A Bad Decision

Monday, January 25, 2016

I’ve been a big fan of Scholastic Inc., but I considered boycotting it after it gave in to pressure and pulled A Birthday Cake for George Washington out of circulation. Even though I am white, please do me the courtesy of reading this post before you call me insensitive or racist.

My relationship with Scholastic started in my elementary school days, when the flyers it distributed to students gave me an opportunity to add good books to my library. When I had children, I purchased Scholastic books for them. Now that my daughter is a teacher, I have been purchasing books through Scholastic to support her classroom. I have always appreciated Scholastic’s efforts to support schools and encourage reading.

But I thought twice about participating in the bookfair at my daughter’s school this year.

Some of you may have heard about the controversy over the children’s picture book A Birthday Cake for George Washington, written by Ramin Ganeshram and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton. I haven’t been able to read most of the book because Scholastic pulled it and the lowest price on Amazon (by third party sellers) is $145. But I did use Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature to read as much as I could. Based on that and on what I’ve been reading on the Internet, here is my description of the book and the controversy.

A Birthday Cake for George Washington tells a story about President George Washington’s head chef, Hercules. According to the Look Inside feature, here is the description from the front flap.

Everyone’s 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’re 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 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 don’t have the sweetness of freedom.

As far as I can tell from the Internet discussions, the “problem” with A Birthday Cake for George Washington is that—according to its critics—it paints a false picture of slavery by showing a slave who enjoys his work and smiles in the illustrations.

I think the critics miss the point. Or rather, they miss three points.

First, this is a picture book. By its very nature, it cannot tell the entire story of slavery. Most adults understand that it takes a variety of resources to present a rounded picture of any issue. Can we count on every parent or teacher to supplement a book like A Birthday Cake for George Washington with the darkest sides of slavery? Of course not. But many will.

Actually, the nature of the book is part of the complaint. This point of view says that since we can’t present a full understanding within the limits of a picture book, we must leave out anything that could be construed as positive.* So maybe we shouldn’t teach young children about issues such as slavery or death at all, because we’ll never do them justice in a picture book. Personally, I think that would be a shame.

That leads to my second point. If we only show the darkest sides of life, we are telling our children that they are stuck with the hand fate has dealt them and they have no way out, except possibly through anger. We should not ignore the darkest sides of slavery or of prejudice or of life in general. (Notice that I said the darkest sides, not the dark sides. There is nothing positive about slavery.) But can’t we also celebrate people who make the most of their circumstances or rise above them? Apparently not.

Third, based on what I read, it appears that A Birthday Cake for George Washington tells the story of a man who takes pride in his work in spite of being a slave. Slavery is not a good thing, but taking pride in our work regardless of the circumstances is. And isn’t that a lesson we want to teach our children?

History tells us that Hercules was well-treated as slaves go (a big qualifier). But A Birthday Cake for George Washington does not limit itself to that picture. The front flap and back matter about Hercules’s real life remind us that slavery was evil because it took human beings and treated them as property. If I could have read the rest of the story, it may have done so, too.

It’s impossible to please everyone. There are a lot of books I don’t agree with, and it is my right to criticize. But it is not my right to censor.

Scholastic should, of course, be discerning in its publication decisions. When its judgment tells it that a book is worthy of publication, however, it should not let public opinion turn it into a censor.

I did not boycott Scholastic, and I do not intend to do so in the future.

But I wish it had made a different decision.


* One article I read mentioned Almost to Freedom by Vaunda Micheleux Nelson as an example of an “unobjectionable” picture book about slavery. Unfortunately, after I spent $9 to download it to my Kindle, I discovered that the Kindle version was virtually unreadable even with a magnifying glass. From what I can tell, however, that book starts with the darkness of slavery and ends on the underground railroad on the way to freedom. It does not talk about slaves who rise above their circumstances while they are still in them.


The picture at the head of this post shows the old slave market in Charleston, South Carolina, which is now a museum. Since copyright laws restrict my ability to use the book cover and illustrations, this photo from my 2012 vacation was the best reminder of slavery that I had.

Concretize It

Monday, January 18, 2016

I haven’t read any of Ayn Rand’s novels, and I have no desire to do so. The same can be said for Stephen King’s horror novels. But the principles of good writing transcend the genre, theme, and message of an author’s fiction. So when it comes to books on perfecting the craft, I don’t care what types of novels the author writes as long as he or she does it well. I have read Stephen King’s On Writing at least twice, and I recently finished Ayn Rand’s The Art of Fiction.

I don’t agree with everything Ayn Rand says in that book. Still, I subscribe to most of its writing principles. My favorite could be summarized this way: good fiction concretizes the abstractions behind the story. Essentially, this is taking “show, don’t tell” one step further. When you show, make your nouns, verbs, and descriptions as concrete as possible without getting into minutiae.

Here is my own example.

Tell—Randy was attracted to Karen.

Show—Randy kissed Karen.

Concretize It—After putting his arms around Karen, Randy leaned forward and covered her mouth with his. Closing his eyes, he imagined doing this every night for the rest of his life.


Concretize It—Randy grabbed Karen’s arms and gripped them as he smashed his lips into hers.

Obviously, there is more than one way to show Randy kissing Karen, and these two examples of concretizing the kiss convey very different impressions. So if you want readers to know how your characters feel, don’t just show it.

Concretize it.


The picture at the head of this post is the Russian passport photo used by Alisa Zinov’yevna Rosenbaum (Ayn Rand) when she first came to this country in 1926, arriving just after she turned twenty-one. According to Wikimedia Commons, the picture is in the public domain under Russian law because it came from an official Russian document. (See https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ayn_Rand.jpg.) Due to its age, it is also not protected under U.S. law.

The Poetry of Psalm 119

Monday, January 11, 2016

This month my daily devotions include readings from Psalm 119. Aside from its spiritual value, which is uppermost, it is a fascinating piece of poetry. And since this is a writing blog, it’s the poetic symmetry that I’m going to address here.

Did you know that Psalm 119 is made up of twenty-two sections of eight verses each? But that’s only the beginning of the psalm’s grace and balance. Each of the sections is labeled with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, arranged in alphabetical order. And even though the English translations don’t work out this way, apparently each verse within the section begins with the Hebrew letter that identifies it.

Another part of the symmetry is the word choice. Almost every verse contains at least one reference to God’s own words, and each section varies the synonyms used within it. Verses 145-152 are a good example. Here they are from the New International Version, with my emphasis.

145I call with all my heart; answer me, O Lord,

    and I will obey your decrees.


146I call out to you; save me

    and I will keep your statutes.


147I rise before dawn and cry for help;

    I have put my hope in your word.


148My eyes stay open through the watches of the night,

    that I may meditate on your promises.


149Hear my voice in accordance with your love,

    preserve my life, O Lord, according to your laws.


150Those who devise wicked schemes are near,

    but they are far from your law.


151Yet you are near, O Lord,

    and all your commands are true.

152Long ago I learned from your statutes

    that you established them to last forever.


This list shows the synonyms used in the NIV.

·         law/laws

·         statutes

·         ways

·         precepts

·         decrees

·         commands

·         word/word of truth

·         promise/promises

I can’t read Hebrew, and translations are always tricky because they can’t pick up all the nuances in the original. We also don’t know whether the Psalm was written by one person or by a group of collaborators working under similar instructions. God inspired every word in the Bible, but unless He dictated it, Psalm 119 could not have been easy to write.

It’s a masterpiece in English, but think how magnificent it must be in Hebrew.

If only I could read it that way.


The Hebrew letters on the scroll spell Psalm 119. At least I hope they do, since I copied them from the untrustworthy Internet. I used the symbol feature on Word to type the letters from left to right as they appeared to this reader of English, but they came out backwards. Obviously, Word knows Hebrew a lot better than I do. It typed the letters from right to left, as Hebrews is written, and I had to put my mind in reverse to get them to come out correctly.

A Legacy of Memories

Monday, January 4, 2016

My mother died on December 15. She was 96 years old, had a good life, and was ready to go. She didn’t want to be here for Christmas, and she got her wish.

Mama left her family a number of legacies, including her love of God, her love of music, and her love of each of us. She also left us a legacy of memories.

I’m not just talking about the memories we shared, either, although those are important. She spent her retirement years putting together a family history, which she later updated, and writing down her own history. Her married life was included in my father’s memoirs, so she concentrated on her childhood.

Mama published a few memories and stories, but she didn’t strive to be an author. She wrote mostly for her family. The family history was widely disseminated among the Wagners, the Gugelers, and their various branches, and she shared her memoirs with her children and grandchildren. That was enough for her.

I keep telling myself that I should write up my own memories for my children and any grandchildren I may have someday, but I can’t seem to find the time. And that’s a shame.

Because everyone should leave a legacy of memories.


The picture at the top of this post shows Opal W. Page celebrating her 96th birthday. The others in the picture are my son-in-law Pete, my daughter Caroline, and my brother, Donald.