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Joan E. Bertin
Executive Director

NCAC PARTICIPATING
ORGANIZATIONS
Actors Equity Association
American Association of
School Administrators
American Association of
University Professors
American Association of
University Women
American Booksellers
for Free Expression
American Civil Liberties Union
American Ethical Union
American Federation of Teachers
American Jewish Committee
American Library Association
American Literary Translators
Association
American Orthopsychiatric Association
American Society of Journalists
& Authors
Americans United for Separation of
Church & State
Association of American Publishers
Authors Guild
Catholics for Choice

January 22, 2016

Childrens Literature Association


College Art Association
Comic Book Legal Defense Fund
The Creative Coalition

A Birthday Cake for George Washington:


The Problem with Banishing Books

Directors Guild of America


Dramatists Guild of America
First Amendment Lawyers Association
International Reading Association
Lambda Legal
Modern Language Association

As organizations dedicated to protecting intellectual freedom, the freedom to


write, and the freedom to read, we are dismayed by the decision to recall the
children's book A Birthday Cake for George Washington. The publisher,
Scholastic Press, made the decision in response to sustained criticism
complaining that the book whitewashed the reality of slavery. 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.'

National Center for Science Education


National Communication Association
National Council for the Social Studies
National Council of Churches
National Council of Jewish Women
National Council of Teachers of English
National Education Association
National Youth Rights Association
The Newspaper Guild/CWA
PEN American Center

The book, written by Ramin Ganeshram and illustrated by Vanessa BrantleyNewton, tells the story of Washington's slave cook Hercules. Critics such as the
School Library Journal argued that the book presented an unrealistically sunny
portrait of slavery; the hashtag #slaverywithasmile spread a similar message. In
response, Scholastic executive editor Andrea Davis Pinkney defended the book
as the product of "carefully curated research." (We express no opinion as to the
merits of the book.)

People for the American Way


Planned Parenthood Federation
of America
Project Censored
SAG-AFTRA
Sexuality Information & Education
Council of the U.S.
Society of Childrens Book Writers
& Illustrators
Student Press Law Center
Union for Reform Judaism

Scholastic defended the book on January 15; two days later it succumbed to the
pressure and, in an act of self-censorship, pulled the book, stating that it "may
give a false impression of the reality of the lives of slaves and therefore should
be withdrawn.

Union of Democratic Intellectuals


Unitarian Universalist Association
United Church of Christ
Office of Communication
United Methodist Church
United Methodist Communications
Womens American ORT
Woodhull Sexual Freedom Alliance
Writers Guild of America, East
Writers Guild of America, West

While Scholastic was certainly within its rights to make this decision, just as the critics have a
right to express their views, the end resultremoval of the bookis troubling, as the readers
opportunity to read and evaluate the text is eliminated.
There are books that canand shouldgenerate controversy. Books and literary criticism are
vital to a thriving democracy. This latest episode follows similar criticism of A Fine Dessert,
another illustrated book for children in which slaves are the main characters. Critics argued
that it too presented an unrealistic portrait of slavery. But those who value free speech as an
essential human right and a necessary precondition for social change should be alarmed
whenever books are removed from circulation because they are controversial.
Such removals can be the product of many different political ideologies. In 2006 Vamos a
Cuba was challenged by critics who thought it presented an unrealistically positive portrayal
of life in Castro's Cuba. Several books were removed from Arizona classrooms in 2013
because some considered their message, designed to instill pride in Mexican American
students, too divisive. Books featuring lesbian, gay and transgender characters, such as I
Am Jazz and The Miseducation of Cameron Post, frequently generate controversy,
including calls for removal from schools and libraries.
While it is perfectly valid for critics to dispute a books historical accuracy and literary merit, the
appropriate response is not to withdraw the volume and deprive readers of a chance to evaluate
the book and the controversy for themselves. In the case of A Birthday Cake for George
Washington, a book is gone that generated important discussions about how our nation creates,
perceives, and perpetuates narratives about slavery and slave ownership.
Those who sought the removal of A Birthday Cake for George Washington and those who
acceded to that request should recognize that other books they might consider valuable could
be vulnerable to the same fatecensorship in the face of controversy. This outcome is likely to
have a chilling effect, leading authors and illustrators to hesitate in taking on racially sensitive or
politically controversial topics for fear of public outcry and reprisals. Pulling books out of
circulation simply because they cause controversy is the wrong decision.
National Coalition Against Censorship
PEN American Center
The First Amendment Committee, American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA)