Following outrage, Scholastic has decided to pull its new picture book about George Washington that sentimentalized the practice of American slavery.
A Birthday Cake for George Washington was released Jan. 5 and had been roundly 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can provide, the book may give a false impression of the reality of the lives of slaves and therefore should be withdrawn,” the children’s publisher said in a statement released to the AP.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 shows Hercules and Delia baking 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.
The AP reports:
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.”
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, who is Black and also an author who in 2013 won a Coretta Scott King prize for African-American children’s literature