Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The First Banned Book of 2016

A Birthday Cake for George Washington

Hardcover: 32 pages
Publisher: Scholastic Press ()
ISBN-13: 978-0545538237
Some third-party sellers are still selling it on Amazon

Banning Books is Back in Style

First of all, I have not seen or read the book in question. All I know is based on reading news reports and looking at the book's product page on Amazon. And what I see is a lot of one star reviews from people who have not read the book, but are offended by the subject treatment - to wit, that the book depicts slaves smiling as they go about their work. And I can understand feeling that that may be insensitive, or unsuitable for children. Scholastic, which initially defended the book, bowed to public pressure and pulled the book from distribution. This makes me sad.

I don't have an opinion on the book itself. From what I have heard, the book does contain historically accurate notes on the actual characters in the book, most notably Hercules, who was George Washington's chef and a slave. This is actually the first time I heard of Hercules, and I did some online reading about his life, and he is an interesting person - from what I've read, he was a talented chef who took pride in his work, in his appearance, and who also longed for freedom, eventually escaping from Mount Vernon.

Now some parents might feel that the whole topic of slavery in early American history is too hard to tackle in a picture book. Others might feel that the topic is ok, but this particular book is not a good treatment of it. But then maybe there are some parents who might feel that this book might actually be a good way for their kids to gain empathy into the lives of slaves. Maybe it opens a discussion that educates the child. But now this hypothetical last group of parents don't have that choice anymore, do they? Because all books must be pre-judged before being published. Publishers may not offer any books that might challenge or offend any of the reading public.

As a parent, I understand the impulse to demand that my children not be exposed to vile books. Once, when my kids were still in grade school, but being voracious readers, consuming thick Young Adult books, I came across a book in our public library that alarmed me. It was a YA book, with a medal of some award on it, and an attractive fairy-tale like cover that I knew would intrigue my kids. So I skimmed the book. In the first few chapters, I read about a young girl being raped by a bear, and there was just more abuse and horror to follow. I wrote to the librarian. This book does not seem appropriate for children or even teens, I said. Can't it at least have some kind of warning on it? The librarian patiently pointed out to me that that would amount to censorship. After I had given it some thought, I realized the librarian was right. The responsibility for making sure that my kids were reading age-appropriate books fell to me, the parent, not the library, or the publisher, or anyone else. (I will admit that after that I was specially vigilant of books with awards.)

If you are a reader of any kind, and really hate a book, write an honest review. Bash it if you must. But please think twice about demanding it not be printed. Banning books is not the answer.

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