Thursday, January 21, 2016

Controversies in Children's Literature

If you haven't heard, Scholastic has pulled the book A Birthday Cake for George Washington from publication. 

I can definitely see the problems with this book-- the happy pictures of slaves were very disturbing. Even though I felt discomfort, I truly felt that Ms. Ganeshram was trying to show the efforts of Hercules and highlight his contributions to history. She is a cooking historian, and there is not much cooking history in children's books.

Could this have been done in a more culturally sensitive way? Yes. Should the notes at the back have been included in the text? Absolutely. I love Mitali Perkins' suggestions about how this book could have been improved.

In the end, I decided that if Andrea Davis Pinkney, who is such an advocate for diversity in books, said nice things about the book and agreed to publish it, and she didn't have a problem with the things that bothered me, I would bow to her greater wisdom. Perhaps I was "Reading While White" and didn't quite get it. Is this wishy washy on my part? Yes. But I erred on the side of trying to be aware of my privilege and trusting the judgement of an expert in the field.

It's tough to make these decisions, but it's better to have these conversations than to not have them, and to be honest when we make judgement calls that don't work out. My original review is below. Remember, I was trying to find good in a book that added diversity to coverage of Washington.


Ganeshramn, Ramin. A Birthday Cake for George Washington
Illustrated by Brantley-Newton, Vanessa
Advanced copy provided

Delia's father is the head cook for George Washington, and is entrusted with a very special project-- a cake for the president's birthday. When the kitchen is inexplicably out of any kind of sugar and it's too cold to head out to the market, Hercules' culinary skills are put to the test.

The story offers an interesting look into the inner workings of the kitchen at the point in history. The illustrations show many facets of cooking at the time that might be unknown to younger readers today-- fire places, larders, and no electricity! Period clothing is also nicely illustrated. There is even a recipe at the back of the book if readers want to make their own cake to celebrate.

The fact that Delia and her father were both slaves owned by Washington is touched on very lightly, but there is a nice note in the back of the book about the fact that while Washington became increasingly uncomfortable owning slaves, he went to a lot of trouble to keep Hercules under his ownership until he finally ran off. Delia was owned by Martha Washington, who did not free her slaves in her will, and so spent her entire life without freedom. This gives adults who are reading this book to younger children an opportunity to deliver information to slavery depending on the knowledge level of the child involved.

An interesting collection to books about our first president, A Birthday Cake for George Washington is an interesting look at a historic household to use to celebrate Washington's birthday.

1 comment:

  1. I have been trying to sort my feelings out on this book (which I have not read) and A Fine Desert for a while now. I really appreciate the discussion, because I do only bring my own white experiences to literature, but I am starting to worry, especially with this book, that we are allowing a group to censure literature. I fully understand that as a white woman I do not see books in the same way as a black woman might, but when we start allowing books to be pulled because one group is offended by the message, I think it is a slippery slope. Books that are truly offensive to all will disappear over time because people won't like them or as a general public we will feel uncomfortable reading them, but to say you can't have a book because someone else doesn't like it, feels wrong to me. There are many that wanted books about same sex families pulled because they truly offended their religious beliefs. As a library community we stood firm and the best of these books have done well as our ideas in society about same sex families continue to shift. Intent has to matter, and I believe that the authors and illustrators of both these books intended to tell a story that broadened our views of the times and they would never want their readers to believe that slavery was anything less than a cruel institution. Their results may not have accomplished that, but to censure them and call their books racist feels wrong as well. Well, I continue to deliberate, but it all leaves me with a sour taste.