Conversations on Martin Luther King Jr. Day: Cake, Slavery, and an Unprecedented Pull
I think it was four or five months ago when I first saw A BIRTHDAY CAKE FOR GEORGE WASHINGTON on Edelweiss. It was pretty much the final edition, though it could have been lacking some of the eventual backmatter. No matter. I have to admit my jaw was a bit on the floor. This was all in the midst of the A FINE DESSERT brouhaha and I couldn’t help but wonder what the heck was going on over at Scholastic. Particularly since I was a huge fan of the illustrator and editor.
Did I blog about it at the time? I did not. I could have but I think I just figured that clearly the book was going to be pulled before publication. Remember, this was all coming out around the time of the NPR Codeswitch report on A FINE DESSERT. The likelihood that a different publisher wouldn’t have noticed this parallel debate was slim. This is also why, in spite of my first name, I am not a betting woman. My hunches tend to be incorrect.
As it happens the book most certainly was published but the backlash wasn’t instantaneous. In fact, last Monday I went to the Amazon.com page to see how it was doing. The answer? Lots of five star reviews. Oodles of them. Very few critical comments. Goodreads was even odder. Nobody seemed to have read it there. I was puzzled. I mean, this was long after Vicky Smith’s remarkable piece about the title in Kirkus. Now I had to think about whether or not I’d review it myself. I didn’t particularly want to but by the same token it didn’t appear that the alternative point of view was up and running. Plus I’d get to begin the review with some kind of statement about how I dislike desserts made with honey rather than sugar because they’re just too sweet. [<—- It makes more sense if you’ve read the book]
24 hours passed and the difference was night and day. When I went online again I discovered that suddenly people knew about this book. And they were NOT pleased. You can read the Amazon comments if you like. How many of those reviewers have actually read the book? See previous statement about not being a betting woman, but I suspect the number is not particularly large. They were still pissed. And some had read the Kirkus and SLJ reviews which was good. In a new move, there’s also been a counter attack by right-wingers in support of the book.
Articles starting coming out about the book left and right too, but one of the best, by far, was in Fusion. I’m not convinced that the author read the book (it includes a plot description with a pretty glaring flaw) but it’s a rather perfect encapsulation of not just the debate itself but history that I simply didn’t know. Writer Charles Pulliam-Moore dives deep into the ways in which Washington would “renew” his slaves’ Pennsylvania residencies. He also closes with a link to George Washington and Slavery: A Documentary Portrayal by Fritz Hirschfeld that is well worth your time.
On Thursday, Scholastic had produced this statement about the book. By Saturday, this was the new statement. The book has been officially pulled from publication. This was probably due in large part to the news agencies that picked up on the story in the intervening day(s).
What are we to make of all this? Since I was surprised that it hadn’t been pulled from publication from the start, I was certainly amazed that it was after the fact. Then I got to thinking. Has this ever happened before that a picture book was determined by its publisher to give such “a false impression” of a historical event that it was pulled as a result? Is there a precedent? At times like these I wish Peter Sieruta was still amongst us. He would have known.
This much is clear. As we enter 2016 we’re going to see books like a republished Abraham Lincoln, with changes made to the text and images and other books that touch on similar topics in a picture book format for kids. Books of this sort may get pulled or delayed prior to publication. The same goes for nonfiction and fiction titles as well. There are good lessons to take from the saga of A BIRTHDAY CAKE. There are bad lessons too. Let us then hope for books for our kids that know how to handle this subject with dignity, and for publishers that aren’t just automatically scared away from the topic itself for years to come.
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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