book review: A Birthday Cake for George Washington

Title: A Birthday Cake for George Washington
Author: Ramin Ganeshram; Vanessa Brantley-Newton
Date: Scholastic, 2016
Narrator: Delia

George Washington and the people he enslaved may receive more attention than any other facet of slavery in the United States. Whether due to the documents that were well maintained by his estate or because some people let the fact that this Founding Father owned enslaved humans give them some sort of validation, we find numerous books and documentaries relating to George Washington and the people he owned.

A Birthday Cake for George Washington by Ramin Ganeshram and Vanessa Brantly-Newton is IMG_1063the story of Hercules, the first White House chef, while he is in the midst of preparing a birthday cake for George Washington’s birthday. Things go awry when he realizes there is no sugar in the cupboard. “Not brown, not cake nor fine.” The story meanders to build a background for this chef, who eventually realizes that he can indeed bake the cake without sugar. The story is narrated by his daughter, Delia, who is often accompanied by a young boy who appears quite comical throughout the text and we later find out he is the Kitchen Boy. The children’s roles in the kitchen aren’t quite clear; they seem happy being there.

We’re eight pages into the story when we realize that Hercules is a “slave”. I have to use quotes here because this is the word Ganeshram chooses to use and I think it works against her. Up to this point (and even beyond) the book’s illustrator, Brantley-Newton surrounds Hercules with people physically looking up to him and with much admiration. After stating that Hercules is a “slave”, Ganeshram goes on to describe the clothes he wears, what type of entertainment he chooses and the time he spends walking in the streets, often alongside free Blacks. But, we never find out what it means that he’s a “slave”. Ganeshram elevates Hercules to such a prominent level, but never explains that he is outstanding for doing these things because he’s a “slave”. She builds him up, showing us a fully developed human being who is enslaved, but never develops that condition. His life was not just like a free white person of that era, but readers have no reason to understand that. Ample documentation exists to support how demanding Washington was of the Whites, indentured servants and enslaved Blacks who worked for him and of his unyielding demands to get his money’s worth from the slaves he owned (Hirschfeld, 1997, Wiencek, 2003) . Both he and his wife came from the aristocratic class and were used to manage slaves (Bryan, 2002). Knowing this makes it difficult to accept that Hercules managed his kitchen (including white chefs who worked for him) but he did. There would really be a story to tell if the terms of this enslavement were more fully developed.

Brantley-Newton in her Artist’s Note states “While slavery in America was a vast injustice, my research indicates that Hercules and the other servants in George Washington’s kitchen took great pride in their ability to cook for a man of such stature. That is why I have depicted them as happy people. There is joy in what they have created through their intelligence and culinary talent.” We’re talking about people in the 18th IMG_1064-1century who had no corner grocery store, no electricity and no running water. We’re talking about people who were the servants who had to grind the wheat, make the candles and stoke the fires. Washington expected all his people to work from sunrise to sunset. The closer they worked in proximity to him the more they would be scrutinized. The enslaved people knew that not being free meant they could be denied privileges, sent back to Mt. Vernon or sold if they were displeasing to their master. If that’s not enough to make you question smiling enslaved people, do wonder why Hercules would run away on Washington’s birthday just one year later. Fully developed humans no doubt have the capacity to grin, smile, giggle and laugh but when this image of happy enslaved people is repeatedly portrayed in children’s literature it substantiates slavery as acceptable for black people by indicating their acceptance of this situation and it thus continues to dehumanize.

The Children’s Book Council calls the book “the true story of an enslaved girl’s father who baked an unforgettable birthday cake for America’s first president.” This is not a true story, rather it is loosely based upon facts. I don’t think Ganashram herself refers to this as a true story, in fact she delivers much of the truth in her Author’s Notes. Here, in a tone inviting young readers to finish the story, she states that Hercules’ daughter never worked in the kitchen and it is here she states that Hercules ran away a year later. She doesn’t mention that Hercules was allowed to earn an income by selling kitchen scraps and that he actually never baked cakes. These particular facts don’t diminish the story Ganashram has created but they do more fully inform us about the real man.

The last image in the book, the paternalistic arm of our Founding Father around one of his


“slaves” simply adds to the myth of George Washington. I critically asked myself for whom this book is written and I think it’s written for a multitude of young readers to show them the greatness of this black man. However, this greatness is delusional because the most important part of his story is missing. Hiding these facts does indeed diminish the story. The book concludes with notes from the author and artist and a recipe from Martha Washington but, no sources are cited.



Bryan, Helen (2002). Martha Washington: First lady of liberty. Retrieved from


Hirschfeld, Fritz (1997). ( George Washington and slavery: A documentary portrayal. Retrieved from


Wiencek, Henry (2003). An imperfect God: George Washington, his slaves, and the creation of American. Retrieved from

2016 ALA Youth Media Awards

I’ve come to realize that getting a book published and to market is an award unto itself. To be honored for that accomplished is an amazing thing. I want to congratulate all the winners announced today at the ALA Youth Media Awards event and I want to particularly recognize marginalized authors for their honors.

Newbery Award for the most distinguished contribution to children’s literature in 2016

Matt de la Peńa for Last Stop on Market Street.

Newbery Honor Books

Echo by Pam Muñoz Ryan and published by Scholastic Press, an imprint of Scholastic Inc.

Caldecott Honor Books for the most distinguished picture books

Trombone Shorty illustrated by Bryan Collier and words by Troy Andrews and published by Abrams Books for Young Readers, an imprint of ABRAMS.

Voice of Freedom:  Fannie Lou Hamer, Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement illustrated by Ekua Holmes, written by Carole Boston Weatherford and published by Candlewick Press.

Wilder Award honors an author or illustrator whose books have made a substantial and lasting contribution to literature for children.

Jerry Pinkney

Edwards Award honors significant and lasting contribution to writing for teens.

David Levithan 

Coretta Scott King Awards honors outstanding African American authors and illustrators of books for children and young adults that demonstrate an appreciation of African American culture and universal human values. The annual award is presented by the Ethnic & Multicultural Information Exchange Round Table, part of the American Library Association.

Coretta Scott King–Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement.

Jerry Pinkney

Coretta Scott King Illustrator Book Award

Trombone Shorty by Bryan Collier

Honor books:

The Book Itch: Freedom, Truth & Harlem’s Greatest Bookstore illustrated by R. Gregory Christie, written by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson

Last Stop on Market Street illustrated by Christian Robinson, written by Matt de la Peńa

Coretta Scott King Author Book Award

Gone Crazy in Alabama by Rita Williams-Garcia

Honor books:

All American Boys by Jason Reynolds

The Boy in the Black Site by Jason Reynolds

X: A Novel by Kekla Magoon

Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe New Talent Author Award

Hoodoo by Roland L. Smith

Corette Scott King/John Steptoe New Talent Illustrator Award

Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer, Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement illustrated by Ekua Holmes, written by Carole Boston Weatherford

Robert R. Sibert Medal for the most distinguished informational book for children.

Duncan Tonatiuhrafa author/illustrator of Funny Bones: Posada and His Day of the Dead Calaveras

Morris Award honors a debut book published by a first-time author writing for teens and celebrating impressive new voices in young adult literature.

The Weight of Feathers by Anna-Marie McLemore.

Author Jacqueline Woodson will deliver the 2017 May Hill Arbuthnot Honor Lecture. Her selection recognizes a career contribution to children’s literature. At the same time, the lecturer “shall prepare a paper considered to be a significant contribution to the field of children’s literature”, to be delivered as the Arbuthnot Lecture and to be published in the ALSC journal Children & Libraries.

Pura Belpé honoring Latino authors and illustrators whose work best portrays, affirms and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in children’s books. The awards are administered by the ALSC and REFORMA.

Rafael López, illustrator of The Drum Dream Girl

Margarita Engle, author of Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings: A Memoir

Honor Books for Illustration

My Tata’s Remedies = Los remedios de mi tata illustrated by Antonio Castro L., written by Roni Capin Rivera-Ashford.

Mango, Abuela, and Me illustrated by Angela Dominguez, written by Meg Medina.

Funny Bones: Posada and His Day of the Dead Calaveras illustrated and written by Duncan Tonatiuh.

Honor Books for Narrative

The Smoking Mirror written by David Bowles

Mango, Abuela, and Me written by Meg Medina, illustrated by Angela Dominguez

Stonewall Awards honors books for exceptional merit relaing to the Gay/lesbian/transgender experience.

George by Alex Gino

The Porcupine of Truth by Bill Konigsberg

Alex Awards recognizes adult books with special appeal to teen readers.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

“Undocumented”: A Dominican Boy’s Odyssey from a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League by Dan-el Padilla Peralta

Click here for a complete list of winners.


Good morning!

The sky here is a beautiful shade of dull gray, creating a mild day for catching up on whatever fits the mood. I have a few general household things to do and lots and lots of reading. Last night, I switched from Netflix to Amazon and started watching “Mozart in the Jungle”. I actually stayed awake and stuck with it until 2 am! I can’t help but wonder why Netflix, Showtime, HBO and Amazon can produce such great stuff but the major television networks that exist to produce television shows seem entertain us with mediocrity. Perhaps they’re simply feeding the masses and going for the profit.

Too many schools seem to simply feed the masses and endorse mediocrity as well. Although they’re supposed to be non-profit they generate a large income through sports and testing. I’m picking on them today because of the poor job they do with regards to teaching history especially when it comes to enslavement. Perhaps through trying to create an American ethos that is above reproach, our history is misrepresented. Of course it’s not only the teaching of enslavement. We’re rarely taught that about the Zoot Suit Riots, that the first Africans to visit America were explorers, that Chinese explorers reached the Americas before the Europeans or even that Native Americans are still alive and thriving while still fighting for their rights. The leaders of the free world can’t talk aloud about these things.

But, enslavement is on the chopping back today because its presence in children’s books has us still debating when the topic should be introduced to children and how much they should be told; how much should be sugar coated. History is an all or none proposition: once we change the his-stories to be more palatable, we’re not telling the truth. All or none, my friends. All or none.

I have to wonder why there have been so many picture books published on enslaved people and so few for middle grade and young adult readers. When I think of the story of Hercules (the subject of the recent A Birthday Cake for George Washington by Ramin Ganeshram and Vanessa Brantley-Newton) and all the documents that exist about his life and times, I

wonder why the book wasn’t written for an older audience. I look at the works of nonfiction authors like Tonya Bolden, Tanya Stone, Steve Sheinkin, Phillip Hoose and Marc Aronson and wonder why more authors don’t fully expand their stories for an older audience. Besides, I thought nonfiction was the new black.

I haven’t read Birthday Cake, but was called into the fray when Vicky Smith made reference to my wondering whether an African American would have written A Fine Dessert: Four Centuries, Four Families, One Delicious Treat. dessertGaneshram was born to a Trinidadian father and an Iranian mother. While Trinidadians did experience enslavement, her cultural memory is not the same as that of African American. It’s every bit as valid, but it’s not one of reconstruction, the Civil Rights Movement, Red Summer or Harlem Renaissance.

In a recent blog post, Andrea Davis Pinkney, the book’s editor, states that the “two books are vastly different” and she’s quite correct. While Birthday Cake contains a snippet of enslavement in a larger story, Birthday Cake is a story of enslavement. But, there’s more.

Set in the 1810, Fine Dessert is story of antebellum slavery in the tidewater region, the time and place that contains some of the stereotypes of this peculiar institution. It was a slave society, where Blacks were seen as “slaves” or as objects rather than humans. Hercules, born around 1755 lived in the Chesapeake region during the Colonial era. He could have cake
walked the streets with free blacks, maintained a garden, earned his own money and bought his or his family’s freedom. His privileged position as a head chef would have gained him much scrutiny and little margin for error. While slave codes had not yet been enacted, there was still a clear line between those where free and those who were not.

These two books contain the possibility of opening a real dialog about the practice of enslavement, even about the use of the term ‘slavery’ vs. ‘enslavement’ because it is so easy to see Hercules as a fully realized human being who was enslaved.

As my brief comparison of these books shows, I do have hope that we can consistently develop accurate representations of all American history in children’s literature. Yes, enslavement is American history. Still, I have to quite sounding so final when I end my posts like I did when I boldly stated an African American would never have written Fine Dessert although I do still have my opinion. I have to realize that while African Americans have learned behaviors through oppression in this country, they attend the same schools as European Americans and mis-learn the same history. Mediocrity is a bitch, isn’t it?

I’ve not yet read Birthday Cake and hope I can give it a positive review, as I hope with all the books I read. I will post a review soon.

This isn’t quite where I expected this post to go! It’s ALA Midwinter weekend! SLJ just forecast 2016 in Kidlit! We’re working on the Summer Reading list!! Well, I guess I’ll just have to post again soon. I know I’ll be giving a special shout out to marginalized authors at the Media Awards tomorrow.

Here’s hoping your week is more than mediocre.

January Releases

Vanessa’s Fashion Face-Off (Confidentially Yours) by Jo Whittemore;HarperCollins
Perfect for fans of The Cupcake Diaries and The Babysitters Club, this new series is about four best friends who are confidentially yours when writing their middle school newspaper’s advice column.

Vanessa Jackson has style to spare and an amazing ability to rock any look. She’s always had a flair for fashion, and dreams of being a designer one day. She’s loving middle school, and being on the newspaper staff with her two best friends is a blast. Vanessa knows her fashion advice is always on point for the group’s popular advice column.

But then she meets her new neighbor, Katie Kestler. Katie is cute, super-stylish, and just moved from glamorous LA. When Katie ends up attending the same middle school, suddenly it seems like Katie’s everywhere, and not in a good way. But when an advice-off competition threatens Vanessa’s spot on the column, she’s determined to take Katie down. (ages 8-12)

American Ace by Marilyn Nelson; Dial Books
Connor’s grandmother leaves his dad a letter when she dies, and the letter’s confession shakes their tight-knit Italian-American family: The man who raised Dad is not his birth father.

But the only clues to this birth father’s identity are a class ring and a pair of pilot’s wings. And so Connor takes it upon himself to investigate—a pursuit that becomes even more pressing when Dad is hospitalized after a stroke. What Connor discovers will lead him and his father to a new, richer understanding of race, identity, and each other.

Cleo Edison Oliver, Playground Millionaire by Sundee T. Frasier; Arthur A. Levine
Cleopatra Edison Oliver has always been an entrepreneur, just like her inspiration, successful businesswoman Fortune A. Davies. So when Cleo’s fifth-grade teacher assigns her class a “Passion Project,” Cleo comes up with her best business idea yet: the finest “tooth-pulling” company in town. With the help of her best friend Caylee, a Nerf gun, her dad’s tablet, and her patented Persuasion Power, Cleo’s Quick and Painless Tooth Removal Service starts to take off.

But even the best made plans, by the best CEOs, go awry sometimes. A minor barfing incident during a tooth-pulling operation causes Cleo to lose customers. Caylee, initially enthusiastic about the business, grows distant as Cleo neglects their friendship in lieu of getting more customers. And when a mean classmate makes fun of Cleo for being adopted, everything comes crashing down. Will she be able to rescue her business, salvage her friendship with Caylee, and discover that her true home has been here all along? (ages 8-12)

To Catch a Cheat by Varian Johnson; Scholastic
When a video frames Jackson Greene and his friends for a crime they didn’t commit, Gang Greene battles the blackmailers in this sequel to the acclaimed The Great Greene Heist.

Jackson Greene is riding high. He is officially retired from conning, so Principal Kelsey is (mostly) off his back. His friends have great new projects of their own. And he’s been hanging out a lot with Gaby de la Cruz, so he thinks maybe, just maybe, they’ll soon have their first kiss.

Then Jackson receives a link to a faked security video that seems to show him and the rest of Gang Greene flooding the school gym. The jerks behind the video threaten to pass it to the principal — unless Jackson steals an advance copy of the school’s toughest exam.

So Gang Greene reunites for their biggest job yet. To get the test adn clear their names, they’ll have to outrun the school’s security cameras, outwit a nosy member of the Honor Board, and outmaneuver the blackmailers while setting a trap for them in turn. And as they execute another exciting caper full of twists and turns, they’ll prove that sometimes it takes a thief to catch a cheat. (ages 8-12)

The Memory of Light by Francisco X. Stork; Scholastic
When Vicky Cruz wakes up in the Lakeview Hospital Mental Disorders ward, she knows one thing: After her suicide attempt, she shouldn’t be alive. But then she meets Mona, the live wire; Gabriel, the saint; E.M., always angry; and Dr. Desai, a quiet force. With stories and honesty, kindness and hard work, they push her to reconsider her life before Lakeview, and offer her an acceptance she’s never had.

But Vicky’s newfound peace is as fragile as the roses that grow around the hospital. And when a crisis forces the group to split up, sending Vick back to the life that drove her to suicide, she must try to find her own courage and strength. She may not have them. She doesn’t know.

Inspired in part by the author’s own experience with depression, The Memory of Light is the rare young adult novel that focuses not on the events leading up to a suicide attempt, but the recovery from one — about living when life doesn’t seem worth it, and how we go on anyway. (12 and up)

Debut MG & YA Authors of Color 2016

The following authors of color are among those who will debut middle grade or young adult fiction in 2016.  I believe this list contains two males, two people of African descent, four Latinxs and no Native Americans. The last debut Native American author I can remember is Eric Gansworth in 2013.

It’s dicey judging ethnicity on names and appearances and it’s dicey judging ethnicity when Native Americans and people of color really are all in this together. I do take note of how representation evolves in kidlit and what groups may not be getting as much representation.

I’ve done all I can to the list, but I’m hoping it’s not done. I’m hoping to hear of lots of wonderful new authors I’ve missed.

I wish you all exciting and prosperous careers!

Roshani Chokshi: The Star Touched Queen (MacMillan/St. Martin’s Griffin) Spring/Summer
Twitter: @NotRashKnee

Traci Chee: The Reader (Putnam/Penguin)
Twitter: @tracichee

Aya de Leon: Uptown Thief (Kensington Books) July
Twitter: @ayadeleon

Alexandra Diaz: Of All Stupid Things (Paper Lantern Lit) September
Twitter: @alexandratdiaz

Sarah Everett: EveryOne We’ve Been (Random House/Knopf)
Twitter: @heysaraheverett

Mia Garcia: Even if the Sky Falls (HarperCollins/Katherine Tegen Books) 10 May

Heidi Heilig: The Girl From Everywhere (Greenwillow Books) February
Twitter: @heidiheilig

Ava Jae: Beyond the Red (Six Pony Press) March
Twitter: @Ava_Jae

Rahul Kanakia: Enter Title Here (Disney Hyperion)
Twitter: @rahkan

Aditi Khorana: Mirror in the Sky (Razorbill)
Twitter: @aditi_khorana

Julie Leung: Mice of the Round Table (HarpersChildren) Fall
Twitter: @jleungbooks

Celeste Lim: The Bride from Huanan (Scholastic Press) Spring
Twitter: @veryCeleste

Bethany Morrow: The Last Life of  Avrilis (Month 9 Books) 2016
Twitter: @BCMorrow

Jenn Nguyen : The Way To Game The Walk Of Shame  (Swoon Reads/Macmillan) 7 June
Twitter: @JennP_Nguyen

Lygia Day Peñaflor: Unscripted Joss Byrd (Macmillan/Roaring Brook) 23 August
Twitter: @lygiaday

Randi Pink: TOYA ((FSG/Feiwel and Friends) Fall

Riley Redgate: Seven Ways We Lie (Abrams/Amulet) 8 March
Twitter: @RileyRedgate

Erin L. Schneider: Summer of Sloan (Disney Hyperion) May
Twitter: @ErinLSchneider1

Evelyn Skye: The Crown’s Game (Balzer+Bray) May
Twitter: @EvelynSkyeYA

Tarun Shanker: These Vicious Masks (co-authored with Kelly Zekas)  (Macmillan/Swoon Reads) February
Twitter: @tkshanker


Yes  I am dreaming of a snowy white Christmas! I love cold snowy winters!

I’ve decided to take a winter hiatus for the next couple of weeks. I’ve got work things and family and holiday and travel things coming up and I th (1)don’t think my blogging needs to be any more irregular than it is now.

I can tell you that my service on the Walter Committee is ending and I’ll be back reviewing books and interviewing authors in 2016. I’ll still be on Facebook and Twitter, but I really doubt as much as I have been.

Tuesday 12 January will be the next #LargeFears TwitterChat at 7:00pm EST. We’ll be catching up with the debut YA authors of color from 2015. It will be hosted by Chris Ledbetter (@Chris_Ledbetter) and Stacey Lee (@staceyleeauthor). Stacey is the author of UNDER A PAINTED SKY. OUTRUN THE MOON (5/16) Putnam/Penguin. CATCH A FALLING HEART (Fall ’16) Katherine Tegen. Chris authored DRAWN (6/15) | THE SKY THRONE (Spr. 2017).

I’m closing out my year of “diligence” and next year my word is “harmony”. I’m sure this word will have absolutely nothing to do with my lack of musical ability, but might be more along the lines of bringing me new understandings and undertakings.

I hope you’ll all be back here with me next year and I hope between now and then we’re all blessed in ways we need to be, in ways we cannot imagine and in ways that benefit us all.

I wish you lots of fun this holiday season, lots of snow and lots of good books!