Scholastic is pulling a new picture book about George Washington and his slaves amid objections it sentimentalizes a brutal part of American history. A Birthday Cake for George Washington was released Jan. 5 and had been strongly criticized for its upbeat images and story of Washington's cook (the slave Hercules) and his daughter, Delia. Its withdrawal was announced Sunday. Notes in the book—which depicts Hercules and Delia preparing a cake for Washington—from author Ramin Ganeshram and illustrator Vanessa Brantley-Newton pointed out the historical context of the 18th-century story and that Hercules eventually escaped, and in a Jan. 6 Scholastic blog post, Ganeshram wrote that the story was based on historical research and meant to honor the slaves' skill and resourcefulness. Some critics, however, faulted Ganeshram (born to a Trinidadian father and Iranian mother) and Brantley-Newton (self-described as being from a "blended background") for leaving out those details from the main narrative.
"Oh, how George Washington loves his cake!" reads the publisher's description. "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." The book has received more than 100 one-star reviews on Amazon and also set off discussions on social media. The trade publication School Library Journal had called it "highly problematic" and recommended against its purchase; another trade journal, Kirkus Reviews, had labeled the book "an incomplete, even dishonest treatment of slavery." "While we have great respect for the integrity and scholarship of the author, illustrator, and editor, we believe that, without more historical background on the evils of slavery than this book for younger children can provide, the book may give a false impression of the reality of the lives of slaves and therefore should be withdrawn," the publisher said in a statement.