Hot in the news today is the story of the Jan. 2016 release of children's book "A Birthday Cake for George Washington" by author Ramin Ganeshram. Typical to the genre, it features gorgeous illustrations and a story about a subject as benign as a father and daughter baking a birthday cake. Not so harmless is the fact that said family are slaves to founding-father George Washington. It's getting terrible reviews, being largely criticized as insensitive to the truths of slavery, and was pulled by Scholastic Books.
Compare that with last Jan. 2015 release of "A Fine Dessert: Four Centuries, Four Families, One Delicious Treat" by Emily Jenkins. Beautiful illustrations by Sophie Blackall tell the story of a family recipe which had its origins from an ancestor who was a slave, the dessert then passed down to modern time. The reviews for Jenkins' book are very high, receiving high praise from such sources as School Library Journal and Kirkus Reviews.
What accounts for the difference in the story's receptions?
Much of the criticism of the "A Birthday Cake" rises from insensitive treatment of the subject of slavery. At one point, the slave Hercules seems to be proud of his enslavement when he defers praise from Washington and instead replies that it has been his honor. Only one example of dialogue that may mislead reader's about the horrors of slavery, the book seems to have been attempting to show that in the dark and depressing world of a slave it was still possible to rise above the conflict and feel purpose and pride in one's work. It failed and instead seems to justify the practice by showing that it wasn't so bad to be a slave as long as you were Washington's slave.
"A Fine Dessert" avoids the perils of justification and instead weaves a tale showing that something good came out of something very bad.
In my opinion, Ganeshram liked the idea of a parent sharing a recipe with their child, a story that was well liked and sold many, many copies (it was a New York Times Best Illustrated Book) and attempted to apply that format to her own kind-of-original idea. I'm not saying she stole the idea, but the similarities are too stark to ignore.
The victory for children's book authors world-wide is the fact that these picture books, though simple in text and pretty to look at, they still carry power. Every news outlet covered this story today. Maybe it was only because of the mishandling of a sensitive topic, but the truth of the matter is that on this day, a children's book ruled the media.