Beyond GW’s Cake: Grassroots, Scholastic, and Teaching Truth

Listeners might have heard something, earlier this month, about Scholastic Books’ effort to sell “A Birthday Cake for George Washington” and their eventual decision to eat it instead. But many news outlets reported the situation from the publisher’s press release, ignoring points of major importance for all concerned about education and literature directed at children.


Feature report, 1/27, begins just after the 5 minute mark
followed by “Teachers at SCOTUS & ‘Transcending Resistance’ on the January BUS

The book in question, meant for grades 1 through 3, depicts slaves making a birthday cake for President Washington. As School Library Journal describes it, the slaves are “smiling with glee as they work on the cake, evoking a strangely cheerful and exuberant scene reminiscent of a Disney film.”

The Journal’s December review concluded: “A highly problematic work; not recommended.” Kirkus Reviews called it “an incomplete, even dishonest treatment of slavery.” In response, the book’s editor, author, and corporation all offered defenses of the birthday cake story.

Hercules

Chef Hercules happily bakes, his enslaved status barely noted. From Scholastic’s “A Birthday Cake for George Washington,” now recalled.

When Scholastic changed its tune later in the month, many news outlets reported on the publisher’s decision to withdraw the book. NPR and the Huffington Post focused on Scholastic’s own statements, also mentioning academic criticism of the historical views in the book. The New York Times ended with a note on what it called “backlash,” including 1-star reviews on Amazon and a Change.Org petition.

Missing from most reports was the grassroots outreach which had created awareness of the book and issues surrounding it. And it was grassroots work that led to Scholastic’s about-face.

Scholastic was still staunchly defending “A Birthday Cake for George Washington,” when Teaching for Change (TFC), the national organization dedicated to diversity in children’s literature, shared a librarian’s review of the book. That post went viral with the help of BadAss Teachers, the New York Collective of Radical Educators, and many others. A protest petition received thousands of signatures. Within four days of the TFC post, Scholastic announced it was stopping distribution and accepting returns of the title.

Diversity and Truth Telling

The partial reporting on this story is not only an issue of credit, of understanding how grassroots work relies on long-standing relationships and the reputation of those speaking out, and of acknowledging its successes. It’s also about the larger issues behind the cake story and children’s publishing.

As TFC explains, their response to this book is part of their long-term work to address diversity in children’s literature: Of the 3,000 books published in 2015 for children 8 and older, for example, only 32 were from African American authors – that’s 32 out of 3,000!

In addition, the battle over George Washington and his happy slaves is also part of what Teaching for Change calls a “longer and larger campaign for children to learn the truth about history and the world today.”

The Censorship Question

Free speech advocates spoke out, however, against pulling this, or any, book. The National Coalition Against Censorship (including self-censorship, they stress) wrote:

Such removals can be the product of many different political ideologies. In 2006 Vamos a Cuba was challenged by critics who thought it presented an unrealistically positive portrayal of life in Castro’s Cuba.

In the case of A Birthday Cake for George Washington, a book is gone that generated important discussions about how our nation creates, perceives, and perpetuates narratives about slavery and slave ownership.
— NCAC, January 22 (full statement)

This begs the question, however: Are six- to eight-year-old readers in any way equipped to engage in the “important discussions” NCAC wants to see? Is that in any way the point of early grade reading?

Even supposing early-grade readers developmentally prepared for any aspect of such a discussion, do they have access to the necessary background? Particularly given the lack of African American protagonists in children’s literature, more generally, how would a young reader be in a position to compare perspectives?

Moreover, as author Daniel Jose Older wrote: “how many books about slavery don’t even make it to publication because they discomfort the narrative of white innocence?” (His Jan 22 Tweet can be found here: “It’s Not Censorship”.)

See also TFC’s Allyson Criner Brown on NPR January 22

Early Scholastic Responses

Editor’s Statement (January 6):

One aspect of this book’s intention is to depict the loving exchange between a father and daughter as they prepare a cake. Also, the book celebrates a holiday that is often discussed in a school setting. But the role African Americans played in celebrating the president’s birthday is often not acknowledged, due to the fact that Hercules and his cake are not well known by many.  A Birthday Cake for George Washington seeks to inform readers about this man and his importance in the life and times of America’s first president.

— Andrea Davis Pinkney, VP and executive editor. Full statement here.

BACK

Author’s statement (January 15):

…they were smart enough to use those “advantages” to improve their lives.
It is the historical record—not my opinion—that shows that enslaved people who received “status” positions were proud of these positions—and made use of the “perks” of those positions. It is what illustrator Vanessa Brantley-Newton calls out in her artist’s note as informing her decision to depict those in A Birthday Cake For George Washington as happy and prideful people.
— Ramin Ganeshram, Journalist, Author. Full response

BACK

Editor’s statement (January 6):

One aspect of this book’s intention is to depict the loving exchange between a father and daughter as they prepare a cake. Also, the book celebrates a holiday that is often discussed in a school setting. But the role African Americans played in celebrating the president’s birthday is often not acknowledged, due to the fact that Hercules and his cake are not well known by many.  A Birthday Cake for George Washington seeks to inform readers about this man and his importance in the life and times of America’s first president.
— Andrea Davis Pinkney, VP and executive editor, Scholastic Trade Publishing.

BACK

Corporate statement (January 15):

…Because we know that no single book will be acceptable to every reader, we offer many other books and resources that address slavery and Black history here and here.
full statement

BACK



Categories: censorship, children's literature, educational publishing, feature, National Issues

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  1. Teachers at SCOTUS and “Transcending Resistance” on the January BUS | Education Town Hall Forum: Weekly Broadcast Archives, Extended Discussion, plus Monthly BUS Ride

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