View Full Version : Scholastic pulls children's book for depicting happy slaves

Alessandra Kelley
01-18-2016, 10:22 PM

Scholastic Inc. is stopping distribution and will accept all returns of A Birthday Cake for George Washington by Ramin Ganeshram and Vanessa Brantley-Newton, released on January 5th, after readers and reviewers complained that the slaves were depicted as smiling, happy and proud.

Author Ramin Ganeshram and illustrator Vanessa Brantley-Newton had written about the historical context in notes accompanying the story, but were criticised for not having included it in the main narrative.

Trade journal Kirkus said children could be left with a "sorely incomplete understanding of both the protagonists' lives and slavery itself" if adults did not read them the additional material.

01-18-2016, 10:33 PM
I saw this article this morning.

I'm assuming this went from writer to beta, then from writer to agent, from agent to editor, from editor to copy editors, to illustrators to marketing... Jeez. Those are a lot of eyes for nobody to catch this.

01-18-2016, 11:33 PM
Holy crap, there is actually also a review that insists slaves were happy and proud. That book is even more WTF then the one I saw my father put in his inventory: "The Nigress with the Parasol".

01-19-2016, 01:05 AM
I would guess the author, editor and betas of this book never read this...


While transcribing one of Martha Washington’s letters, I was struck by a reference Martha made to an enslaved seamstress named Charlotte.
“she is so indolent that she will doe nothing but what she is told […] if you suffer them to goe on so idele they will in a little time doe nothing but work for them selves.

01-19-2016, 07:34 PM
Is it awful that I kinda wish they wouldn't pull the book, instead provide a teacher's aide manual for discussing this?

01-19-2016, 07:42 PM
Is it awful that I kinda wish they wouldn't pull the book, instead provide a teacher's aide manual for discussing this?

Not awful, IMO, but perhaps a bit naive.

In principle I don't like any books being withheld or removed, from anywhere. However, looked at in context, this one was just a bad idea.

Trying to mandate that it be taught a certain way, as an amelioration measure, might mitigate some damage but you can bet that the book would NOT be taught with the teacher's manual or aide in at least some situations, for all kinds of reasons.

Personally I feel a little sick looking at images of happy slaves. What we need is more clarity about slavery, how much of what people rely on in modern life was created using slave labor, and the fact that slavery still exists. I grew up believing that, at least, humans had accomplished the end of slavery. Only well into my adulthood was I disabused of that rosy notion. That's wrong. I was fed a lie. What got accomplished was the end of one particular system of slavery, for the most part, and at huge cost and with much resistance that is STILL living and breathing in the U.S.

01-19-2016, 08:21 PM
Two things made this book wrong for me. I can't imagine anyone owned by another person being happy about that. Also, referring to the slaves as 'servants', call them what they were which is slaves who were forced into it without choice. I honestly don't know what this author was thinking.

Contented Reader
01-19-2016, 08:47 PM
I think that it's important for children's history books to teach history accurately. It's often necessary to simplify history for children, because real history is hugely complicated, but it's a big problem to misrepresent it.

I'm hearing people around the internet criticizing this as a 'political correctness' censorship move, but I think it really is about the responsibility of a publisher of educational books to educate. Teaching children history that is false is the opposite of education. It's... ignorantification.

Justin K
01-19-2016, 10:27 PM
Didn't need look further than the cover to decide this book had to have been planned with a backlash in mind. How can we feel anything but sympathy for an author(s) so ignorant. This looks like something that would have been published by the south in the 1850's.

01-19-2016, 11:43 PM
Two things made this book wrong for me. I can't imagine anyone owned by another person being happy about that. Also, referring to the slaves as 'servants', call them what they were which is slaves who were forced into it without choice. I honestly don't know what this author was thinking.

Not very long ago, the Texas Board of Education got into a kerfluffle when they approved an American History textbook that referred to slaves as "workers". I don't know the outcome of that, but it was a decision typical of that august body, which is dominated by evangelical religious conservatives. This incident sounds rather similar.


01-20-2016, 12:52 AM
Terrible concept. Terrible book. Terrible anyone would try to make a case the slaves were "happy."

When dey wuzn't bakin' cakes fo' de massa dey sho' could pick dat cotton!

01-20-2016, 01:40 AM
I hope I'm not sounding sympathetic, but I've read several primary resources on slavery, including interviews with former slaves. For the most part, it was negative, but there were a few that seemed nostalgic and wistful about their time as a slave. I wonder if most of its due to the fact that most of the slaves interviewed were talking about events that happened 50 or more years previously. They may have hated slavery at the time, but at age 75+, they may be pining away for their lost youth. Since they were young when they were slaves, they associate slavery with being young and physically active. I think slavery was a terrible situation, but I doubt it was 24/7 endless horrors. If you grew up that way, you'd grow used to it. The former slaves seemed to focus on little happy memories like licking batter off a spoon or playing with their owners children. Maybe these events did give them a bit of joy in their harsh reality of life.

Also, I think that former slaves had deep distrust of white people in general. All of the people conducting the interviews were white. The former slaves may not have felt safe saying anything negative about slavery. They may have developed an instinct to play up acting satisfied, ignorant, and happy about things so they wouldn't attract negative attention from white people.

Anyway, I could see someone reading slave narratives and not understanding the perspective they were written in. They may unconsciously cherry pick the "happy" slave narratives and take them at face value. After all, these were the exact words of former slaves. If they say that they were happy, they probably were, right? (No!). So I could see someone doing a horrible research job and coming to a happy conclusion.

I find it specifically offensive because slavery sympathizers would use the "slaves are happier being slaves." as justification for slavery. If you listen to all of the verses of Jimmy Crack Corn, it's just plain awful. A master grants freedom to his favorite slave and sends him out into the world. The slave quickly becomes lost and confused. He has no idea what to do without being told. He gets hungry because he can't figure out how to make money to buy food. He starts crying and missing his master. So he goes back and begs the master to take him back as a slave. He vows never to leave again because he wasn't smart enough to manage alone in the world.

Its just sick.

01-20-2016, 01:55 AM
I'm guessing that people in miserable situations do find things to focus on and be happy about, in small ways at least, in order to keep getting out of bed in the morning. I'm sure some slaves did love their masters and took pride in the work they did for them in the same way some spouses love an abusive or controlling partner and the wa abused kids still love their parents. Stockholm syndrome and all that. I'm also sure that many slaves were very good at pretending and saying what their owners wanted to hear.

But this book doesn't look like it was showing things in that light either. So ugh.

When I was a kid, many of the less savory things about our founding fathers were glossed over in fiction and in school. And works of historical fiction that were set in Colonial America or the Antebellum South often referred to "servants" who just so happened to be black, and they were always treated well and loved their "bosses" if the characters who owned them were presented as good/sympathetic people in the narrative. These books rarely emphasized that these people were slaves or that even "nice" people will take horrible things for granted and be cruel in large and small ways to people over whom they have absolute power.

I kind of thought we'd put that sanitizing approach behind us by now, even in kids' books.

And (in a completely different tangent) did they even have birthday cakes in the 1700s? I thought the tradition was more recent in western cultures. Seems that this person didn't do their homework in more ways than one, and I'm surprised that Scholastic would green light such a stupid, insensitive book.