Scholastic is pulling a controversial new picture book about George Washington and a family who were enslaved, the publisher said on Sunday.
A Birthday Cake for George Washington was released Jan. 5 and had been strongly criticized by parents, educators and social media users for its positive portrayal of George Washington and depiction of “happy and joyful” enslaved persons. Its withdrawal was announced Sunday on its website.
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can provide, the book may give a false impression of the reality of the lives of slaves and therefore should be withdrawn.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.
Scholastic provides a wide variety of fiction and informational books and magazines which teachers, parents and children rely on, including many devoted to African American experience, history and culture. We are also committed to providing books, magazines, and educational materials that portray the experience of all children, including those from diverse communities and backgrounds, and we will continue to expand that commitment through our global publishing channels.
A Birthday Cake for George Washington by Ramin Ganeshram and Vanessa Brantly-Newton is the story of Hercules, the President’s head chef, as he attempts to bake Washington a cake for his birthday celebration. The story, as told by Hercules’ daughter Delia, takes a turn for the worse as Hercules discovers there is no sugar in the cupboard.
An excerpt from the book reads:
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.
This story, told in the voice of Delia, Hercules’s young daughter, is based on real events, and underscores the loving exchange between a very determined father and his eager daughter, who are faced with an unspoken, bittersweet reality. No matter how delicious the president’s cake turns out to be, Delia and Papa will not taste the sweetness of freedom.
While authors claimed the events were based on historic events, critics lambasted the book’s contents. Hercules was not in fact a “happy or joyful” enslaved person, he actually escaped to freedom on February 22, 1797 – Washington’s 65th birthday – which the president celebrated in Philadelphia. Washington was not pleased with the escape and sought Hercules’s capture. Washington expressed to Tobias Lear that he wanted his former chef to be found and returned to Mount Vernon, as soon as possible. He wrote: “I pray you to desire Mr. Kitt to make all the enquiry he can after Hercules, and send him round in the Vessel if he can be discovered & apprehended.”
While many on social media were pleased to see the book pulled, others questions how it was published at all:
there was nothing happy about slavery AT ALL and BTW those house slaves didn’t cook with a smile by choice @Scholastic
— Kusumi_Kia (@Kusumi_kia) January 18, 2016
The Scholastic retraction of that GW book is weak sauce. Your house is in disorder for a book like that to get past the pitch stage.
— Alyss Dixson (@salys) January 18, 2016
Scholastic is pulling that atrocious lie of a book about happy salves making birthday cakes for the teeth-stealing George Washington.
— Courageous Convos (@ActsofFaithblog) January 18, 2016
The now pulled book has received more than 100 one-star reviews on Amazon.com.