I'm all for truth and justice, but I question Scholastic's recent decision to recall a book.
First, the slope is too slippery when it comes to removing published books from our schools and libraries. What about books published last year? Ten years ago? A century ago? Should they be recalled also? Should we protect today's children from the positive depictions of colonialism in TINTIN IN THE CONGO and BABAR by recalling them? What about black Asia and Silas standing in the back of the room in LITTLE MEN and JO'S BOYS? I'm not defending the contents of A BIRTHDAY CAKE FOR GEORGE WASHINGTON, but it was published. Shouldn't it stay in the pantheon of our shared intellectual content? I suppose this raises another question in an age of fuzzy publishing boundaries: is preventing a published book from being read different than stopping a pre-published book from being read? Librarians, defenders of intellectual content, please weigh in.
Second, instead of recalling, the publisher could move us forward in the representation of African-Americans in children's literature. For example, why doesn't Scholastic invite their wonderful editor, Andrea Davis Pinkney, long-time champion of books representing the African-American experience and one of the few African American editors in the industry, to call for great submissions telling Hercules' WHOLE story? Then the company can publish two more top-notch picture books about Hercules and Delia and encourage teachers and parents to read all three with children. This way, the next generation can learn to discern the differences themselves. Scholastic can underline the danger of a single story, support a great editor, encourage other authors and illustrators who care about telling the stories of African Americans, keep the memory of Hercules and Delia alive, and continue to remind all of us that our first President owned slaves.
But I fear this won't happen. It's too late. The shouts have been heard. The book is recalled. I hope we aren't veering towards recalls steered by social media because outcry can go many ways. But the outcry itself is all right by me. It's thrilling that depictions of kids on the margins, past and present, are now questioned and debated with passion and fury. That's the real victory, and the best modeling for the next generation.
ADDENDUM: A CHALLENGE FOR WRITERS AND ILLUSTRATORS
Here's how I might adapt Hercules' and Delia's story, for example. My suggestions are rough and dumb, but I'll throw them out there. Maybe they'll get someone's juices flowing.
Scene one: Holding a big cat in her arms, Delia sneaks into the kitchen before sunrise. She sees her father hurriedly handing a letter to someone who disappears into the pre-dawn darkness. "Who was that, Daddy?" Hercules takes her in his arms. She wipes away a flour smudge on his cheek. "Someone who might help us escape, sugar." Delia knows how much Daddy wants to be free. Three hundred slaves live on this estate with George Washington and his family, but nobody has managed to escape yet. Freedom! What would that be like? "I'll work hard, earn money, buy us a small house," Daddy says. "We'll get a kitten of our own to keep the mice away," adds Delia.
Scene two: The door bursts open. Delia scurries to hide behind her father. A kitchen slave overseer storms in. "It's Mr. Washington's birthday! Mrs. Washington wants the best cake you have ever baked for his party." "But there is no sugar," Hercules protests. "I don't care! That's your problem! Make that cake! And make it tasty!" The overseer slams the door on his way out.
Now tell the cake story, showing how Hercules met this challenge with strength and grace.
Scene somewhere in the middle: The same man we saw in the first panel is sneaking out of the kitchen again. Delia walks in to find her Daddy on his knees, praying. "Are we going to escape, Daddy?" Once again, she sees a flour smudge on his cheeks and wipes it away. The artist makes it clear that there's a tear there, too. "He has a plan for me, sugar, but not for you. So I said no." "But, Daddy—!" "No. I'm not leaving without you."
Last scene: (Hercules is sitting in candlelight in front of a huge platter with a only few cake crumbs on it. His posture and face are discouraged.) Delia takes his face in her hands. "You go, Daddy." He shakes his head. "What's a cake without sugar?" he asks sadly. "It's still a cake," Delia says. They look at each other for a long time, in silence, holding hands over the empty platter (one whole full panel illustration, wordless, sad.)
End notes: Hercules did escape, but Delia never found her way to freedom. She lived with Martha Washington as a slave her whole life, like .... (more information here.) End the book with a photograph of President Obama and a Delia-aged Sasha or Malia in the White House kitchen, tasting while a white chef looks on. Insert appropriate caption.
What do you think? How might you tell Hercules' and Delia's story?