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Scholastic Pulls Children's Book Accused Of Sentimentalizing Slavery

Illustration for article titled Scholastic Pulls Childrens Book Accused Of Sentimentalizing Slavery

On January 5, Scholastic released A Birthday Cake For George Washington, written by Ramin Ganeshram and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton. On Sunday, January 17, the children’s publisher pulled the book for its sentimental depiction of slavery.


In a recent statement, Scholastic explained its reasoning:

“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can provide, the book may give a false impression of the reality of the lives of slaves and should therefore be withdrawn.”


The book tells the story of Washington’s slave Hercules and his daughter Delia, and their effort to make their master a birthday cake. Because the illustrations and general tone are as The Guardian reports, “upbeat,” it “has received more than 100 one-star reviews on As of Sunday evening, only 12 reviews were positive.”

Kirkus Reviews referred to the book as “an incomplete, even dishonest treatment of slavery.”

Author Ramin Ganeshram defended her creative choices in a Scholastic blog post in early January in which she argued that “the story was based on historical research and was meant to honor the slaves’ resourcefulness.” Via The Guardian:

“‘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.’”


In the meantime, discussions regarding the content of the book have erupted across social media platforms, together with an ongoing critique of publishing’s significant lack of diversity.

Contact the author at

Image via Scholastic.

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To pretend that slaves were never happy or never had a good day or never smiled is to deny them a basic part of their humanity. That some were friendly with or even loved their masters is undeniable.

None of this does anything to say that slavery was anything other than a horrible injustice. But slaves were people, people are complicated. Never portraying them as anything other than silently suffering the lash is just as untrue as showing them all happy whistling in the field.

I can see the point that young children aren’t necessarily ready to understand that, but some people act like showing a slave smiling is like jumping head first onto a slippery slope straight back to Uncle Tom’s cabin.