On “A Birthday Cake for George Washington”

Scholastic recently released A Birthday Cake for George Washington. Even before I tell you about it I imagine you can guess what’s happened after a few guesses.

The book is about Washington’s enslaved chef, Hercules. He’s baking a cake for Washington without sugar. His daughter is happy to assist him.

Therein lies the major issue people have had with the book. It depicts slaves as quite happy in their situation because the author labels these two as nearly free. Now Scholastic has stopped distributing the book. Which I think is the correct path forward.

They wrote the truth about slaves and the time period in an editor’s and author’s note. Which tells me they knew they’d done the book poorly. And they sought to clarify things outside its text without rewriting and illustrating everything all over again. Or they’re just clueless. Could be either one or both.

I don’t think kid’s books are inherently easier to write than other genres, but this definitely isn’t the right way to do it. Not even close.

What do you think of this book depicting slaves in such a positive light?

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18 thoughts on “On “A Birthday Cake for George Washington”

  1. Edit: …depicting //slavery// in a positive light.

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  2. Writing anything approaching political incorrectness in this current environment is destined to fail. Maybe if Donald Trump becomes president, they can re-release it.

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  3. I…really can’t believe someone thought this was a good idea. How did SOMEONE – a publisher, an agent, and editor – not stand up and say “uh, maybe we shouldn’t make slavery look like fun?”

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  4. I don’t understand why they couldn’t have written a more accurate biography of Hercules. Authors such as Patricia Polacco, Faith Ringgold, Julius Lester, and the Pinkneys have all written illustrated biographies for children. What especially shocks me is that the editor for this book was Andrea Davis Pinkney herself. To me, this has nothing to do with political correctness, but more to do with historical accuracy and common sense.

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    • Exactly right. There were several people working on the book and not one of them thought it needed some changes to be historically accurate? Strange. I really don’t understand it.

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  5. If it was entirely fictitious I’d be more sympathetic. There are (albeit rare) instances where slaves were particularly highly valued and well treated by their masters, given a level of status and education others were not. Though, of course, many remained slaves, so how far you can respect the owners is debatable.
    But as this was based on a real person it seems odd not to stick close to the truth. And also a missed opportunity to tell young readers in an accessible way what life was like for most slaves. Slavery is an evil concept and though this isn’t a happy subject to discuss with kids, it’s wrong to sugar-coat it.

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    • Yes. Exactly. They wrote the whole thing like he was happy to be there and included in an author’s note that he escaped. I mean, come on. Either make it fictional or make it factual. They tried some odd mix of both that doesn’t work.

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      • Well, I appreciate it’s a tricky subject for a picture book and for very young children. But then, if it’s so tricky, leave it until they’re a bit older and they can cope with the idea of one human treating another like a possession. Perhaps well, intentioned, but ill advised, I’d say

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  6. You’re right . This is incorrect factually and historically. Not to mention insensitive in every way. And a horror educationally. When did the author, illustrator, editor, publisher all think this was a good idea? Geesh. Scholastic has a good reputation. I’m surprised to read this.

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