How Two “Slavery With a Smile” Controversies Are Changing the Conversation About Diverse Children’s Books

When I think back to how my peers and I learned about atrocities like American slavery and the Holocaust when we were kids in the 1980s and early ‘90s, I realize that these difficult lessons were often introduced through stories about people hiding. My favorites of those books — like Who Comes With Cannons?, about Quaker conductors on the Underground Railroad, and Number the Stars, which involved a Christian girl helping her Jewish friend escape to Sweden from Nazi-occupied Denmark —provided a sideways entrance to the truth, through the perspectives of characters less vulnerable to violence and oppression. Yet to read about the lengths that people went through to escape was also to obliquely understand the unnamable horrors they left behind.

Today, as a recent media firestorm around two picture books about slavery shows us, the question of how to use literature to introduce a massive injustice to young people invites serious and often fractious disagreements among parents and teachers — as well as writers, illustrators, and reviewers of children’s literature, a particularly vocal group on the Internet. “Diversity” in children’s literature remains a hot topic, but this recent contentious discussion has pushed deeper into what it means to respectfully represent diverse voices than previous conversations have, asking how literature, even in the form of picture books, can contend with the legacy of white supremacy in America.

The recent debate was spurred by two picture books with similar, historical subject matter: American slaves in the kitchen, smiling. As critics of both A Fine Dessert and A Birthday Cake for George Washington explained, it’s not enough for a book to have characters or authors of color and “count” on a diversity checklist if that book, even unintentionally, contributes to the erasure of the truth about slavery in America. In the initial flurry around the formation of We Need Diverse Books, an organization devoted to promoting ethnic and gender (and other forms of) parity in the kid-lit world, a great deal of social media and traditional media attention went to dismal numbers: the few hundred books with minority protagonists and authors in a field of many thousands, the whiteness of publishing houses’ staffs.

But the crisis is not just one of representation. This is, after all, a moment in America when racism and its deep history loom large in a national conversation (particularly in progressive circles) often driven by social media. With #BlackLivesMatter protests connecting police brutality to racist violence dating back to slavery, and amid the current #OscarsSoWhite discussion about bias in the film industry, the world of children’s literature is very a much part of the larger cultural landscape. Even more so, it’s an area in which the compulsion to — sometimes literally — whitewash the ugly truth for the sake of supposedly fragile young minds may be particularly hard to root out.

Indeed, the question of whether to depict slaves in happier moments is one that writers and illustrators have often grappled with publicly. Last year’s first controversial book, Emily Jenkins’ A Fine Dessert, featured an enslaved mom and daughter as one of four stories of families baking the same dish, called blackberry fool, in different time periods. Critics expressed concern that the slavery scenario — a mother and daughter who pick blackberries and then hide in the cupboard to lick the bowl – didn’t make its characters’ circumstances clear: “Would not a 4-8 year old see the fun in hiding in a closet with their mother, rather than the dehumanizing fact that this cupboard offers the child more protection that her mother ever could?” wrote one reviewer, Edi Campbell. “No matter how thoughtful the intent was in depicting this mother and child, the end result is that it can be seen as perpetuating painful imagery of ‘happy’ slaves,” another reviewer, Megan Schliesman, said.

The noise grew deafening, and Jenkins eventually apologized and donated her proceeds to WNDB. “I have come to understand that my book, while intended to be inclusive and truthful and hopeful, is racially insensitive,” she wrote. Illustrator Sophie Blackall, who went on to win the Caldecott medal for another book, stood by her choices, noting, “It does not fully depict the horrors of slavery, but I don’t think such a depiction would be appropriate for this particular age group.”

fine dessert

Grumbles and arguments about A Fine Dessert continued right up through the January 2016 release of the second book, Ramin Ganeshram’s A Birthday Cake for George Washington. This picture book follows a real figure, Hercules, a chef at Mt. Vernon. The historical Hercules was much lauded for his culinary skill, and the book showcases his ingenuity while making a cake alongside his daughter, even with a key ingredient missing — as well as his pride and satisfaction in his work. But towards the end of his life, after he was punished with menial labor, Hercules escaped from Washington’s household, a fact acknowledged in an author’s note but omitted from the book’s cheerful primary text and illustrations.

Critiques of the two books were very similar, honing in on their “smiling slaves” and emphasis on baking at the expense of bondage. “If you want to tell as story about slavery, you need to ask: is the focalization internal, from the perspective of enslaved person, or external, keeping people at arm’s length?” asks Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education , who focuses on children’s literature and slavery in her work.

Unlike A Fine Dessert, A Birthday Cake for George Washington was edited, illustrated, and written by a “diverse” team. (“That a white creative team and a creative team of color, each working separately, came up with two books so similar in so many ways proves only one thing: intelligent people can disagree,” wrote Kirkus.) And while A Fine Dessert remains in print, Scholastic, the publisher of A Birthday Cake for George Washington, chose to pull the book from shelves several weeks after its release, after a hashtag campaign called #SlaveryWithASmile heated up. In its statement, Scholastic said, “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. “

The recall of A Birthday Cake for George Washington continues to reverberate through online communities. After the announcement, the publishing house got chastised for “self-censorship” by several free speech organizations, leading to a spirited debate that brought the diversity question back to the fore, with added complexity about the subject matter of these “diverse books.” “Pulling a book because it’s historically inaccurate and carries on the very American tradition of whitewashing slavery is classified as ‘censorship,’” wrote the author Daniel José Older, who has published with Scholastic, “While maintaining an ongoing majority white industry that systematically excludes narratives of color is just business as usual.”

More recently, author Ganeshram spoke out, defending the historical context of her story and, in another piece, decrying an “online lynch mob (and I use that word deliberately).” Yet her insistence on the painstaking accuracy of her book fails to acknowledge one key aspect, which I noticed when I read it: the book elides the ugly but very real truth about the degraded condition that prompted Hercules’ eventual escape. As many critics noted, whatever pride Ganeshram’s character took in his cake-making, he wasn’t so happy and proud of his exalted position that freedom wasn’t far sweeter than success in the kitchen. To add this reality would have made the book considerably more thorny — maybe more than a picture book can encompass — but without it, the story feels incomplete even to the casual reader.

The kerfuffle around the book has left both bruises and good teaching opportunities in its wake. And many in the education community are already thinking about where the conversation should go from here. “What disappoints me the most is that we’re still talking about this book,” says Thomas.  “So many great books about slavery have been published for kids in the past few decades that do deep work and are meticulously researched, and often those books go out of print faster.” As a critic, Thomas has reviewed titles like Freedom’s School, about the struggle to open schools for free black Americans after the war, and recommended books like Brick by Brick, a picture-book tribute to the slaves who built the White House, and Love Twelve Miles Long, about Frederick Douglass’ mom and her long walk to see her son.

As an educator, she cites Rudine S. Bishop’s book Free Within Ourselves: The Development of African American Children’s Literature as a good starting point for anyone writing fiction for young readers about the black American experience, a tool for helping differentiate between humanizing characters and sanitizing their reality. In a paper, Thomas sums up the five tenets of “authentic African American” literature as posited by Free Within Ourselves:

Authentic African American children’s and young adult literature: 1) Celebrates the strengths of the Black family as a cultural institution and vehicle for survival; 2) Bears witness to Black people’s determined struggle for freedom, equality, and dignity; 3) Nurtures the souls of Black children by reflecting back to them, both visually and verbally, the beauty and competencies that we as adults see in them 4) Situates itself through its language and its content, within African American literary and cultural contexts; and 5) Honors the tradition of story as a way of teaching and as a way of knowing.

Clearly, critics felt that the big missing piece in the controversial “slavery with a smile” books was the second tenet. They argued that neither of these books show (or, at least, place enough emphasis on) the dynamic of oppression and resistance, the characters’ fundamental opposition to their condition, even if they only expressed it in small or everyday acts of defiance.

In some ways, the discussion about children’s literature and historical truths parallels the one recently swirling around the Oscars, which encompasses dismal overall representation numbers, but also the idea that certain kinds of “diverse” narratives slip through in a majority-white industry and never get seen. “Generally speaking, we as black people have been celebrated more for when we are subservient, when we are not being leaders or kings,” David Oyelowo said a year ago. “Consider: In the history of the Oscars, 10 black women have been nominated for best actress, and nine of them played characters who are homeless or might soon become so,” wrote Brandon K. Thorp in the New York Times just a few days ago, noting that the tenth played a maid.

Thomas points out that the number of books published about people of color are limited, while narratives about white protagonists range from silly to serious to historical and educational. She expresses sympathy for authors and illustrators of color who may, for example, want to explore a contemporary black family’s delightful summer vacation but have no opportunity to do so, being relegated to slavery and Civil Rights type topics. Yet that doesn’t absolve people’s responsibility for being honest about the black experience in America. “There’s a problematic process no matter who’s involved in it,” she says. “Structural racism constrains the actions of individuals.”

Again, as with the Oscars, the power of social media has amplified the very same conversations educators and readers have engaged in for a long time, creating a feedback loop that actually reaches Big Publishing’s doorstep when it might not have before. And there’s no question publishers are concerned with what the public is telling them. When I reached out to Scholastic, spokesperson Kyle Good offered this statement: “Scholastic will continue our 95-year commitment to publishing a wide range of books and other educational materials which explain all aspects of world history to young readers.” She also provided a list of books, both from the company’s back catalog and forthcoming titles, that deal directly with black history and Civil Rights, including several new titles that directly address slavery.

But how do publishers make sure books on sensitive and difficult topics are both age appropriate and accurate? Not only must they do their own research, but they need to consult with outside experts — no matter how deeply the author is immersed in a subject. “From my perspective, it is the job of both the author and editor to make sure anything we publish has been thoroughly researched, vetted by experts, and reviewed by knowledgeable people who share cultural and/or racial identity with the subject of the story and are qualified to evaluate the information in a book, with the understanding that the book is for children,” Louise May of Lee and Low Books, an independent publisher which specializes in diversity, tells Flavorwire by email. “Often this involves having several people with different areas of expertise review a manuscript to check various parts of a story.”

Thomas points out that the publishing industry, situated in New York City, has a wealth of resources at its disposal. “If you’re writing about a historical topic and at a major publishing house, all you have to do is contact an expert. The Schomburg Library is right in New York City. There are multiple Africana Studies departments, too,” she says. “It’s a phone call.”

For Carole Saltz, Director of Columbia University’s Teachers College Press, which publishes several books geared towards educators who are introducing difficult topics to children, the key is forming diverse teams and setting up processes such as fact-checking, but not allowing those systems to work on autopilot. “Once you’ve checked all those boxes, what do you need to keep doing with your eyes open?” she asks. Saltz points out that for adults, whether they’re writers, teachers, or parents, struggling actively with troubling topics in curricula and literature is a way of honoring kids. Silence on a topic like racism, she notes, is not neutral: children are observant, so passive adults are sending them a message that the subject should be met with fear or indifference.

Returning to George Washington and his enslaved chef, Hercules, the real story that inspired the misguided picture book is so morally disturbing that even many adults can’t quite wrap their heads around it. Washington, the man who knew slavery was wrong, who praised and delighted in his enslaved cook’s creations, and who memorably refused to be a monarch of his new country, also squired his human chattel back and forth from free territory to Virginia so they couldn’t be free themselves. The impulse to simplify such a difficult story is understandable, which is why so much education, and so many checks and balances, are needed to make sure that it doesn’t happen.

“We’ve done a really good job patting down the issue of race in our country,” Saltz says. “We spend so much energy on denying. But the only way to really make peace is not just to acknowledge the truth, but to explore it.”