George Washington’s birthday cake has been cleared away, but it has left a bad taste in everybody’s mouth.
A week after withdrawing a picture book called “A Birthday Cake for George Washington,” Scholastic is still responding to critics on all sides of the debate.
Even before the book arrived in stores on Jan. 5, reviewers had condemned its happy depiction of Hercules, Washington’s enslaved chef, and his young daughter, Delia.
Over the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend, Scholastic announced that it would cease selling the book written by Ramin Ganeshram and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton. That decision satisfied some critics, but it quickly drew the ire of the National Coalition Against Censorship, which condemned Scholastic’s move as a “shocking and unprecedented case of self-censorship.” Along with PEN American Center and the First Amendment Committee of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, NCAC said that Scholastic was pandering to critics and contributing to a chilling effect that would make it more difficult to publish controversial books in the future.
On Monday, Scholastic replied to all fronts on this expanding battle. Saying that PEN and the NCAC “apparently did not correctly read” Scholastic’s earlier statement, the publisher sought to clarify its motives. The book was withdrawn, the publisher insists, “not in response to criticism, but entirely and purposefully because this title did not meet our publishing standards.”
That’s probably a distinction too fine for the Internet to acknowledge, but it’s reassuring to see a publisher trying to define its actions even at the risk of giving an unfavorable story another loop in the news cycle (Exhibit A).
Regardless of Scholastic’s true motives for withdrawing “A Birthday Cake for George Washington,” the publisher makes a convincing case that it has long been a source of controversial books — including Dav Pilkey’s “Captain Underpants” series, J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series and Suzanne Collins’s “The Hunger Games” trilogy — that have been condemned by all kinds of groups. In Monday’s statement, Scholastic reminds readers that historically it has been “responsible for publishing some of the most frequently banned books for children” and has “not backed down in the face of these criticisms.”
Today’s decision to return fire at NCAC and PEN is a demonstration of that moxie.