The publisher Scholastic has announced it will stop distribution of a children’s book called “A Birthday Cake for George Washington” after it was widely criticized for its depiction of happy slaves baking a cake, the Associated Press reports.
The book, written by Ramin Ganeshram and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton, tells the story of Hercules, Washington’s slave and chef, and his daughter, Delia, as they prepare a birthday dessert for the president. Hercules and Delia were real slaves owned by Washington.
Released on Jan. 5, the book received a scathing review from School Library Journal magazine. “Hercules, Delia, and the other slaves are seen in the kitchen below, smiling with glee as they work on the cake, evoking a strangely cheerful and exuberant scene reminiscent of a Disney film,” wrote reviewer Kiera Parrott, who called it “a highly problematic work; not recommended.”
The book contains a note at the end explaining that Hercules and Delia were real people, and that Hercules eventually escaped while Delia remained enslaved her whole life.
In a statement, Scholastic said that the book, while well-intentioned, did not "[meet] the standards of appropriate presentation of information” to schoolchildren.
“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can provide, the book may give a false impression of the reality of the lives of slaves and therefore should be withdrawn,” the statement read.
The book has received over 100 one-star reviews on Amazon, where it’s still for sale. One reviewer compared it to “Anne & Otto Frank Baking Cookies for Adolf Hitler on Christmas,” writing, “For some reason, I can’t see Hercules and his daughter being happy and excited to be making a birthday cake for Massa Washington (IN REAL LIFE).” Another claimed the book “sprinkles glitter on rape, murder, torture and servitude.”
The controversy over “A Birthday Cake for George Washington” echoes a debate last year over the children’s book “A Fine Dessert: Four Centuries, Four Families, One Delicious Treat” by Emily Jenkins. Critics accused that book of whitewashing slavery by depicting smiling slaves preparing blackberry fool for their owners.
Jenkins apologized for her book in the comments section of a blog called Reading While White. “I have come to understand that my book, while intended to be inclusive and truthful and hopeful, is racially insensitive,” she wrote. “I own that and am very sorry.”
Jenkins said she would donate the fee she received from the book to We Need Diverse Books, a campaign that promotes diversity in children’s literature.