As It Happens

Scholastic pulls children's book showing George Washington's slaves smiling

A controversial children’s book about George Washington’s slaves has been pulled by its publisher. "A Birthday Cake for George Washington" has been been heavily criticized for its unrealistic and “upbeat” depiction of slavery.
The cover of the book ""A Birthday Cake for George Washington" by Ramin Ganeshram. (Scholastic/AP)

A controversial children's book about George Washington's slaves has been pulled by its publisher. A Birthday Cake for George Washington was released by Scholastic on Jan. 5. Since then, it has been heavily criticized for its unrealistic and "upbeat" depiction of slavery.

"I was very shocked," librarian Edith Campbell tells As it Happens host Carol Off. "It seems to a reflect a concern for their readers. But if that concern were genuine, I don't think the book would have been released in the first place."

Campbell, who works at Indiana State University, has been a vocal critic of A Birthday Cake for George Washington. She reviewed the book on her blog and the post was shared widely — along with the hashtag #slaverywithasmile.

The cover of the book ""A Birthday Cake for George Washington" by Ramin Ganeshram. (Scholastic/AP)

The book tells the story a real-life slave named Hercules, as he prepares to bake a cake for George Washington's birthday. Throughout the book, Hercules is seen happily working with a big smile on his face.

The illustrator's notes at the beginning of the book read: "While slavery in America was a vast injustice, my research indicates 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. That is why I have depicted them as happy people."

But many critics, including Campbell, say this is historically inaccurate.

"I've read a lot in the past week about Hercules and George Washington's slaves. I've studied enslavement in that time period. I've not seen anything to indicate that happiness," says Campbell. "They're people who are doing what they had to do and, if they didn't do it well, there could be repercussions to that."

Edith Campbell is a librarian at Indiana State University. (Edith Campbell)

For Campbell, the fact that this book was even published in the first place demonstrates "the racism that is pervasive in children's publishing.

"We're looking at an institution where the decision-makers are predominantly older white males and they just don't get it."

Campbell says she wants to add A Birthday Cake for George Washington to her university's library collection.

"I think it is worthy of having for the purpose of research to show how we are in 2015 and the books representing enslavement are very much revisionist of the 1920s."


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