George Washington’s birthday is coming up next month–Feb. 22nd, in case you’ve forgotten in the mashup that we call Presidents’ Day. It’s probably with that date in mind that Scholastic timed its release of its new picture book, A Birthday Cake for George Washington, for early this month, to give libraries time to purchase the book and feature it in their Presidents Day displays. A Birthday Cake for George Washington features Hercules, Mt. Vernon head cook, and the long process of baking a special cake for a special occasion (recipe included). But on the book’s way to market, something happened that the Scholastic publicity and school & library coordinators should have foreseen, especially considering what befell an earlier culinary picture book.
I wrote about that at RedeemedReader.com: A Fine Dessert, published a year ago, racked up an impressive list of raves and starred reviews before running aground on the reef of social conscience. The story tracks the history of blackberry fool (a kind of cobbler) through the lives of four children living in four different centuries who enjoyed making the dessert with a mother or dad. It’s a lovely little book with sunny illustrations and engaging text, but one of the children is a slave girl living on a South Carolina plantation. Most of the scenes of the little girl picking blackberries, whipping cream, and later licking the bowl with her mother show her smiling and apparently happy.
Did actual slaves ever smile? Of course. Did they ever experience moments of joy? All humans do. Did they ever take pride in their work? Those who mastered a skill for which they received praise undoubtedly did. Not because they were less than human but because they were fully human–the very thing that made chattel slavery so heinous was also the quality that allowed these people to experience life its complex, deep, and mystifying dimensions. That included happiness and pride.
Anyway, the discontent was already there in the background when Scholastic released George Washington’s Birthday. In its pages Washington’s slave cook Hercules is seen with his daughter, Delia, whipping up a scrumptious cake that pleases the master and his guests and wins numerous complements to the chef. This makes him happy. The author, NY Times food editor Ramen Gameshram, spent four years researching the topic, including original documents and primary sources from the Mt. Vernon archives, and says it is beyond dispute that Washington and his chef enjoyed a close relationship and respected each other. I think this is probably true. But it didn’t stop Hercules from escaping when he had the chance, an act that bewildered his master. Though courageous, disciplined, inspiring, honorable, and indispensable, Washington was also as boneheaded as any in his generation about the morality of African servitude.
Anyway, the press about A Birthday Cake for George Washington was so bad Scholastic announced just yesterday that it will no longer distribute the book, and will accept all returns. This is the only picture book recall I can remember (though it’s not exactly a recall). While praising the talents and good intentions of the author/illustrator team, the publisher reluctantly concludes 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.”
Well, yeah. I’m surprised the editorial department didn’t see that one coming. I haven’t perused the book, so I don’t know if any context was provided in a historical note at the end–but historical notes in picture books for preschoolers don’t get read anyway. The Amazon page is now up to 182 reviews with an average of 1 1/2 stars. I doubt that every reviewer read the book much beyond the preview, and elsewhere on the web some of the comments are vicious.
Author Ramen Gameshram thoughtfully explained her rationale, and I largely agree with her. For example, “the range of human emotion and behavior is vast, and there is room in between how the literary world depicted historical African American characters [i.e., as childish, simple souls] and how it does now.” Humans are vastly complicated, and can’t be reduced a “a condition,” however miserable and overwhelming. Slavery does not define African Americans, then or now–to be defined by a single term or condition is to submit to slavery all over again.
And yet–it’s probably best, at this present time, to pull the book. It would have been even better to hold off on publication altogether. I’m sad about it; sad that we can’t talk about the actual historical record and the varieties of human experience, but it’s impossible now. Maybe later; I do hope so.