Editor’s note: Amid growing criticism of this children’s book depicting happy slaves baking a cake for George Washington, publisher Scholastic announced late Jan. 17 that it is pulling the book from retailers. In a statement to the Associated Press, Scholastic said this:
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can provide, the book may give a false impression of the reality of the lives of slaves and therefore should be withdrawn.
I learned about Scholastic’s new children’s book, A Birthday Cake for George Washington, when a friend emailed me on Friday to ask, “Uh … have you seen this [expletive]?” Her note was accompanied by the book’s back cover, which depicted an illustration of a smiling enslaved man and child, accompanied by their beaming master—America’s first president, George Washington. Washington had his arm around the enslaved man’s shoulder like they were bros instead of oppressor and oppressed.
My knee-jerk reaction was a string of expletives as I tried to process this level of disrespect. Can you imagine a modern-day American publisher pushing a book about a cheery Jewish father and daughter on a trivial mission to bake a cake for the birthday of, say, an SS guard at Auschwitz? Can you picture a children’s book depicting a Jewish dad and child at a concentration camp snuggled up and cozy with Hitler?
Never! So why is it somehow OK to show enslaved black folks practically cuddling with their oppressors?
I woosahed. I had to be misunderstanding. Scholastic is a respected children’s-book publisher. They deserved the benefit of the doubt. This book couldn’t be what I was imagining. There had to be levels, satire … something I wasn’t getting.
But then I Googled and found that my initial assumption, sadly, was correct.
Scholastic’s website describes A Birthday Cake for George Washington as “a slice of history in a picture-book narrative that will surely satisfy.” This reading material, aimed at 7- to 10-year-olds, is authored by Ramin Ganeshram (a black woman, in case you were wondering), a former New York Times food writer, and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton (also black, in case you were also wondering).
In short, A Birthday Cake, “based on real events,” is the jolly story of two “servants”—Washington’s enslaved chef, Hercules, and his precocious daughter, Delia. The pair are preparing Washington’s favorite dessert for his big day, but they have a dilemma. No, not that they’re enslaved, but that they don’t have the sugar to make their oppressor’s birthday confection.
Kirkus Reviews describes the book as “cheery” and says the enslaved people are “smiling on nearly every page.” The book also mentions that the father heads to the market in a fancy coat, a swinging gold watch and a top hat.
I am not making this up.