After initially defending the book, Scholastic announced that it would pull “A Birthday Cake for George Washington” from shelves amid controversy over its depiction of the president’s slaves.
“A Birthday Cake for George Washington,” an illustrated children’s book, tells the story of George Washington’s enslaved chef Hercules who, with his daughter Delia, prepares a cake for Washington’s birthday. The cover art and other drawings inside show Hercules and Delia smiling. The book, which was released on January 5, received widespread criticism for this depiction. Scholastic issued a statement Sunday (January 17) saying that it would remove the book from circulation after reeavaluating the book’s lack of context:
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can provide, the book may give a false impression of the reality of the lives of slaves and therefore should be withdrawn.
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.
The book was written by chef and journalist Ramin Ganeshram (whose parents hail from Trinidad and Iran) and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton, who is Black. Ganeshram responded to criticism in a blog post after the book’s release, detailing her years of research for the book and arguing that the depiction adds depth to slavery narratives:
It is the historical record—not my opinion—that shows that enslaved people who received “status” positions were proud of these positions—and made use of the “perks” of those positions. It is what illustrator Vanessa Brantley-Newton calls out in her artist’s note as informing her decision to depict those in “A Birthday Cake For George Washington” as happy and prideful people.
In a modern sense, many of us don’t like to consider this, fearing that if we deviate from the narrative of constant-cruelty we diminish the horror of slavery. But if we chose to only focus on those who fit that singular viewpoint, we run the risk of erasing those, like Chef Hercules, who were remarkable, talented and resourceful enough to use any and every skill to their own advantage.
The controversy around “A Birthday Cake for George Washington” and the illustration of happy slaves echoes that around “A Fine Dessert,” whose illustrator Sophie Blackall won the Caldecott Medal this year for “Finding Winnie.”