December 16, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

Scholastic Yanks Controversial Picture Book

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.”

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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.

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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.”

 

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Comments

  1. Roberta Wiese says:

    Wow! Talk about censorship!

    • Leslie Ann says:

      A private company declining to publish (or, in this case, ceasing to publish) a book is not censorship.

  2. I’m confused. Are we as librarians supposed to be outraged at the censorship of this book, or outraged at the subject of the book?

    • Allison Williams says:

      Delicious comment!

    • Caleb Knott says:

      A true librarian does not show bias towards the subject of a book, rather promotes the value of diversity. There are plentiful examples of books whose content can, and has been considered extremely offensive to the point that this particular children’s book fades–no, vanishes in comparison, yet librarians around the world do not show “outrage” towards these books. Perhaps a consideration of the primitiveness of such behavior as banishing books would be beneficial. We live in an age of openness, let this “outrage” nonsense cease.

      • Caleb Knott says:

        Excuse the typographic error, I meant to type “banning books”, not “banishing books”. Sometimes auto-correct is not the typist’s best friend.

      • Perhaps those outraged by the “banning” should read Julius Lester’s To Be A Slave. George Washington did not treat his slaves well, and, according to the firsthand accounts in To Be A Slave, which are told by escaped and freed slaves, any slave who was “happy” in his condition, had been brainwashed by the masters who owned them. Treating slavery as anything other than a heinous and reprehensible crime against humanity completely minimizes the lives of the people who suffered unspeakable horrors. And how would a child know how to handle the subject matter with “dignity” when the subject matter is portrayed in a way that is historically inaccurate? Slavery should be presented the way it was, people being abducted, beaten, murdered, and treated as mere objects, their very freedom and life stolen to increase the wealth of others. That slavery is presented in this light manner is what I find outrageous.

  3. For me, the last line says it all
    “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.”

  4. Lori Hannon-Theaker says:

    I am very disappointed in Scholastic and their decision to remove this book from publication. Like “A Fine Dessert,” these adult reviewers show no faith in the child audience! Nor do they allow parents, teachers and librarians the opportunity to have discussions with children about these topics.
    Scholastic should be ashamed!!!

  5. Lori Hannon-Theaker says:

    Upon further reflection, perhaps Scholastic should never have agreed to publish the book in the first place…
    I stand by my evaluation of “A Fine Dessert”, however, as the topic of “slavery” is NOT the point of the book.

  6. Albert Franklin says:

    I have often wondered as to why there is no children’s literature what so ever about what is today a great part of some of the United States,’ West Indies’ and Europe’s greatest contribution to history. Where is the literature that shows the actual person who helped to design the White House and Washington, D.C. as well? Where is the children’s literature, where today’s youth can also discover about Alexander Dumas whom as a general fought during the French Revolution? Truth be told, they were both former slaves of the West Indies who wanted the entire world to know of their undying pride in what they did for the future progression of humanity….

  7. I had to laugh when Scholastic said they pulled the book because it didn’t meet their publishing standards. Anyone who’s hosted one of their book fairs in recent years knows they offer numerous sloppily-put-together and mediocre titles. The five science books I bought from our fair last year proved on closer examination to be pedestrian arrangements of stock photos accompanied by short text sections with “gross-out” tidbits about the featured animal or biome.

    With this craven decision, Scholastic lost the $500+ I was expecting to spend at this year’s fair, and I’m completely disinclined to put in the overtime and selling efforts I gave the company as a fair chairperson in years past.