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.

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