When I was a kid I loved getting lost in a good book. From the Judy Blume to the Babysitters Club, if it was printed between two covers I probably read it growing up. My love of reading extended clear through high school where I fell in love with Toni Morrison, bell hook, James Baldwin, and the Autobiography of Malcolm X.
Once I discovered Black authors my life changed…and I haven’t looked back since. Now that I have a son, I go out of my way to find really good children’s books with Black characters, but we’ll definitely be skipping Scholastic’s latest offering, A Birthday Cake for George Washington.
First, let’s check out how Scholastic described the book:
Everyone is buzzing about the president’s birthday! Especially George Washington’s servants, who scurry around the kitchen preparing to make this the best celebration ever. 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. This story, told in the voice of Delia, Hercules’s young daughter, is based on real events, and underscores the loving exchange between a very determined father and his eager daughter, who are faced with an unspoken, bittersweet reality. No matter how delicious the president’s cake turns out to be, Delia and Papa will not taste the sweetness of freedom.
Now, let’s see what Andrea Davis Pinkney, VP and executive editor of Scholastic Trade Publishing, had to say about it:
The topic of slavery is one that must be handled with the utmost care, especially in the form of visual depictions, historical references, dialogue, and characterizations in books for young readers. In A Birthday Cake for George Washington the lives of enslaved people ― and the complex inequities of their bondage ― play a key role in the narrative. Through carefully curated research, A Birthday Cake for George Washington presents an important slice of American history. It is based on the true story of Hercules, the president’s cook. Hercules was one of over 300 African Americans enslaved by George and Martha Washington. Even though he was a slave, everyone knew and admired Hercules ― especially the president!
While Pinkney tries to put a positive spin on the book, and Washington’s supposed admiration for Hercules (uh, someone he owned), a reviewer for the School Library Journal called the book “highly problematic” and a “troubling depiction of American slavery.”
Brantley-Newton’s colorful, cartoon-style double-page illustrations, combined with the light tone of the text, convey a feeling of joyfulness that contrasts starkly with the reality of slave life. One spread depicts dancing feet and the hems of fancy dresses and shoes of the white revelers at the very top of the page. Hercules, Delia, and the other slaves are seen in the kitchen below, smiling with glee as they work on the cake, evoking a strangely cheerful and exuberant scene reminiscent of a Disney film. Later, when Washington congratulates Hercules on a job well done, Hercules responds, “An honor and a privilege, sir.” Young readers without sufficient background knowledge about the larger context of American slavery may come away with a dangerously rosy impression of the relationship between slaves and slave owners, and those with a deeper understanding are likely to find this depiction offensive.
And herein lies the rub. Though it’s important to teach children about America’s history, what we don’t need to do is sugarcoat the horrors and realities of slavery by perpetrating the “happy servants” myth and conveniently leaving out the part where the book’s beloved characters remain enslaved for the rest of their lives.