Children's publishing company Scholastic has announced that they are halting the distribution of an elementary-aged book because it skipped "the evils of slavery" and instead showed happy slaves.
The book, A Birthday Cake for George Washington, was released in January, 2016 and is intended for grades one through three. The story depicts Washington's paid head-chef, known only as Hercules, and Hercules' daughter, Delia, baking America's first president a birthday cake. But the problem is, they are out of sugar. Delia is the voice of the story and is described as a doting daughter impressed with her father's command in the kitchen as they overcome their problem together.
But Scholastic believes it has erred in the book's publication and is not only withdrawing its production but is also offering refunds. Via a company statement:
Scholastic is announcing today that we are stopping the distribution of the book entitled "A Birthday Cake for George Washington," by Ramin Ganeshram and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton, and will accept all returns. 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can provide, the book may give a false impression of the reality of the lives of slaves and therefore should be withdrawn.
It is of interest to note that the book's author is of Trinidadian and Iranian decent, and the illustrator is African-American. The author includes a more detailed description about Washington's relationship to Hercules, as well as his broader views on slavery in general and the problems that posed in a country founded on freedom. But Scholastic felt these issues should have been explored within the story so that children aren't misled about slavery:
Scholastic has a long history of explaining complex and controversial issues to children at all ages and grade levels. We do not believe this title meets the standards of appropriate presentation of information to younger children, despite the positive intentions and beliefs of the author, editor, and illustrator.
Though this article doesn't intend to be an exhaustive account of Hercules' story, it is clear that historical records indicate that he enjoyed many perks not afforded to other slaves. As a favored servant of Washington he was paid a salary, time away to enjoy the city, and was given permission to sell the leftover food from his master's home for a profit. He was also known for wearing fine clothing. And though he was a favored servant and even perhaps considered America's first celebrity chef -- Washington's stepgrandson once described Hercules as a "celebrated artiste" in the kitchen and "as highly accomplished a proficient in the culinary art as could be found in the United States" -- he was, alas, a slave and eventually escaped to his freedom.