January 19, 2016

Scholastic halts distribution of children’s book about George Washington’s enslaved cook, or as they call him: “the first celebrity chef in America”



Image courtesy of The New York Times.

The New York Times‘s Liam Stack reports that following “outcry over its visual depiction of the former president’s slaves as happy, smiling workers,” Scholastic Publishing has announced that they will stop distribution of A Birthday Cake for George Washington. 

The children’s title, written by Ramin Ganeshram and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton, follows the story of Hercules, an enslaved cook, and his daughter Delia as they bake a birthday cake for their owner, George Washington. The publisher’s description of A Birthday Cake for George Washington reads:

Oh, how George Washington loves his cake! 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.

Oh, we can think of a few more problems, not least of which the difference between “head chef” and slave. The book claims to be “based on real events” and a note at the end of the book explains that Hercules was a real person, who has recently been referred to by culinary historians as “the first celebrity chef in America.”

The decision to take the book out of circulation is a reversal for Scholastic, who earlier this month stood by the title and went as far as to claim that the depictions of Hercules and Delia as “happy” were the result of “carefully curated research.” A statement on the publisher’s website, written by Andrea Davis Pinkney, VP and executive editor (as well as editor of the title in question), defended the author and illustrator’s decision:

Vanessa also took great care in her 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.

It would seem this distinction was lost on the book’s discerning targeted audience: children in grades 2-5.

School Library Journal found the book troubling enough to release a statement of their own, calling its depiction of slavery “dangerously rosy” and “offensive.” Kiera Parrott at SLJ also took Scholastic to task for their “curated research” (or rather, the curated conclusions drawn from the research):

Ganeshram states that Hercules eventually escaped but that his children, including narrator Delia, were owned by Martha Washington and remained enslaved their entire lives. The somber facts recounted in small print at the end of the author’s note are unfortunately not reflected in either the text or the illustrations of the story that precedes them. Adding insult to injury, the back matter concludes with a recipe for “Martha Washington’s Great Cake,” courtesy of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association.

Following a slew of single-starred Amazon reviews and a Change.org petition calling for the book to be pulled from bookstore shelves, Scholastic has relented and admitted 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.”

This, of course, comes on the heels of several deaf, troubling incidents in the world of academic publishing. Last year, McGraw-Hill Education was widely criticized for a high school geography textbook that described the Atlantic slave trade as bringing “millions of workers” to the American South. (McGraw-Hill Education has since acknowledged that the term “workers” was incorrect, but the book remains in circulation, though stickers have been sent to cover up the offensive terminology.)

Oh, and let’s not forget that venerable (and recently sacked) HMH employee who told James O’Keefe exactly how she felt about textbook publishing: “I hate kids.”



Ena Brdjanovic was formerly Director of Digital Media at Melville House.