August 24, 2016

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A Birthday Cake for George Washington | SLJ Review

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Ganeshram, Ramin. A Birthday Cake for George Washington. illus. by Vanessa Brantley-Newton. 32p. Scholastic. Jan. 2016. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780545538237.

Gr 1–3—A troubling depiction of American slavery. In a famous Philadelphia kitchen, chef HerculesBirthday Cake prepares to make the perfect birthday cake for his master, President George Washington. When he discovers that there is no more sugar in the pantry, Hercules scrambles to find a suitable substitute, enlisting the help of the other slaves and servants. Based on the real figure of Hercules, who was owned by the first president and served as his chef, the story is told through the eyes of Hercules’s young daughter, Delia, who describes her papa as a “general in the kitchen.” The text explains that Hercules was one of Washington’s most trusted slaves and was given more freedom than most; he could be seen in fine clothes walking the streets of Philadelphia or enjoying tickets to the theater. The story revolves around Hercules, Delia, and the other slaves finding a replacement for the sugar and carefully baking the cake. Brantley-Newton’s colorful, cartoon-style double-page illustrations, combined with the light tone of the text, convey a feeling of joyfulness that contrasts starkly with the reality of slave life. 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. Later, when Washington congratulates Hercules on a job well done, Hercules responds, “An honor and a privilege, sir.” Young readers without sufficient background knowledge about the larger context of American slavery may come away with a dangerously rosy impression of the relationship between slaves and slave owners, and those with a deeper understanding are likely to find this depiction offensive. An appended note explains that Hercules was a real person, now thought of by some culinary historians as “the first celebrity chef in America.” Ganeshram states that Hercules eventually escaped but that his children, including narrator Delia, were owned by Martha Washington and remained enslaved their entire lives. The somber facts recounted in small print at the end of the author’s note are unfortunately not reflected in either the text or the illustrations of the story that precedes them. Adding insult to injury, the back matter concludes with a recipe for “Martha Washington’s Great Cake,” courtesy of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association. VERDICT A highly problematic work; not recommended.—Kiera Parrott, School Library Journal

This title was reviewed in SLJ‘s December 2015 issue. 

Kiera Parrott About Kiera Parrott

Kiera Parrott is the reviews director for School Library Journal and Library Journal and a former children's librarian. Her favorite books are ones that make her cry—or snort—on public transportation.

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  1. Patricia Denny says:

    This may be off topic, but I hope not. I volunteer in a very high poverty, racially mixed elementary school. Because the school is not adequately funded by the state, time-wasting fundraisers are always needed … or so the school adminstration thinks. Scholastic book fairs is one of the fundraisers. The vast majority of the children are not able to buy books. They can only afford the junky little fifty-cent-to-a-dollar trinkets that have nothing to do with reading. There is pressure on families to purchase high-priced books. Very few of them are bilingual (a great need) or African-American themed. Far too many children watch sadly as a few of the fortunate ones purchase books. Scholastic expects school volunteers to run the week-long sale. The prices are not marked on the front of the books, and for K-5 children, they have to ask a volunteer how much the books cost. That takes up way too much of the volunteers’ time and energy repeating and repeating for each individual child. I have resorted to marking the rounded to the next dollar price on every item (many hundreds of items) in order to save the one or two volunteers the trouble of having to pick up and turn books over to find the price. Many children in our school think they would need $5 for a book that costs $5.99. I mark it $6 on the post it note on the FRONT of the book. Scholastic should know better by now, but it doesn’t seem they care about anything but their own bottom line. It is truly a shame that they have made their way into high-poverty schools. They have no idea of the sadness of children who can’t buy books. And they have no idea how hard it is for volunteers to run their sales when the volunteers (few that there are in high poverty schools) could be better using their time in working with students and aiding the maxed out teachers. I cringe whenever the school asks me to work this sale. The little $ that the school makes is not worth it when the state could easily send the money, and we could purchase used books at library book sales and places like Half Price Books. I’ve done a lot of that for this school and its library with my own money. I hope that our school will not do another Scholastic sale; but the decision is not mine. Thank you for listening!

  2. Ganeshram states that Hercules eventually “escaped” ? That says it all, doesn’t it.

    • Carolyn Bailey says:

      Yes, that does say it all. The truth about George and his slaves is revealed in the recent biographies which tend more towards fact and less towards hagiography than the older ones. One wonders why Scholastic ever accepted this book for publication when the plot is so unrealistic.
      Thanks to Ms Parrot for her restrained but conclusive review.

  3. In fact, it turns out Hercules escaped on Washington’s 65th birthday …

    http://articles.philly.com/2010-02-22/news/24957476_1_oney-judge-hercules-slave

    How about we celebrate Hercules’ freedom this February 22 ?

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