The children’s publisher Scholastic took the unusual step of releasing a press statement this weekend in order to head off a controversy regarding one of their new books. The publisher announced the withdrawal of A Birthday Cake for George Washington by Ramin Ganeshram.
“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,” the publisher’s description reads.
Amazon, which still lists the book for sale (here), includes a negative review from School Library Journal: “A highly problematic work; not recommended.” Reader reviews inside Amazon also trash the book, though only one review is listed as a “Verified Purchase”:
The story and artwork show creativity and talent. However, the promotion is misleading. This book does not deal with slavery as promised. It does however perpetuate the myths of “happy slaves” and “benevolent slave masters”. The book will leave children and parents with two false concepts: 1) Slaves were no different than hired household help, and 2) That slavery was benign. If you removed the pigment, there would be no notable difference between slaves and other white characters. Consequently, by stripping slavery of its realities, the book has stripped its pages of slaves.
Education websites, as well as several political websites, had criticized Scholastic for their decision to publish the work by Ganeshram, who has authored several other books, all cooking related. This book was also roundly criticized on Twitter on the #SlaveryWithaSmile hashtag, and was the subject of a concerted online campaign to get the book pulled.
In response, Scholastic announced on Sunday that it would withdraw the book:
Scholastic is announcing 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. 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can provide, the book may give a false impression of the reality of the lives of slaves and therefore should be withdrawn.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.
That’s good news, but this is really just the first step. There are many other children’s books in print which offer similar whitewashed or myopic view of history, including many kid’s books about Christopher Columbus. There’s also A Fine Dessert, a Penguin Random House title published last year. That picture book has been criticized for showing a cheerful 19th century enslaved mother and daughter as they prepared a blackberry fool recipe, and yet it still remains in print.