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can provide, the book may give a false impression of the reality of the lives of slaves and should therefore be withdrawn.”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 Amazon.com. 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.
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Image via Scholastic.