find a children's book this autumn by a new author as good as Doris Buchanan Smith's A Taste of Blackberries . . . Smith's success lies in knowing how to handle the theme with exactly the right balance of sensitivity, humour and open emotion." Scholastic, Inc. praised Charles Robinsons' illustrations, saying they "capture the loneliness and confusion expressed by the narrator with haunting precision."
As told from the point of view of the unnamed narrator, the story begins as he and his best friend Jamie go blackberry picking. We follow the boys as they take part in a series of exploits - some told in current narrative time, some revealed in poignant flashbacks - allowing the reader to witness their world and shared experience. When one of the boys tragically dies as a result of an allergic reaction to bee stings, the narrator struggles to cope with denial, grief, guilt, and loneliness, before coming to terms with the loss. The story is set in a suburb of Washington, D.C., the author's birthplace.Jamie is a "show-off and a clown". While he can be exasperating, his adventurous and resourceful nature earns the admiration of his best friend.
The narrator, Jamie’s appreciative audience and partner in fun, enjoys their friendship, even if, at times, Jamie can go too far.
Heather, with red-gold hair, is the closest friend of both Jamie and the narrator.
Jamie's mother cares for a family of three, including Jamie, four-year-old Martha, and an infant son.
The narrator's mother and father care for the narrator and a college-age daughter who is away at summer camp as a counselor. They also have a son who is grown and married.
Mrs. Houser, Jamie's next door neighbor, is tyrannical when it comes to her perfect lawn. The children in the neighborhood avoid her, and her lawn, if they possibly can.
Mrs. Mullins' "secret garden" is off limits to most of the children in the neighborhood. The narrator feels privileged to be an exception, mainly because Mrs. Mullins and his mother are friends.
"In dealing directly with the death of a child's playmate, it broke a taboo of twentieth-century American children's fiction," wrote Hugh T. Keenan, in the St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers. British author, lecturer and reviewer David Rees drew parallels between Charlotte's Web and A Taste of Blackberries in The Marble in the Water: Essays on Contemporary Writers of Fiction for Children and Young Adults (1980). He writes that "in A Taste of Blackberries we do have a story for young children in which death - sudden and inexplicable - is the main theme, and it is a book in which the characters are not talking animals." "The chief purpose of the book," Rees argues, "is to write about death in a fashion that young readers can take, and in this Doris Buchanan Smith succeeds admirably." "These two authors are saying things that are necessary, and which help children to cope and to grow." A Taste of Blackberries is "one of the seminal children's books on the subject of death."
Smith won the Josette Frank Award, for "outstanding literary merit in which children or young people deal in a positive and realistic way with difficulties in their world and grow emotionally and morally;" the Georgia Children’s Book Award; the Children's Best Book Prize in the Netherlands (Zilveren Griffel); and was named Georgia Author of the Year, all for A Taste of Blackberries. In addition to 19 English language editions, the book has been translated into Dutch, Danish, French, Spanish and Japanese. A Taste of Blackberries was nominated for the prestigious Newbery Medal in 1974, and is an ALA Notable Children's Book.
"It blazed the way for the many other grief books that quickly followed, but few have approached the place of honor this one holds," wrote Jim Trelease in The Read-Aloud Handbook (Penguin Books, 2006).