Most of the time when we talk about Banned Books in the United States we mean that a particular book has been challenged for various reasons (mostly language, sex, magic – magic gets it from both sides of the political spectrum, but general diversity depiction is increasing). Sometimes the book is retained in the library, sometimes it’s pulled, but almost always in the United States – as opposed to many other countries – there remains the ability to get the book someplace else near by.
Destroyed By Publisher
This year we had a title where protest lead a book to actually be recalled by the publisher and remaining copies destroyed. The danger people always talk about is the government banning books, but in most cases even when a government agency bans a book you can still get copies of that book somewhere in the world. In this case, you can’t. Is it a good book? Probably not, but I don’t know because we weren’t given the chance to find out.
Certainly every book written doesn’t deserve to be published and many books are destroyed just from printings that don’t sell, but this book had made it through the editorial process. Executives had made no objection to this book – which I’m sure they saw as inclusive at the time of publication – until outside pressure was applied.
Unfair Depiction of Slavery
A Birthday Cake for George Washington is a fictionalization of a real life story of a slave named Hercules. My report on the objections below is based on things said in the news. I have not seen the book nor talked to any of the participants in the protests.
The main objection seems to be his attitude. Would Hercules be proud of his job? Would he be smiling while he worked? Objections were also made to the fact that, while it was in the author’s note, the story itself doesn’t mention the fact that Hercules ran away the year after the picture book was set. Which reinforces the idea that he wouldn’t have been proud or happy about his work baking George Washington’s birthday cake.
For a round up of news coverage from the Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association:
The real danger of this isn’t the pulling of this one particular book, but the precedent it sets. Even if you 100% agree with this decision and are angry that it took them so long be aware of the issue once a precedent has been set the next angry protest might be from a group or over a topic you do NOT agree with and it is now more likely to fall.
(The article also mentions A Fine Dessert – See note below)
When Values Clash
There is certainly a case to be made that the book is insensitive and should never have been published in the first place. It was – I personally suspect – greenlit in part because of a major push last year pointing out the troubling lack of diversity in children’s books, especially in picture book illustration. They saw this as a step towards reversing that trend.
The Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association points out the clash between the concern over freedom from censorship encouraging the free flow of ideas versus the efforts to address the clear diversity issue in children’s literature. Clearly an argument can be made for both sides.
I’m sure some critics would be surprised that, as noted by NPR, the book was produced “by a diverse group of people of color” including editor Andrea Davis Pinkney who previously won the Coretta Scott King Award for her work. They have mounted a defense of the book.
(Again see note below for A Fine Dessert reference)
Answering charges of censorship, Scholastic itself assures us that it was recalled because failure to meet their standards. Standards that it apparently met when it was published a short time before. They reject the censorship narrative as any publisher probably would in a similar situation. Their statement, read the text at the link below, points out that they publish other books that are challenged regularly in libraries without taking similar steps.
A friend recently pointed out a title that suffered a similar fate, An Apple Pie for Lewis from 1951. It’s the story of a boy waiting all year for apples to ripen so his grandmother will bake him an apple pie. It happened to be written by Helen Kay who was called before the McCarthy hearings and plead the 5th Amendment. This was her book that happened to be out at the time. Although she was later able to publish other titles, this one was pulled by bookstores and libraries and is basically unavailable today.
I checked the three main used book sites – Amazon, Alibris, and Abe Books – and none of them had a copy. I then checked another picture book from 1951 that I happened to know about – A Pony for Linda by C.W. Anderson – and there were copies available on all three. So the book is not readily available elsewhere. That’s an example I’m sure none of us agree with.
Think About It
So there you have it, the case of the pulled and unavailable book. Do you think this was censorship? Do you think it was justified? What if another group you don’t agree with tries to accomplish the same thing? Censorship is a dangerous issue and one everyone should think about.
Note: A Fine Dessert is a picture book that shows how a recipe is passed down from colonial times to today as cooking methods change. It is a clever idea for a book and while the writing definitely wouldn’t win any prizes, it’s not bad. There are a couple of minor food history errors – which is unfortunate since it’s one of the major themes of the book – but its inclusion in the above article was due to its ham-fisted depiction of a slave family preparing the recipe. It was both disruptive to the story and not realistic. The author’s note especially was unfortunate because it kind of read as if all African-American history is slave history. However, you can tell that both the author and illustrator were patting themselves on the back for being “inclusive” not only with the slave family, but also by having a man cooking in the final part of the story. The author has figured out that she didn’t do such a great thing after all and has since classified the book as “racially insensitive.” The major difference for this post is that book was allowed to rise or fall on the market while A Birthday Cake for George Washington never had that chance. Also, despite its less than stellar execution you should recognize A Fine Dessert was a brilliant idea for a book.
See this post from McBook Words for a further discussion about objections to both A Birthday Cake for George Washington and A Fine Dessert. (Added Jauary 7, 2020)
I just re-read this post as I worked on my Banned Books post for this year because I think it’s a good one, but I want to clarify one thing in my note for people who haven’t read A Fine Dessert. The reason the slave family was disruptive was it was supposed to be one family handing down the recipe and future generations didn’t show any indication of African-American culture. Also, the methods of cooking were just wrong and it included a ridiculous bit where the slaves hid inside a wardrobe full of clothes to lick the bowl. Clearly neither author nor illustrator has every been inside a wardrobe. Being an explore-y kind of kid I have been and there is no way you could eat anything or fit in a wardrobe like the illustration shows. (Added September 30, 2021)
Sarah Uthoff is a reference library at Kirkwood Community College. LIKE the Kirkwood Community College Library on Facebook and find links to Sarah all over the web at her About Me Profile.