A Birthday Cake for George Washington

19 Jan



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.

Author’s Notes:

  • 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.


Illustrator’s Notes:

  • 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.




14 Responses to “A Birthday Cake for George Washington”

  1. Carl D'Agostino January 28, 2016 at 9:52 PM #

    As a retired high school history teacher I found the post intriguing. Also read a lot of rants about Washington fathering slave children. Huh ? He survived small pox at age 10 and was sterile. He was also too honorable a man to engage in such immoral debauchery. Thanks visit my blog.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Juliana Lee January 28, 2016 at 11:24 PM #

      Thanks for stopping by Carl. I loved your cartoon of the Iliad critics!


  2. Patricia Tilton January 22, 2016 at 3:52 PM #

    I don’t know what to think. Since I haven’t read the book, I really don’t know how I’d feel about the book. You are right about the author’s notes at the end of the book — kids don’t read those. I do find it interesting that the author and illustrator represent different races/cultures and apparently had no problem with the story. I wrote some other comments and deleted them because I find myself guessing when I don’t really know. Will have to see if I see the book in my library.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Juliana Lee January 24, 2016 at 8:00 PM #

      Hi Pat, I think it’s always smart to wait until you’ve read something before making a judgement. I hope you can still get a copy of it at the library and read it for yourself. I would love to hear your thoughts on it.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Keila Dawson January 20, 2016 at 1:52 AM #

    Just no. Read the book tonight. Honesty now believe the bad reviews I’ve read could have been far worse. From the very beginning, after his daughter says her family is owned by the President she says, Papa is the slave President.” WOW. Every page had that little boy in the kitchen-working. Not a cause for celebration. I just don’t know what that creative team discussed, and wonder if anyone asked the question, “How would a black child feel after hearing this story?” Yes, it says it is a work of fiction, but based on real people, real lives, real events too far from the reality.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Juliana Lee January 20, 2016 at 12:20 PM #

      Like with most things I do, I reserved judgement until I had seen and read it for myself. And yes, I can certainly understand the resentment and outcry concerning the ‘happy slaves’ and the misrepresentation of historical facts. It’s a shame this is still a problem in today’s society, especially at the hands of author who is herself a daughter of Trinidadian and Iranian parents and an African-American illustrator and editor. I know that one person (or in this case three) does not speak for a whole race, but I have to wonder what they were thinking. Like I had said to you earlier, I’m wonder how much longer it will be before the illustrator’s book, Sewing Stories, which was published last year, will come under scrutiny for the same issues, and how it slipped under the radar for so long. I think it’s important to remember that although no one is perfect, that we keep striving to do the best we can as we grow. (PS the quote you started in your comment is incomplete. What it says is, “Next to the president’s personal servant, Billy Lee, Papa is the slave President and Mrs. Washington trust the most.”)


      • Keila Dawson January 20, 2016 at 1:47 PM #

        Right, I did not use the whole quote, just shocked those two words “slave president” were used in the same sentence. Would love to see the story told. Just not sure the US is ready. Obviously this team saw the need to tell one that is more “accepted”. Haven’t read Sewing Stories yet. There audienceare many books that address slavery but bring in the harsh realities too. At least what is appropriate for children, they are the audience.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Keila Dawson January 20, 2016 at 1:51 PM #

          Didn’t know how to edit, GAH…”There are many books that address slavery but bring in the harsh realities too.” At least what is appropriate for children, they are the audience.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. Jane Heitman Healy January 19, 2016 at 9:43 PM #

    Since I haven’t seen or read the book, I shouldn’t say anything, but–(and you knew I would, didn’t you?) –this is more a comment about author notes. My observation is that kids don’t generally read author notes. That’s a place for more info for grownups, typically. So it seems disingenuous to have what appears to be a sweet happy story and then the darker truth hinted at in the author notes.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Juliana Lee January 19, 2016 at 10:47 PM #

      Thanks for stopping by Jane. Yes, I felt the same way about the information in the author/illustrator notes. I wonder if they thought of the ‘story’ as being separate from the ‘facts’ or if the facts were ‘irrelevant’ to the story being told. Regardless, most children don’t read the notes or are even exposed to them during read-alouds, leaving them with misinformation.


    • Juliana Lee January 19, 2016 at 10:49 PM #

      Jane, I was also wondering what will happen to library book copies. Will libraries continue to keep the book in circulation?


  5. Lauri Fortino January 19, 2016 at 7:10 PM #

    As I haven’t seen or read the book, I feel I can’t really comment on it except to say the cover looks very nice. What did you think of it Juliana? I assume the library still had it?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Juliana Lee January 19, 2016 at 10:39 PM #

      Yes, the library had it and I read it several times today. There were several art spreads that rubbed me the wrong way. The slaves dancing and laughing in the kitchen was one of the worst. The story about Hercules being admired for his culinary expertise seemed honest and interesting for young children. However, since it was touted as a true story, I didn’t like that the facts in the back of the book didn’t match the story (which in my opinion is the only part most kids and parents would read). Something so simple as Delia didn’t live in Philadelphia and never worked in her father’s kitchen plants misinformation in the minds of the readers. It’s not one I would recommend for the celebration of George Washington’s birthday, which I think it might have been targeting with the release date in mid January.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Juliana Lee January 19, 2016 at 10:41 PM #

      Laura, I forgot to thank you for your comment. It’s always nice to hear from you!

      Liked by 1 person

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