Anti-censorship group "alarmed" by decision to pull A Birthday Cake for George Washington

Ron Charles at the Washington Post writes that Scholastic's decision to recall their children's book A Birthday Cake for George Washington is being protested by the National Coalition Against Censorship. (If you need a primer on the swirl around Birthday Cake, you should read Lisa Gold's excellent review, which we ran last week.)

“There are books that can — and should — generate controversy,” the organization said. “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.”

This is an interesting choice by the Coalition. Strictly speaking, Scholastic's decision is not "censorship." The author and illustrator of the book are more than welcome to publish the book with another press, or to self-publish it. Scholastic decided that they didn't want their name on the book. That's totally their right.

And to call the book "controversial" seriously undersells the issue. It's a historical book that misleads its readers — children — about what it was like to be a slave in the early days of America. As Gold wrote, even the author admits in the notes to the book that the supposedly happy slave she depicted ran away on Washington's birthday. Though that fact is included as an aside in the historical notes, it's nowhere to be found in the actual story. The fight against censorship is vital, but this case seems less about censorship and more about correcting a mistake.

Scholastic today released a response to the charges which tries to make that distinction:

On Monday, Scholastic replied to all fronts on this expanding battle. Saying that PEN and the NCAC “apparently did not correctly read” Scholastic’s earlier statement, the publisher sought to clarify its motives. The book was withdrawn, the publisher insists, “not in response to criticism, but entirely and purposefully because this title did not meet our publishing standards.”

Why they published Birthday Cake in the first place even though it supposedly did not meet their publishing standards, of course, is another story.