update 01/17/16: Scholastic is no longer distributing this title.
The picture book, as a form, has been around for years, and has contributed to literature some of its most stunning masterpieces, in terms of both text and illustration. No one can dare deny the genius of Sendak, Kraus, Keats, Williams, or Raschka.
The picture book can do many things, and tell many stories, yet on the whole is often closer to poetry than to prose, even when a narrative is involved; with only 28 to 30 pages for actual story, the best picture books include meaning and poetry with their covers, end papers, and even in dedications and author’s notes.
The realm of picture books is vast; it contains multitudes. Yet, how much can these slim volumes be expected to reveal and share? Can every story be told well and accurately (and by accurately I include emotional as well as factual or historical accuracy) within the constraints of the form? Just as a poet knows when to use a sonnet, villanelle, or haiku, should an author know when to choose between a picture book, a chapter book, or a biography?
I ponder these questions because of a new title that is generating a lot of discussion, A Birthday Cake for George Washington. I have not had a chance to review this book myself, so I am only going on reviews and descriptions– there has been much written on it already, including essays by both its author and editor, and a response from the publisher, wherein they sort of admit that the book might fall short of its intended aim:
Because we know that no single book will be acceptable to every reader, we offer many other books and resources that address slavery and Black history here and here.
The author, Ramin Ganeshram, certainly seems to have done an immense amount of research, yet one review notes that there are no sources cited in the actual book.
Ganeshram defends the upbeat, positive tone of the book and its cheerful (and admittedly beautiful) illustrations thusly:
Bizarrely and yes, disturbingly, there were some enslaved people who had a better quality of life than others and “close” relationships with those who enslaved them. But they were smart enough to use those “advantages” to improve their lives.
It is the historical record—not my opinion—that shows that enslaved people who received “status” positions were proud of these positions—and made use of the “perks” of those positions. It is what illustrator Vanessa Brantley-Newton calls out in her artist’s note as informing her decision to depict those in A Birthday Cake For George Washington as happy and prideful people.
This is not something I will endeavor to dispute. Slavery was an immense, complex, and shameful time in our history, and like any other grand horror, the feelings it inspires, in both those who lived through it and those who can only learn about it through other channels, including testimony, biography, and yes, even art, will not be easily or neatly categorized.
Ganeshram goes on to write:
In a modern sense, many of us don’t like to consider this, fearing that if we deviate from the narrative of constant-cruelty we diminish the horror of slavery. But if we chose to only focus on those who fit that singular viewpoint, we run the risk of erasing those, like Chef Hercules, who were remarkable, talented, and resourceful enough to use any and every skill to their own advantage.
I do not fault the author, illustrator, and editor for wanting to explore this facet of an American tragedy, or even this facet of Black history. There is a definite need for books that reflect diverse experiences. The black experience is about so much more than just slavery or the civil rights movement, and even within those historical narratives, I’m sure opinions and feelings on the situations varied widely.
But here’s the thing: just last year a textbook was published that called slaves brought over from Africa “workers.” This usage slipped past countless editors and educators, only to be caught by a boy named Coby as he read the textbook in his classroom. This term was used on a page discussing “patterns of immigration.” Now, slanting enforced capture and kidnapping as “immigration” is offensive and inaccurate, no matter how you try to slice it.
This indicates that in many ways, many children–and adults–are still not learning about or aware of the accurate history of what happened during slavery, and many (white) people in power are still deeply in denial about it:
Still, Ratliff, a Republican, found 16 other references to slavery in the geography book that he believes were accurate. He says the story of that one, problematic caption has “gotten blown out of proportion.”
Dean-Burren disagrees. She’s concerned about the words textbooks use — or don’t — to teach our nation’s rich history. Still, she’s proud of her son and the lesson he’s learned.
In this light, can we reasonably expect any picture book, no matter how well-intentioned or well-researched, to do justice to this infinitely complicated subject?
We could contrast this effort with a picture book that has been well-reviewed and well-received– Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad*.
Kirkus describes Henry’s Freedom Box thusly:
Related in measured, sonorous prose that makes a perfect match for the art, this is a story of pride and ingenuity that will leave readers profoundly moved, especially those who may have been tantalized by the entry on Brown in Virginia Hamilton’s Many Thousand Gone: African Americans from Slavery to Freedom (1993). (emphasis mine)
Ganreshram places Henry’s Freedom Box and other picture books like it in this context:
In the sadly not-so-distant past, enslaved people were often depicted in children’s literature as childlike, foolish, or happily insensible of their condition.
Counteracting the industry’s previous wrongs, recent books like Dave The Potter, Henry’s Freedom Box, and The Story of African Americans have been gorgeous, intense and…pervasively somber. These depictions lend legitimate gravitas to their subjects—but the range of human emotion and behavior is vast, and there is room in between how the literary world depicted historical African American characters [then?] and how it does now.(I think perhaps she’s missing a “then” in that sentence)
Again, not having read Ganreshram’s book, I can only surmise certain things, and it seems like she’s saying her book is an update because Hercules is aware of his condition (that condition being slavery), but is making the best of it anyway. Which is not, I suppose, a wholly untenable approach to take in a story. After all, didn’t Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl detail how she made the most of a horrific situation?
Yet– consider the formats. Anne Frank’s work was a diary, consisting of hundreds of pages, allowing her narrative, characters, and setting the time to bloom and be fully explored. The complexity of her situation is given the time and the space to develop, giving us a fuller picture of what was happening, and providing us the context required to understand her and her story.
Within the constraints of a picture book, I think Ganreshram is hard pressed to succeed in her mission, no matter how well-intentioned, and thusly Vanessa Brantley-Newton’s beautiful artwork will also suffer within the context. I just don’t think that the complexity of Hercules’ story is possible to condense into the poetry of a picture book at this moment in time.
I think those “pervasively somber” books are much more successful because they have a unified vision for the work. The story and art work in tandem, evoking the sorrow and sometimes horror of what they describe, whereas A Birthday Cake For George Washington is trying to have its cake and eat it, too, by calling Hercules a slave yet not indicating any of the darker emotions that entails, and having no tension between the art and the text.
I believe that the story of Hercules is an important one, and deserving to be told; but I don’t think that the picture book format, as versatile, diverse, and wonderful as it is, is up to the task of this complex narrative and character.
*Henry’s song inspired another picture book telling, Freedom The Song: The Story of Henry “Box” Brown. Even in 1849 it was included in a book of children’s stories: