by Jamie LaRue
Usually, we think of censorship as the formal action of a government or government official: a school principal pulls a book from the high school library, a public library board votes to remove a title from the catalog, a university fires a professor who publishes something unpopular.
A Birthday Cake for George Washington, written by Ramin Ganeshram and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton, is a little different. This one, published by Scholastic, and immediately criticized for its portrayal of smiling slaves, has been withdrawn BY SCHOLASTIC. Scholastic wrote,
“While we have great respect for the integrity and scholarship of the author, illustrator, and editor, we believe that, without more historical background on the evils of slavery than this book for younger children can provide, the book may give a false impression of the reality of the lives of slaves and therefore should be withdrawn.”
What has the author said about some of the criticisms? On Children’s Book Council Diversity site, Ganeshram writes,
“the discussion and criticism of the book has…been focused on the literal face value of the characters. How could they smile? How could they be anything but unrelentingly miserable? How could they be proud to bake a cake for George Washington? The answers to those questions are complex because human nature is complex.”
I found the rest of her comments insightful; by and large, however, the many commenters on her post did not. Indeed, one commenter wrote,
“Please with all due respect never write about black history. Please refrain from writing about slavery in any way.”
The National Coalition Against Censorship released this official statement, “While critics hailed the withdrawal of the book as a victory, it should raise serious questions about whether censorship, even when it is self-censorship, is ever a ‘win.'”
So, does the withdrawal of a book by the publisher constitute censorship? Or – to look at it another way that can also be defended — is the book’s withdrawal rather evidence of a long-overdue responsiveness to the many issues of diversity?
Incidentally, what does it mean “to withdraw” a book? While not common, it does happen. After publication, a book may turn out to have a copyright violation. According to the children’s bookseller across the street from my apartment (and these are my words, not hers), children’s books have been recalled by the publisher when they offend the target audience, although she couldn’t come up with any examples. Clearly, that isn’t the probable intention of a publisher – they hope to make money. Withdrawing a book means that the warehouses are cleared out, and the bookstores ship them back as returns. That’s a loss for the publisher in at least two ways: reputation and irrecoverable costs.
But some libraries – at this writing, Worldcat shows 44 library owners – bought it despite the less than laudatory reviews. It’s unlikely that we’ll send them back. Indeed, this book may well be of keen interest in the history of publisher responses both to a need for more diverse content, and a marketplace that spoke swiftly and sharply about the execution.
There are a host of related issues. But let’s hold those for future blogs. For now, did your library buy the book? If so, wouldn’t this be a wonderful opportunity to host a discussion about the backstory, to show the book, to use it to illuminate not just one value, but a moment in our culture when two values – freedom of expression, and sensitivity to diverse viewpoints – conflict?
Jamie LaRue is the director for ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. Connect with him @jaslar on Twitter.