Publisher stops distribution of book about Washington and his slaves

NEW YORK • Scholastic Publishing said on Sunday that it would stop distribution of a children's picture book about George Washington and his enslaved household cook amid an outcry over its visual depiction of the former president's slaves as happy, smiling workers.

The company had previously defended the book, A Birthday Cake For George Washington (above), from critics who said it presented young readers with an offensively sanitised version of the institution of slavery.

Scholastic Publishing reversed its position on Sunday.

"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," it said in a statement. The book is written by Ramin Ganeshram.

While defending the team that produced the book, the publisher said that without more historical background, "the book may give a false impression of the reality of the lives of slaves and, therefore, should be withdrawn".

The plot of the book focuses on Hercules, an enslaved cook in the home of George Washington, and his daughter Delia as they bake the president a birthday cake.

Earlier this month, Ms Andrea Davis Pinkney, executive editor of Scholastic Trade Publishing, defended the book in a blog post as a complex portrayal of American slavery that approached the topic with "the utmost care".

She also wrote that Washington "admired" Hercules and that the cook lived a life of "near freedom" because of the president's fondness for him.

Hercules and the other kitchen slaves reciprocated those warm feelings, she said, and "took great pride in their ability to cook for a man of such stature".

That pride in their position in the president's kitchen was why the book illustrator, Vanessa Brantley- Newton, chose to depict the slaves "as happy people", Ms Pinkney wrote.

"They were not happy about being enslaved, but there was joy in what they created through their intelligence and culinary talent," she said.

She added that some historians consider Hercules to have been "the first celebrity chef in America".

However, critics were not at all impressed by those explanations.

The backlash against the book led to an avalanche of one-star reviews on Amazon as well as a petition calling for its removal from the stores. NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 19, 2016, with the headline 'Publisher stops distribution of book about Washington and his slaves'. Print Edition | Subscribe