J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, January 18, 2016

No Birthday Cake for George Washington

This month Scholastic published a book about Hercules, the Washingtons’ cook at Mount Vernon and Philadelphia in the 1790s.

And this week Scholastic decided to pull that book from circulation. As The Guardian reported:
A Birthday Cake for George Washington was released on 5 January and had been strongly criticized for its upbeat images and story of Washington’s cook, the slave Hercules, and his daughter, Delia.

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can provide, the book may give a false impression of the reality of the lives of slaves and therefore should be withdrawn,” the publisher said in a statement.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

While notes in A Birthday Cake for George Washington from author Ramin Ganeshram and illustrator Vanessa Brantley-Newton 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. . . .

The trade publication School Library Journal called the book “highly problematic” and recommended against its purchase. Another trade journal, Kirkus Reviews, labeled the book “an incomplete, even dishonest treatment of slavery”.
One notable detail about this publication is that the book’s editor, Andrea Davis Pinkney, is one of the industry’s most respected and active African-American editors and champions of black authors and artists. She has published many books about African-American history, including slavery. Both the author and the illustrator of the book are women of color.

Last year there was a big controversy in the children’s book world about how another picture book, A Fine Dessert, depicted a moment in the lives of a mother and child enslaved in ante-bellum South Carolina. (I wrote about an early presage of that controversy but didn’t anticipate what developed.) By that time, A Birthday Cake for George Washington was probably too far along in production to be changed in major ways.

Pinkney and her colleagues clearly anticipated some complaints about how the new book portrayed slavery and prepared online essays explaining their choices. That makes Scholastic’s decision to reverse course and pull the book—on a weekend, yet—even more striking.


G. Lovely said...

The link to e author's essay is well worth following. Her piece is thought provoking and well worth reading. Thank you for exposing me to another side of this seemingly simple story.

D.M. Dunlap said...

What's striking to me about the controversy over both these books is the implication that children will be left on their own to read and interpret these books without context or assistance providedby adults. Don't parents expect to read with their kids, or let them read independently and discuss together afterwards?

J. L. Bell said...

Related to that is the implication that children would not have any other exposure to the history of American slavery.

Now I don't think the critics of those books would accept those claims. I think they'd argue that the trope of "happy slaves" has a long and harmful history in American literature and politics, and these books, whether meaning to or not, play into that. And that the trope has been so dominant and so pleasing for the majority culture that it would overpower other depictions. For young white readers, that would be misleading. For young black readers, both misleading and demeaning.

J. L. Bell said...

A bigger challenge for picture-book writers (who are working in a deceptively hard form to begin with) is telling a story that goes against modern American values of self-determination. For most of human history, most humans have had to be subservient. We found ways to survive through currying favor with the powerful, adopting their values outwardly and often inwardly, and snatching pleasures where we could. While that was unjust, it was usually not fixable in a lifetime or in 32 pages.

Chaucerian said...

And now moving to the administrative aspects of this situation, I'm betting that we see either a change in Scholastic's org chart (specifically, in terms of needed approvals for actions) or a change in personnel listed on that chart within nine months. Something went really wrong here in terms of organizational/editorial expectations.

And I agree with D.M. Dunlap -- as a rule, children don't wander through history without someone to discuss the puzzling things with.