Scholastic has pulled A Birthday Cake for George Washington, a picture book which depicts images of Washington’s slave Hercules and his daughter Delia smiling and making a cake for the president’s birthday, from shelves after being criticized for the way it portrays slave life.
Scholastic’s description of the book had read, “Everyone is buzzing about the president’s birthday! Especially George Washington’s servants, who scurry around the kitchen preparing to make this the best celebration ever. Oh, how George Washington loves his cake! 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 in Scholastic’s statement announcing they would remove the book from shelves, the publisher said it “may give a false impression of the reality of the lives of slaves.”
“Today that we are stopping the distribution of the book entitled A Birthday Cake for George Washington, by Ramin Ganeshram and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton, and will accept all returns,” Scholastic 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can provide, the book may give a false impression of the reality of the lives of slaves and therefore should be withdrawn.”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 statement continued, “Scholastic has a long history of explaining complex and controversial issues to children at all ages and grade levels. 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.”
Ganeshram wrote in a blog post that she had researched the book for four years and defended the book against critics. “How could they smile? How could they be anything but unrelentingly miserable?” she 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.”
She says A Birthday Cake for George Washington does not take “slavery’s horror for granted” and writes, “On several occasions, the book comments on slavery, acknowledges it, and offers children and adults who will be sharing the book ‘a way in’ as they speak to these issues.”