This is my review of the recently recalled picture book, A Birthday Cake For George Washington. For those who haven’t seen it and will now be unable to obtain it, here’s my page by page synopsis of the book with excerpts from the text and tiny, super low resolution thumbnails of the interior pages.
I won’t be weighing in on the recall debate in this review, mostly because I have no strong feelings about it. (Or rather, I have a few very strong feelings that go in various directions that combine to mostly cancel each other out.) I’ll just be reviewing the book as a book.
So: the first thing about this book that hits me is the illustrations, which are in a hyper cheerful style that I’m not crazy about, and that I’ve even felt at times was almost aggressively ideological. (Is it possible for an artistic style to be inherently conservative?) I once tried to watch the animated Disney movie, Pocahontas, and couldn’t get more than a couple of minutes into it due to the same effect. These are just my own feelings, of course, but strictly objectively, wasn’t this a bad choice of tones to set for a book that was certain to attract accusations of historical whitewashing? I honestly wonder if the response to the book might have been a tad less ferocious had the illustrations been less insistent in their cheerfulness.
Delving into the text, I found a reasonably interesting story told fairly well (though there’s a bit of that artificial cheeriness there, too, as well as a faint but disconcerting aroma of authoritarianism) but in the end, I was left unsatisfied. The external plot about having no sugar for the cake was all right (though a bit too easily solved) but what I wondered was: what had the internal, emotional story really been?
What it was mostly, and most successfully, was a celebration of a high achieving African American. This is a standard category that needs more instances, and this book does a good job of it, and gets bonus points from me as well for finding a particularly interesting historical figure (maybe too interesting!) in a place no one else might have thought to look.
What it’s not enough of is a story about the relationship between a father and a daughter. This is an aspect of the book that has been emphasized by some of its creators, and so I think it’s important to note that in the text, anyway, the relationship between the father and his daughter seems pretty one-sided. Although the illustrations often portray them gazing fondly at one another, and the first person narration by the daughter clearly shows her pride in her father, in the story itself, all he ever does is give her orders, just like he does to the other kitchen help. And at one point, he sort of vents his frustrations verbally in her presence, and she already understands she shouldn’t reply to him. If this was an MG or YA novel, I’d be tempted to guess its intent was to portray a workaholic, emotionally distant father and the daughter who idolized him!
Finally, what this story could have been but wasn’t at all, is a story that set this exceptional case against the backdrop of the evil that surrounded it, rightly celebrating the uniqueness of the situation without losing sight of the larger context. Using that unique story, in fact, as a gateway into the larger context. Which is what most of the fuss has been about, of course, and so I’ll leave it there, except to say that I firmly believe it is the job of us writers to eventually tell ALL the stories, no matter how problematic they might be and whether or not a publisher will print them, that this was a noble (and brave!) first attempt at Hercules the chef, and that I look forward to the next attempt.