Children's book 'A Birthday Cake for George Washington' pulled for insensitive depiction of slavery

At first glace, the upbeat children's book "A Birthday Cake For George Washington" seemed an unlikely target for complaints of racial insensitivity.

Authored by an accomplished food writer who has highlighted the cuisines of Trinidad and Tobago, illustrated by an award-winning artist who has brought civil rights topics to life, and overseen by a Coretta Scott King prize-winning editor, it was beautifully produced and richly illustrated. When it was sent out to reviewers in November, Scholastic Executive Editor Andrea Davis Pinkney praised it for its sensitive, nuanced depiction of one of the first celebrity chefs in America, a slave named Hercules who was owned by George Washington.

But on Sunday Scholastic pulled the book, bowing to a growing chorus of reviewers — both professional and amateur — who found its sunny depiction of slavery unrealistic and offensive.

"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," said a statement on the company's website.

"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can provide, the book may give a false impression of the reality of the lives of slaves and therefore should be withdrawn."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 book, which depicts Hercules — arguably the first celebrity chef in America — making a cake with help from his smiling, handsomely attired family, includes a lot of information about the honors and privileges that come with being prized property, but very little about the drawbacks.

"All over the streets of Philadelphia, folks are talking about celebrating President Washington's birthday," our narrator, Hercules' young daughter, Delia, tells us. "In the kitchen, my papa, Hercules, is baking an amazing cake. But there is one problem: We are out of sugar."

The drama revolves around Hercules' alternative plan for sweetening the cake, and we learn that Hercules' ingenuity is a great comfort to Mrs. Washington, and that "Next to the president's personal servant, Billy Lee, Papa is the slave President and Mrs. Washington trust the most."

Hercules also gets a fancy coat, a top hat and a gold watch out of the deal. And the president gives him tickets to the theater and the circus. It's only when we read the lengthy author's note that we learn Hercules longed for his freedom and eventually escaped the Washingtons' Mount Vernon estate.

The trade publication School Library Journal called the book "highly problematic" and recommended against its purchase. Kirkus Reviews found it "an incomplete, even dishonest treatment of slavery."

The book, recently listed as Amazon's No. 1 bestseller in the category children's African-American story books, had more than 160 one-star views, more than 30 five-star reviews and nothing in between.

The top negative review was titled, "It's like Anne & Otto Frank Baking Cookies for Adolf Hitler on Christmas."

In a Scholastic blog post from last week, Ganeshram wrote that the story was based on historical research and meant to honor the slaves' skill and resourcefulness.

"How could they smile? How could they be anything but unrelentingly miserable?" Ganeshram wrote. "How could they be proud to bake a cake for George Washington? The answers to those questions are complex because human nature is complex. Bizarrely and yes, disturbingly, there were some enslaved people who had a better quality of life than others and 'close' relationships with those who enslaved them. But they were smart enough to use those 'advantages' to improve their lives."

The collaborators on "A Birthday Cake" come from a variety of backgrounds, the Associated Press reports. Ganeshram is an award-winning journalist and author born to a Trinidadian father and Iranian mother and has a long history of food writing. Her previous works include the novel "Stir It Up" and the nonfiction "FutureChefs."

Brantley-Newton, who has described herself as coming from a "blended background — African-American, Asian, European, and Jewish," has illustrated the children's series "Ruby and the Booker Boys," among other books. The editor was Andrea Davis Pinkney, also an author who in 2013 won a Coretta Scott King prize for African-American children's literature.

Last year the critically lauded children's book "A Fine Dessert," written by Emily Jenkins and illustrated by Sophie Blackall, encountered criticism for its cheerful depiction of a 19th century slave mother and daughter as they prepared a blackberry recipe. Jenkins apologized, saying that her book, which she "intended to be inclusive and truthful and hopeful, is racially insensitive." ("A Fine Dessert," released by the Random House imprint Schwartz & Wade, remains in print).

In withdrawing "A Birthday Cake for George Washington," Scholastic said, "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 Associated Press contributed to this report.

@nschoenberg

nschoenberg@tribpub.com

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