Children’s book publisher Scholastic announced on Sunday, Jan. 17, 2016, that they are halting distribution of their recently published picture book “A Birthday Cake for George Washington” by journalist Ramin Ganeshram and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton after a backlash over the book’s false depiction of the lives of the country’s first President George Washington. There was an outcry over the book’s “offensively sanitized version of the institution of slavery,” with over a 100 negative reviews on online retailer Amazon.com’s page for the book since it was released on Jan. 5, 2016 supposedly in honor of Presidents’ Day.
After three weeks of criticism, Scholastic issued a statement announcing their decision to stop selling the book. The publisher wrote, “We do not believe this title meets the standards of appropriate presentation of information to younger children, despite the positive intentions and beliefs of the author, editor and illustrator.” Scholastic also said, “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can provide, the book may give a false impression of the reality of the lives of slaves and therefore should be withdrawn.”
Only two days earlier, on Friday, Jan. 15 the publisher fiercely defended their decision to publish the book and its contents. In their statement, Scholastic expressed, “Over the past few days, A Birthday Cake for George Washington, the new picture book by Ramin Ganeshram and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton, has generated an important discussion about the depiction of slavery in children’s books. At Scholastic, we value the opinions and feedback from our community, and we appreciate your comments and respect your views on this complex matter.”
The publisher also praised the author, “Ganeshram is a leading scholar in the field of Washingtonian history-and the mother of a school-aged daughter-who spent years researching the life of Hercules, George Washington’s enslaved chef and the person on whom this book is based. In her comments linked above, she explains the choices she made for the book.”
The criticism was widespread against the book with parents negatively reviewing it on online merchant Amazon.com, to book reviewers, educators and librarians condemning the “happy slaves” that did not realistically portray slavery. A petition was mounted on Change.org asking Amazon and other booksellers to stop selling the book.
Among the many critical voices, Kiera Parrott wrote in the School Library Journal that the book shows “a troubling depiction of American slavery…. (The) 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.”
The Root’s contributing editor Demetria Lucas D’Oyley was another criticizing voice. Writing in the African American magazine she called it a “whitewashed version” of Hercules life story, “Slaving, literally, over a hot 18th century stove to bake a cake for a man who has you and your child in bondage ain’t happiness or pride. It’s duty. It’s survival. It’s busy work to pass the time while you’re plotting your escape.”
The 32-page historical fiction book aimed at children aged 7 to 10 years-old tells the story of Delia (b. 1785) and her father Hercules (b. 1755), who is a slave and the cook in President George Washington’s plantation home Mount Vernon in Virginia. The president later took Hercules and his son Richmond to the temporary national capitol of Philadelphia in 1790 to be his chef and part of the kitchen staff respectively.
The book is told from Delia’s perspective, as she recounts her father baking a cake for Washington’s birthday, based on Martha Washington’s Great Cake recipe, during a sugar shortage. The problem most of the public is having with the book is the depiction and illustrations showing both Hercules and his daughter Delia as happy although they are enslaved. Parents, educators and critics are upset at the book’s “sugarcoated view of slavery in America.”
The publisher’s official description describes that the “story, told in the voice of Delia, Hercules’s young daughter, is based on real events, and underscores the loving exchange between a very determined father and his eager daughter, who are faced with an unspoken, bittersweet reality. No matter how delicious the president’s cake turns out to be, Delia and Papa will not taste the sweetness of freedom.”
The publisher’s book description attempted to describe slavery’s reality. The author also wrote, a one-page author’s note epilogue giving the historical context of the story she wrote, describing the uglier part of Hercules and Delia’s live as slaves. Ganeshram’s aftermath, entitled “Hercules and President Washington” gave a brief realistic biography of the cook, who was considered “the first celebrity chef in America.”
The author described Hercules and his family’s elevated status in the Washington household, “the president’s cook, Hercules, was also a real person who was famous in his own right. It is true that he was well known throughout Philadelphia for his love of nice clothes and how well respected he was by the Washingtons…. Hercules was quite proud of his status in the Washington home, and he lived a life of near-freedom. But as the Founding Fathers knew, being almost free is not the same as being free, and he dreamed of his own liberty.”
Ganeshram concluded about both protagonists’ fates, “A few months later, Hercules did escape from Mount Vernon-in the early morning hours of February 22, 1797. It was President Washington’s sixty-fifth birthday. Delia, the narrator of this book, remained enslaved even after President Washington died, because she was owned by Martha Washington, who did not free her slaves. We do not know of her fate in the years following, but as the death of Martha Washington in 1802, Delia and her siblings remained enslaved.”
Illustrator Vanessa Brantley-Newton also acknowledged the difficulties of slavery and explained in the book’s Artist Note why she decide to portray the main characters of the “as happy people.” Brantley-Newton writes, “While slavery in America was a vast injustice, my research indicates that Hercules and the other servants in George Washington’s kitchen took great pride in their ability to cook for a man of stature…. They were not happy about being enslaved, but there was joy in what they created through their intelligence and culinary talent.”
The problem most critics had with the book is in almost every illustration, the enslaved protagonists are smiling seemingly happy about their situation. Although Hercules had a house position and Washington treated his slaves better than most slave-owners. Hercules’ actual biography and that of his wife and children imply that they were hardly happy with their positions in life, and neither was that father-daughter bond that tight since he left her behind in slavery when he escaped.
The book was compared to another similar story “A Fine Dessert: Four Centuries, Four Families, One Delicious Treats” written by Emily Jenkins and illustrated by Sophie Blackall that was almost equally criticized when it published in Jan. 2015. One of the stories within the book recounted, “The same dessert is prepared by an enslaved girl and her mother in 1810 in Charleston, South Carolina.” The slaves too in that book were depicted smiling, the focal point of the criticism. Somehow, “A Fine Desert” escaped the same fate as and was even named “A New York Times Best Illustrated Book.”
The major difference between the two books; all White team wrote, illustrated and published “A Fine Dessert,” while the team for “A Birthday Cake for George Washington” was more racially diverse. Author Ramin Ganeshram is of Iranian-Trinidadian descent, illustrator Vanessa Brantley-Newton is black as is the editor Andrea Davis Pinkney, who is also “a winner of the Coretta Scott King Award.” Both Ganeshram and Pinkney wrote blog posts defending the book as the controversy heated up.
Ganeshram defended her book and illustrator Brantley-Newton depictions of the main characters in the blog post “THE FIRST BITE: SLICING THROUGH A BIRTHDAY CAKE TO REVEAL LAYERS OF TRUTH” published on Jan. 14 on the Children’s Book Council’s blog. The author explained, “It is the historical record-not my opinion-that shows that enslaved people who received ‘status’ positions were proud of these positions-and made use of the ‘perks’ of those positions. It is what illustrator Vanessa Brantley-Newton calls out in her artist’s note as informing her decision to depict those in A Birthday Cake For George Washington as happy and prideful people.
Continuing, Ganeshram noted the recent problem Americans have a political correctness in history, looking to ignore and eradicate elements that do not fit the correct viewpoint. The author wrote, “In a modern sense, many of us don’t like to consider this, fearing that if we deviate from the narrative of constant-cruelty we diminish the horror of slavery. But if we chose to only focus on those who fit that singular viewpoint, we run the risk of erasing those, like Chef Hercules, who were remarkable, talented, and resourceful enough to use any and every skill to their own advantage.”
Pickney writing on Scholastic’s blog in a post entitled “A proud slice of history” posted on Jan. 6 defended the book she edited and its’ author. The scholastic wrote, “In crafting the narrative for this book, culinary historian and Washington scholar, Ramin Ganeshram, took great care in contextualizing Hercules and Delia as enslaved people, while at the same time accurately depicting Hercules as the notable figure he was. In her extensive author’s note, Ramin clearly and carefully addresses the cruel injustice of slavery, as well as the vicious complexity of slavery that George Washington himself faced.”
The Scholastic editor concluded her defense, asking readers, parents, and educators to use the book to teach about slavery and expand the discussion. Pickney argued, “A Birthday Cake for George Washington like all books that touch upon slavery presents tremendous opportunities for ‘teachable moments’ with children, and for opening an important dialogue. I encourage you to enjoy this book with young readers, and while doing so, please listen to their reactions, and please talk to them about facts, fictions, and the complex history of our nation.” Despite all their defenses, Scholastic succumbed to the pressure, whether right or wrong.
In a society where political correctness is king, and where there are calls for unpleasant displays of history to be removed physically and literally. The public could not see this books as what is, a children’s book meant to be enjoyable aimed at instilling a love of reading and of American history. Ganeshram did include in her author’s note epilogue all the uglier facets of the story’s history for children and educators to see the full picture, and promote a wider discussion. In a world full of ugliness happening all over the world every day, sometimes it might be better to allow children remain innocent to world’s evils just a little longer, allow their books to be what they are supposed to be an enjoyable escape from harsh reality.