A Birthday Cake for George Washington: 02/25/16
A Birthday Cake for George Washington by Ramin Ganeshram was briefly in print from January 5th to January 17th, 2016. With that in mind, this post isn't exactly a review, but a collection of my thoughts on the book, the protest against it, and Scholastic's decision to pull it.
It's a brief introduction to Hercules, a chef and slave of George Washington. The premise to the story is that he and the rest of the kitchen crew are putting together a birthday feast for the president. There's a hitch though, the kitchen has run out of sugar. After lots of stressing, Hercules remembers that he can substitute honey for sugar. The cake is baked. The feast is made. And George Washington's birthday party goes off without a hitch.
The initial backlash to the book stems from the illustrator's decision to show Hercules and the other slaves smiling. There's always someone on a page with a dopey smiling as if the stress of making a huge birthday feast for their master is nothing at all.
But the problems with the story are more deep seeded than just smiling slaves and the dude-bro hug by George Washington on the back cover. First there's the buried lede — namely that Hercules and Delia and all the other black people in this book are slaves. They were owned either by George Washington or his wife. The idea that children need to be protected from harsh reality of our nation's history is naive and insulting to children.
Next there's Delia. There's no historical evidence (as acknowledged by the afterword) that Delia ever worked with her father in the kitchen or was ever taken to Philadelphia. I suppose she is there to bring children into the story. A picture book aimed at children doesn't need to have a child protagonist or narrator. Children are just as interested in learning about real adults as they are about seeing themselves in the books they read. It would have been more poignant and more honest to have her narrate the story from Virginia.
Then there's Hercules, who was the head cook in Philadelphia. A person with that amount of responsibility would have a vast mental recipe book and acceptable substitutions. Honey has a substitute for sugar is a traditional one, a long standing one. Honey as a sweetener has a longer history than refined or brown sugar. By having Hercules forget this simple fact is an insult to his capability as a chef.
The next problem is sugar's ties to slavery. Africans from the west coast were enslaved to run the sugar plantations in West Indies. If the missing ingredient had to be sugar, why not include a note about that?
Finally there's the timing of the story, George Washington's birthday. Hercules eventually escaped and it happened to be on George Washington's birthday. Now that would have been an interesting story. What if the book had been "No birthday cake for George Washington" because Hercules has managed to escape?
This story, though written and illustrated by women of color, has still garnered a feeding frenzy of protests. Scholastic a publisher specializing in children's books has created a wholesome and inclusive reputation for itself. A big part of their business is done through their book clubs and book fairs in schools throughout the country. They therefore have to play it conservatively and as a business who wants to welcome in any school anywhere, can't afford to have a controversial book on hand.
My guess is the book was published with the idea it would be an acceptable response to A Fine Dessert by Emily Jenkins and illustrated by Sophie Blackall. It was published in January 2015 by Schwartz and Wade, a division of Random House. As it's a larger, more diversified publishing house, it can afford to keep an equally controversial book published.
As a librarian, I am disappointed that Scholastic pulled its book so quickly. Yes, it's flawed. Yes it continues in a long tradition of painting George and Martha Washington as untouchable heroes, but it could still be used as dialog starter. It can be used in context with other books to teach about slavery, about George Washington (the good and the bad), about Hercules, about Pennsylvania's slavery laws, about how slaves were punished if they made a mistake in the kitchen, etc. Removing the book is a way to shut down the conversation before it's even gotten a chance to get started.