In a highly unusual move, Scholastic, Inc. has pulled a picture book from distribution less than two weeks after its publication. The action came after public outcry about the way the book, A Birthday Cake for George Washington, presents the lives of slaves. In the last week, Scholastic responded to the comments, and the author, Ramin Ganeshram wrote a defense on the Children’s Book Council blog, in which she said “In our modern society, we abhor holding two competing truths in our minds. It is simply too hard. How could one person enslave another and at the same time respect him? It is difficult to fathom, but the fact remains it was true. We owe it to ourselves—and those who went before—to try and understand this confusing and uncomfortable truth. To refuse to do so diminishes their history to one-dimensional histories that may give comfort to some but ultimately rob us all of the potential for real understanding.”
The editor, Andrea Davis Pinkney, also stood behind the release in a blog post.
Intended for grades two through five, A Birthday Cake for George Washington, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley Newton, tells a story of Hercules, George Washington’s chef (and slave), and his daughter, Delia, happily determining to bake a birthday cake for the first president despite a lack of sugar. While both are historical figures, the controversy stems from the overall presentation of Hercules as a favored and respected slave, who is both delighted and proud to serve the president and Mrs. Washington.
Back on December 1, SLJ reviewed the book, calling it a “a troubling depiction of American slavery.”
“One spread depicts dancing feet and the hems of fancy dresses and shoes of the white revelers at the very top of the page. Hercules, Delia, and the other slaves are seen in the kitchen below, smiling with glee as they work on the cake, evoking a strangely cheerful and exuberant scene reminiscent of a Disney film,” said Reviews Director Kiera Parrott in her review of the book.
Ironically, A Birthday Cake for George Washington comes right on the heels of a similar conversation that stemmed from the depiction of a slave family in A Fine Dessert by Emily Jenkins (Schwartz & Wade, 2015). The striking similarities—both depict an enslaved parent and child preparing a dessert and smiling as they work—inspired a comparative analysis from editor Vicky Smith at Kirkus Reviews.
Several write-ups have gone viral on Twitter, including this one from a librarian and another from Atlantablackstar.com. The post on the Scholastic Facebook page has over 600 comments as of this writing, with many educators and parents calling for a boycott of Scholastic Book Fairs at their respective schools. Parents have created a petition to remove the title from Amazon.com, where it is being sold as a Kindle version, with hardcover versions selling for upwards of $57.
SLJ’s A Fuse # 8 Production blogger Betsy Bird took on the book in a post today, where she concludes:
“This much is clear. As we enter 2016 we’re going to see books like a republished Abraham Lincoln, with changes made to the text and images and other books that touch on similar topics in a picture book format for kids. Books of this sort may get pulled or delayed prior to publication. The same goes for nonfiction and fiction titles as well. There are good lessons to take from the saga of A BIRTHDAY CAKE. There are bad lessons too. Let us then hope for books for our kids that know how to handle this subject with dignity, and for publishers that aren’t just automatically scared away from the topic itself for years to come.”