A Birthday Cake for George Washington
written by Ramin Ganeshram
illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton
Scholastic Press, January 2016
Amid the controversy of this particular picture book, my copy was sitting on a holds shelf at the library waiting to be picked up. I was anxious to see if it was still there, or if it had been pulled from the shelves as it had been pulled from Scholastic’s inventory.
“The children’s literature world has been stirred up by Scholastic’s announcement on Sunday that they are pulling A Birthday Cake for George Washington from their line-up and offering full return credit for unsold copies. The nutshell for anyone new to this issue is that a picture book for young readers was published, and then recalled because it ended up altering and reinterpreting history in ways that made slavery seem like a sometimes proud and happy experience, without sufficient accuracy and context in the story itself for its young readers to understand the reality of that experience (though there is a note in the back matter clarifying some of the license taken).
-Turning Diversity Flare-Ups into Opportunity
Elizabeth Bluemle, Publisher’s Weekly January 19, 2016
You can read the whole article and additional links HERE.
The story itself, is about the making of a birthday cake for the president of the United States when there is no sugar in the house. The head cook is a slave named Hercules who is well-known and respected for his talents. The story is told through the voice of Hercules’s daughter, Delia. The tension rises because there is a storm and no one can be sent out for more sugar and Lady Washington arrives to check on the proceedings. Hercules is in an uproar and no one knows what to do. In the absence of sugar, Hercules uses George Washington’s favorite treat, honey, as a suitable replacement. Dinner is prepared by Hercules, a French chef, and the kitchen slaves. Everything is done just in time and enjoyed by the president’s guests. At the end of the evening, the president comes to congratulate his cook for a wonderful meal.
The rest of the story, as they say, is told in the afterwords of the author and the illustrator. These are obviously stated to enrich open discussion, but are not a part of the story itself.
- The cake made in this story is actually from a recipe from Martha Washington’s cookbook. It was marked as a family favorite, and so it can be assumed that it was made often by Hercules. It is called Martha Washington’s Great Cake and the recipe is included at the end of the book.
- The Washingtons owned more than 300 slaves who lived both at the Mt. Vernon plantation and the house in Philadelphia.
- Slaves were often shuttled back and forth between Philadelphia and Mt. Vernon because there was a law stating that any slave living in Philadelphia for more than six months was automatically free.
- Hercules did have a daughter named Delia, but she lived in Mt. Vernon and would not have been in Hercules’s kitchen in Philadelphia.
- Hercules escaped from Mt. Vernon on February 22, 1797, George Washington’s 65th birthday.
- On his death, George Washington freed his slaves through his last will. However, Delia was owned by Martha Washington and was not freed in George Washington’s will. She therefore remained a slave until Martha Washington’s death, and from then we do not know her fate.
- The artist mixed media to tell the story. There are photographs of actual kitchen items placed among the drawings.
- Although there would have been no leafy greens at that time of year in Philadelphia, however, they were a popular crop during that time period and included in the artwork for visual appeal.
- The artist chose to portray the slaves as happy people because as slaves in George Washington’s kitchen they took great pride in their intelligence and culinary ability.