Scholastic Publishing announced on Sunday that it would be halting distribution of A Birthday Cake for George Washington, a children’s book that has received widespread criticism for its sanitized and cheery depiction of the president’s slaves. Written by Ramin Ganeshram and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton, the book focuses on Washington's enslaved cook, Hercules and his daughter, Delia, as they prepare a cake for their master.
Since its publication on January 5th, the book has been met with nearly unanimous outrage. Kirkus Reviews found the plot to be “an incomplete, even dishonest treatment of slavery,” while children's book reviewer School Library Journal worried that young readers would “come away with a dangerously rosy impression of the relationship between slaves and slave owners.”
Despite the poor reception, the publisher and writer initially defended themselves against criticism of the book's content. Andrea Davis Pinkney, the executive editor of Scholastic Trade Publishing, wrote in a blog post of Washington's admiration for Hercules, noting the book approached the complex relationship with the "utmost care."
Another blog post from the author discusses the years of research that went into this true-to-life description of Chef Hercules—“a man renowned for his skill; a man respected by President Washington, a man who lived with pride and dignity.” But nowhere in this discussion of the chef’s dignified reputation is there any mention of Hercules’ escape from Mt. Vernon on Washington’s birthday. Nor does the blog post mention how, even after Washington’s slaves were emancipated, Hercules’ wife and children remained enslaved for many years, as they were considered “dower slaves.” (For these details, I'd recommend this tragic two-part series published in 2010, Master of Cuisine, Slave of Washington.)
As the hashtag and rage spread, the publisher's quickly reversed their position. Early Monday, Scholastic released a statement on the book’s shortcomings, vowing to remove it from shelves while accepting all returns. "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," the statement concluded.
Feature image via Amazon