On Sunday, Scholastic publisher announced it is pulling the recently published kids picture book A Birthday Cake for George Washington after a wave of criticism about its depiction of slaves, minimizing America’s brutal slave-owning history. The book “with smiling slaves on nearly every page” tells the story of slave family working in the president’s kitchen. The book’s blurb gives you an idea of the underlying issues of tone and context:
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 this year there is one problem—they are out of sugar.
Scholastic said in a statement “the book may give a false impression of the reality of the lives of slaves.” A long feature in the trade publication Kirkus, ahead of the book’s Jan. 5th publication, dissected its glaring flaws, labeling it an “incomplete, even dishonest treatment of slavery.” The reviews from the public have been even more scathing; the picture book has been absolutely pummeled with negative reviews on Amazon.
Kirkus gave the book this assessment:
Ganeshram confronts Delia’s and Papa’s bondage on one page, when Delia tells readers proudly that “Papa is the slave President and Mrs. Washington trust the most.” A full-page author’s note goes into detail about Hercules’ life, informing readers that he escaped in 1797, leaving Delia still enslaved. The book is a sorry contrast to Emily Arnold McCully’s The Escape of Oney Judge (2007), which explicitly tells the story of one of Martha Washington’s enslaved servants who took freedom. Children whose grown-ups do not address the material in the notes with them will be left with a sorely incomplete understanding of both the protagonists’ lives and slavery itself.
The book’s author Ramin Ganeshram and publisher had both written posts defending its publication, as well as the depiction of slaves in the book, but it wasn’t convincing enough to stop the title from being pulled less than two weeks after it hit the shelves.