Scholastic is pulling a new picture book about George Washington and his slaves amid objections it sentimentalizes a brutal part of American history.
“A Birthday Cake for George Washington” was released Jan. 5 and had been strongly criticized for its upbeat images and story of Washington’s cook, the slave Hercules and his daughter, Delia. Its withdrawal was announced Sunday.
“While we have great respect for the integrity and scholarship of the author, illustrator and editor, we believe that, without more historical background on the evils of slavery than this book for younger children can provide, the book may give a false impression of the reality of the lives of slaves and therefore should be withdrawn,” the children’s publisher said in a statement released to the AP.
The book, which depicts Hercules and Delia preparing a cake for Washington, has received more than 100 one-star reviews on Amazon.com. As of Sunday evening, only 12 reviews were positive. The book also set off discussions on Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere on social media.
While notes in “A Birthday Cake for George Washington” from author Ramin Ganeshram and illustrator Vanessa Brantley-Newton had pointed out the historical context of the 18th century story and that Hercules eventually escaped, some critics faulted Ganeshram and Brantley-Newton for leaving out those details from the main narrative.
“Oh, how George Washington loves his cake!” reads the publisher’s description of the story. “And, oh, how he depends on Hercules, his head chef, to make it for him. Hercules, a slave, takes great pride in baking the president’s cake. But this year there is one problem – they are out of sugar.”
The trade publication School Library Journal had called it “highly problematic” and recommended against its purchase. Another trade journal, Kirkus Reviews, had labeled the book “an incomplete, even dishonest treatment of slavery.”
In a Scholastic blog post from last week, Ganeshram wrote that the story was based on historical research and meant to honor the slaves’ skill and resourcefulness.
“How could they smile? How could they be anything but unrelentingly miserable?” Ganeshram wrote. “How could they be proud to bake a cake for George Washington? The answers to those questions are complex because human nature is complex. Bizarrely and yes, disturbingly, there were some enslaved people who had a better quality of life than others and ‘close' relationships with those who enslaved them. But they were smart enough to use those ‘advantages’ to improve their lives.”
Sunday’s announcement comes amid an ongoing debate about the lack of diversity in publishing, although the collaborators on “A Birthday Cake” come from a variety of backgrounds. Ganeshram is an award-winning journalist and author born to a Trinidadian father and Iranian mother and has a long history of food writing. Her previous works include the novel “Stir It Up” and the nonfiction “FutureChefs.”
Brantley-Newton, who has described herself as coming from a “blended background – African American, Asian, European, and Jewish,” has illustrated the children’s series “Ruby and the Booker Boys” among other books. The editor was Andrea Davis Pinkney, also an author who in 2013 won a Coretta Scott King prize for African-American children’s literature.
The pulling of the Washington book also recalls a similar controversy from last year. “A Fine Dessert,” written by Emily Jenkins and illustrated by Sophie Blackall, was criticized for its cheerful depiction of a 19th century slave mother and daughter as they prepared a blackberry recipe. Jenkins apologized, saying that her book, which she “intended to be inclusive and truthful and hopeful, is racially insensitive.” (“A Fine Dessert,” released by the Random House imprint Schwartz & Wade, remains in print).
Copies of “A Birthday Cake for George Washington” were not easy to find even before Scholastic’s decision. The print edition on Amazon.com, ranked No. 13.202 earlier Sunday, was listed as shipping within “2 to 4 weeks.” Several Barnes & Noble stores in Manhattan did not have the book in stock. Scholastic spokeswoman Kyle Good said she could not provide an immediate reason for delays in the book’s availability.