Children’s book backfires after depicting misconstrued slave life

Due to public backlash, Scholastic has halted publication of its controversial children’s book A Birthday Cake for George Washington, which was released on Jan. 5. The book—written by Ramin Ganeshram and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton—tells the story of George Washington’s slave Hercules, who is in the midst of baking Washington’s birthday cake. Told from the perspective of Hercules’s daughter Delia, the story has garnered criticism from its depiction of slavery. The illustrations of smiling slaves—all working for Washington—suggests that they enjoyed their work.

Ganeshram reminds readers that her book is based on real events. Hercules and his daughter Delia were, in fact, real, and Washington was their master. The book neglects to mention, however, that rather than enjoying his work, Hercules escaped from Washington’s estate on Feb. 22, 1797—Washington’s 65th birthday. Additionally, Delia and her siblings were never freed and lived the rest of their lives in slavery.

Despite criticism, some individuals continue to stand by the book. For example, vice president and executive editor for Scholastic Trade Publishing Andrea Davis Pinkney said that Hercules and Delia’s joy is not about slavery, but in “what they created through their intelligence and culinary talent.” The National Coalition Against Censorship also released a statement in which it asked critics of the book to reconsider whether its withdrawal is really a “win.”

Pinkney further noted that the book provides parents and educators with “a way in” to discuss the issue of slavery with children. “A Birthday Cake for George Washington does not take slavery’s horror for granted,” Pinkney said. “On several occasions, the book comments on slavery [and] acknowledges it.”

The book, however, fails to recognize the true brutality of slavery in the United States. The truth of slavery is a difficult thing for children to understand in the first place. With contradictory illustrations of slaves happily baking for their master, the book will only further confuse children.

Although the author and illustrator may have meant well, the book was clearly misguided in its execution. Many individuals took to the Internet to express their distaste for the book—responding with #slaverywithasmile—and helping to bring the institutional implications of A Birthday Cake for George Washington to light.

Many have criticized the children’s book for being a palatable portrayal of slavery for white children so that they don’t have to face the true reality of slavery. Others have drawn attention to other children’s books that depict “slavery with a smile”—such as A Fine Dessert by Emily Jenkins—while recommending books that show slavery as Hercules and Delia truly experienced it, such as The Invisibles: The Untold Story of African Slaves in the White House by Jesse J. Holland.

A Birthday Cake for George Washington is more than just a children’s picture book. It is yet another way in which the history of the mistreatment of black Americans has been watered-down or rewritten. Giving children a book that boils a complex and important issue down to a simple and untrue image won’t help to educate them. Instead, it continues to perpetrate false perceptions about slavery and allows continued complacent behavior in the face of the racism that is still very much present in America today.