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Publisher pulls George Washington children's book amid slavery row

Published 18/01/2016

A children's book about George Washington's cook was widely criticised for allegedly sentimentalising slavery
A children's book about George Washington's cook was widely criticised for allegedly sentimentalising slavery

A new children's picture book about George Washington and his slaves is being taken off the shelves amid claims that it sentimentalises a brutal part of American history.

A Birthday Cake For George Washington, released on January 5, has been strongly criticised for its upbeat images and story of the first president of the United States' cook - the slave Hercules - and his daughter Delia.

"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can provide, the book may give a false impression of the reality of the lives of slaves and therefore should be withdrawn," publisher Scholastic said.

The book, which depicts Hercules and Delia preparing a cake for Washington, has received more than 100 one-star reviews on Amazon.com. As of Sunday night, only 12 reviews were positive. The book also sparked discussions on Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere on social media.

While notes in A Birthday Cake For George Washington from author Ramin Ganeshram and illustrator Vanessa Brantley-Newton had pointed out the historical context of the 18th-century story and that Hercules eventually escaped, some critics faulted them for leaving out those details from the main narrative.

"Oh, how George Washington loves his cake!" reads the publisher's description of the story. "And, oh, how he depends on Hercules, his head chef, to make it for him. Hercules, a slave, takes great pride in baking the president's cake. But this year there is one problem - they are out of sugar."

The trade publication School Library Journal had called it "highly problematic" and recommended against its purchase. Another trade journal, Kirkus Reviews, labelled the book "an incomplete, even dishonest treatment of slavery".

Ganeshram's previous works include the novel Stir It Up and the non-fiction FutureChefs, while Brantley-Newton's credits include illustrating the children's series Ruby And The Booker Boys.

Andrea Davis Pinkney, an award-winning author who in 2013 won a Coretta Scott King prize for African-American children's literature, was the editor.

In a Scholastic blog post from last week, Ganeshram said the story was based on historical research and meant to honour the slaves' skill and resourcefulness.

"How could they smile? How could they be anything but unrelentingly miserable?" Ganeshram wrote. "How could they be proud to bake a cake for George Washington? The answers to those questions are complex because human nature is complex. Bizarrely and yes, disturbingly, there were some enslaved people who had a better quality of life than others and 'close' relationships with those who enslaved them. But they were smart enough to use those 'advantages' to improve their lives."

The book's withdrawal comes amid a debate about the lack of diversity in publishing and recalls a similar controversy from last year.

A Fine Dessert, written by Emily Jenkins and illustrated by Sophie Blackall, was criticised for its cheerful depiction of a 19th-century slave mother and daughter as they prepared a blackberry dessert.

Jenkins apologised, saying that her book, which she "intended to be inclusive and truthful and hopeful, is racially insensitive". The book, released by the Random House imprint Schwartz & Wade, remains in print.

Copies of A Birthday Cake For George Washington" were not easy to find even before Scholastic's decision. The print edition on Amazon.com, ranked No 13.202 earlier on Sunday, was listed as shipping within "two to four weeks". Several Barnes & Noble stores in Manhattan did not have the book in stock.

Scholastic spokeswoman Kyle Good said she could not provide an immediate reason for delays in the book's availability.

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