Education

Book About George Washington’s ‘Happy’ Slaves Shelved

CREDIT: Shutterstock

President George Washington

The Scholastic Corporation, an American publishing company that specializes in books for children and teachers, will pull a newly released controversial children’s picture book about George Washington following outcry that the book depicts happy slaves, according to a press statement released Sunday.

“[W]ithout 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can provide, the book may give a false impression of the reality of the lives of slaves and therefore should be withdrawn,” the company wrote in part. “We do not believe this title meets the standards of appropriate presentation of information to younger children, despite the positive intentions and beliefs of the author, editor, and illustrator.”

A Birthday Cake for George Washington depicts Hercules, a trusted but enslaved chef, and his daughter Delia who are preparing a birthday cake for their master, President George Washington. In the story, Hercules finds that there is no more sugar in the pantry and enlists the help of other slaves to find a sugar replacement. At the end of the book, Washington congratulates Hercules for his cake to which Hercules responds, “An honor and a privilege, sir,” according to a School Library Journal synopsis. In an addendum, book author Ramin Ganeshram wrote that while Hercules eventually escaped, Delia remained enslaved for the rest of her life.

a birthday cake for george washington

CREDIT: Scholastic

Readers and other commentators were outraged that the lighthearted visual depiction of the characters as smiling workers distorted the abject cruelty of the horrors of slavery. As the School Library Journal review pointed out, “[y]oung readers without sufficient background knowledge about the larger context of American slavery may come away with a dangerously rosy impression of the relationship between slaves and slave owners, and those with a deeper understanding are likely to find this depiction offensive.”

The company previously defended the book’s publication, stating that Vanessa Brantley-Newton’s illustrations were a result of careful research “which revealed that Hercules and the other servants in George Washington’s kitchen took great pride in their ability to cook for a man of such stature. This why Vanessa chose to portray them as happy people. They were not happy about being enslaved, but there was joy in what they created through their intelligence and culinary talent.”

This is not the first time that Scholastic has supported controversial depictions of horrible events. In 2006, Scholastic promoted a six-hour ABC miniseries with a Path to 9/11 discussion guide supplemental for high school teachers to assign to students, but the material omitted key details and was filled with conservative misinformation. In 2009, Scholastic sent a letter to an author asking her to change a book’s plotline to replace a character’s same-sex parents with a heterosexual couple. And in 2012, Scholastic released a How to Survive book series for “Boys only” or “Girls only,” purportedly to teach boys how to handle exotic adventures, while teaching girls how to deal with emotional domestic situations.