HOME SCHOOL BOOK REVIEW
Book: A Birthday Cake for George Washington
Author: Ramin Ganeshram
Illustrator: Vanessa Brantley-Newton
Publisher: Scholastic Press, 2016
Related website: http://www.scholastic.com (publisher)
Language level: 1
(1=nothing objectionable; 2=common euphemisms and/or childish slang terms; 3=some cursing and/or profanity; 4=a lot of cursing and/or profanity; 5=obscenity and/or vulgarity)
Recommended reading level: Ages 7 – 10
Rating: ***** 5 stars (EXCELLENT)
Reviewed by Wayne S. Walker
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Ganeshramm Ramin. A Birthday Cake for George Washington (published in 2016 by Scholastic Press, an imprint of Scholastic Inc., 557 Broadway, New York City, NY 10012). It is 1796, and twelve year old Delia is the daughter of Hercules, a slave who is the chief chef in the Philadelphia, PA, household of President George Washington. It is the President’s birthday, but there is no sugar to bake a cake, and it is too stormy for anyone to go to the market. The pantry has nutmeg, chocolate, cheddar cheese, chives, pickled mangoes, Arabian oils, pickles, teas, candied fruits, and lots of honey. But no sugar, and cakes require sugar. What will they do? Is there any way they can still bake a cake? Author Ramin Ganeshram is a New York Times food writer, and the story, told in the voice of Delia, is based on real events. However, this 32-page book began making national headlines almost as soon as it was released on January 5, 2016.
The School Library Journal called it “A troubling depiction of American slavery.” It was criticized for whitewashing the history of slavery. People complained because it contains images of smiling slaves on almost every page and portrays slaves as being happy, calling it a happy little story about a slave serving his master joyfully. One person even wrote, “This seemingly work of fantastic art and literature is actually one of the worst books for children to read ever in life!” Really! Ganeshram responded, “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.” At first publisher Scholastic defended the book as a complex portrayal of American slavery that approached the topic with “the utmost care.” However, on January 17, the firm bowed to pressure, reversed its position, and pulled the book, saying “Scholastic has a long history of explaining complex and controversial issues to children at all ages and grade levels. We do not believe this title meets the standards of appropriate presentation of information to younger children, despite the positive intentions and beliefs of the author, editor and illustrator,” and that without more historical background, “the book may give a false impression of the reality of the lives of slaves and therefore should be withdrawn.”
What is my take on all the hoopla? It is that the vast majority of objections to A Birthday Cake For George Washington are basically political correctness run amok. The book does not promote slavery. It does not endorse slavery. It does not justify or excuse slavery. It does not even try to cover up the ugliness of slavery. It simply gives a fictionalized but realistically accurate portrayal of a real historical event involving slaves. To write the book, the author conducted extensive research on George Washington’s chef and his cake. THAT is what the story is about. A note at the end does discuss the history of Hercules and how he eventually escaped. One objector claimed, “This story is like depicting Anne Frank and her Dad eager to make dinner for Hitler! ‘A STEAK FOR ADOLF HITLER.’” My, my! There is a BIG difference. Hitler was an evil man who cold-heartedly plotted the extermination of six million Jews. Washington was basically a good man who, while, yes, he had slaves, was troubled by slavery, treated his slaves as well as could be expected under the circumstances of the times, and made arrangements for his slaves to be freed at his death. Given the fact that slavery is a sad chapter in our nation’s history, this book would make a great vehicle for beginning a deep discussion with children about the subject.