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A Fuse #8 Production
Inside A Fuse #8 Production

Conversations on Martin Luther King Jr. Day: Cake, Slavery, and an Unprecedented Pull

BirthdayCakeWashingtonI think it was four or five months ago when I first saw A BIRTHDAY CAKE FOR GEORGE WASHINGTON on Edelweiss.  It was pretty much the final edition, though it could have been lacking some of the eventual backmatter.  No matter.  I have to admit my jaw was a bit on the floor.  This was all in the midst of the A FINE DESSERT brouhaha and I couldn’t help but wonder what the heck was going on over at Scholastic.  Particularly since I was a huge fan of the illustrator and editor.

Did I blog about it at the time?  I did not.  I could have but I think I just figured that clearly the book was going to be pulled before publication.  Remember, this was all coming out around the time of the NPR Codeswitch report on A FINE DESSERT.  The likelihood that a different publisher wouldn’t have noticed this parallel debate was slim.  This is also why, in spite of my first name, I am not a betting woman.  My hunches tend to be incorrect.

As it happens the book most certainly was published but the backlash wasn’t instantaneous.  In fact, last Monday I went to the page to see how it was doing.  The answer?  Lots of five star reviews.  Oodles of them.  Very few critical comments.  Goodreads was even odder.  Nobody seemed to have read it there.  I was puzzled.  I mean, this was long after Vicky Smith’s remarkable piece about the title in Kirkus. Now I had to think about whether or not I’d review it myself.  I didn’t particularly want to but by the same token it didn’t appear that the alternative point of view was up and running.  Plus I’d get to begin the review with some kind of statement about how I dislike desserts made with honey rather than sugar because they’re just too sweet.  [<—- It makes more sense if you’ve read the book]

24 hours passed and the difference was night and day.  When I went online again I discovered that suddenly people knew about this book.  And they were NOT pleased.  You can read the Amazon comments if you like.  How many of those reviewers have actually read the book?  See previous statement about not being a betting woman, but I suspect the number is not particularly large.  They were still pissed.  And some had read the Kirkus and SLJ reviews which was good.  In a new move, there’s also been a counter attack by right-wingers in support of the book.

BirthdayCakeWashingon2Articles starting coming out about the book left and right too, but one of the best, by far, was in Fusion.  I’m not convinced that the author read the book (it includes a plot description with a pretty glaring flaw) but it’s a rather perfect encapsulation of not just the debate itself but history that I simply didn’t know.  Writer Charles Pulliam-Moore dives deep into the ways in which Washington would “renew” his slaves’ Pennsylvania residencies.  He also closes with a link to George Washington and Slavery: A Documentary Portrayal by Fritz Hirschfeld that is well worth your time.

On Thursday, Scholastic had produced this statement about the book.  By Saturday, this was the new statement.  The book has been officially pulled from publication.  This was probably due in large part to the news agencies that picked up on the story in the intervening day(s).

What are we to make of all this?  Since I was surprised that it hadn’t been pulled from publication from the start, I was certainly amazed that it was after the fact.  Then I got to thinking.  Has this ever happened before that a picture book was determined by its publisher to give such “a false impression” of a historical event that it was pulled as a result?  Is there a precedent?  At times like these I wish Peter Sieruta was still amongst us.  He would have known.

This much is clear.  As we enter 2016 we’re going to see books like a republished Abraham Lincoln, with changes made to the text and images and other books that touch on similar topics in a picture book format for kids.  Books of this sort may get pulled or delayed prior to publication.  The same goes for nonfiction and fiction titles as well.  There are good lessons to take from the saga of A BIRTHDAY CAKE.  There are bad lessons too.  Let us then hope for books for our kids that know how to handle this subject with dignity, and for publishers that aren’t just automatically scared away from the topic itself for years to come.

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. There is one case that I can think of. (Debbie Reese asked me about it on Facebook yesterday.) In 2009 ANGEL GIRL as pulled by Lerner after it turned out that the “true” story of love in Buchenwald on which it was based was completely fabricated. Details here:

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      Oh, that’s right. Hm. Hadn’t considered plagiarism either, because I know a couple books have been pulled in those cases, though they tend to be on the older side. But that’s a different debate entirely, I suppose.

  2. Back again. In addition to the problems with the books themselves is the sad fact that the teaching of history doesn’t seem to be a priority these days in schools. I’m not talking about the memorizing of facts but the doing of the discipline, engaging critically with the material, thinking about the past, grappling with it. Without such intellectual tools (which kids are very capable of acquiring — they do at my school) young readers are indeed vulnerable to taking as truth whatever they read.

    • Monica:
      Wanted to share with you the terrific Writer/Historian-In-Residence that Natalie Kinsey-Warnock is doing at my son’s school this winter. Kids are looking at artifacts, at census records, at genealogy, etc. to figure out how family stories (and by extension, historical narratives) get told. I’ve been super-impressed. Here’s a link to Ms. Warnock’s school visit info. Digging into this research has led my son to ask more questions about the history and historical fiction he reads.

  3. Betsy–the 75th anniversary edition of D’Aulaire’s LINCOLN is already out. I have a copy and have one post up, right now, about the changes specific to Native people.

    And I tweeted about some (not all) of the changes to the African American content.

    On January 6, I wrote about CAKE and (as I did with DESSERT), started compiling links at the bottom of the post. I’m doing that with CAKE now, too.

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      Thank you. In cases like this it’s good to have a written record on multiple blogs of what’s being said. Too often blogs engage in the conversation without including any background on what has already been said.

  4. I’m curious what the difference was in a first reading of A Birthday Cake for George Washington (with the assumption that it would be pulled) and a first reading of A Fine Dessert (where it was initially your prediction for Caldecott winner.) Was it the conversation already surrounding A Fine Dessert that made you think the second book wouldn’t make it to press, or was there something different in your immediate responses to the two books?

    I still keep coming back to Perry Nodelman’s comment on a previous post here, about books, and criticism, and “virality”. (It seems worth stopping to mention here the people who brought Birthday Cake for George Washington to wider attention– namely librarian Edith Campbell, Teaching for Change bookstore, and Leslie Mac, a leader in the Black Lives Matter movement.)
    Perry reframed the question about which books people criticize and asked: which books do (primarily white) people in the industry defend, and how/why? I’ve been struck by the difference in public and vocal defenses for A Fine Dessert versus Birthday Cake for George Washington. (Including comments post-Caldecott announcement that the award was a “vindication” or “justice”). Food for thought, too.

  5. I have a question similar to Sarah’s. What is the difference between A Fine Dessert and Birthday Cake for George Washington? I’d assume it’s a few things, namely:

    1. Slavery is central to the latter and not the former and

    2. The latter concerns specific people.

    Are there others? Are those differences sufficient to account for the different treatment?

    (By the way, I’m a huge fan of A Fine Dessert and think the criticism is unjustified.)

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      Ah, thank you. Took the words right out of my mouth. I do feel there are differences between the two books, not least of which is the fact that one book mentions slavery alongside other storylines whereas BIRTHDAY CAKE focuses squarely on it. Using real people as the subject matter adds an entirely new layer of complexity and problems. There was also the choice of illustrations. The term “smiling slaves” was bandied about with FINE DESSERT, and I could see what folks were saying but those images pale in comparison to scenes in BIRTHDAY where slaves act giddy and starstruck because Martha Washington herself has entered their kitchen. I keep repeating it to folks, but to see these differences you really need to read both books.

      While I would say that any book of slavery can include people who show a full range of emotions (Don Tate’s POET or my personal favorite which is Nathan Hale’s THE UNDERGROUND ABDUCTOR) showing just one in a book (in this book it’s almost entirely happiness with the exception of some anxious scenes when they can’t find the sugar) is a problem.

  6. I hope that Andrea Davis Pinkney writes a memoir one day that explains her thinking about choosing this book, editing it, and then sticking by it even after the foreshocks of the A FINE DESSERT imbroglio. Foreshocks is the right word, too. Most people would have realized this book needed to be shelved pre-publication in a warehouse somewhere and used as a Scholastic in-house teachable moment. She’s so smart and experienced. She must have been involved in those discussions. Instead, we had public defenses of the book by editor, author, and illustrator, which Scholastic’s move yesterday undercut entirely.

    As a result of what we’ve seen this fall and winter, fewer and fewer writers of any color, and major publishers are going to touch any subject that could remotely be considered to be controversial, even if the creative teams has fantastic multicultural credentials. Why take the chance of a blowup? This is not to say that there won’t be children’s books about non-dominant cultures. There will be. But safety will be the watchword. It’s inevitable.

  7. Before I come back to comment later, I am trying to do some self care because this whole thing has just been nasty, I will say – please rethink the title of this post on this day.

  8. Did anyone else see Trevor Noah/Roy Wood Jr.’s insightful segment on the practice of “sprinkle a little slavery”? He was talking about movies but I think it is super applicable to our conversation too.

    Betsy, I hear a lot of people expressing fear that publishers will be too afraid to touch anything remotely controversial after this. I think that’s on us, you and me and other white people, to create a world in which narratives that sugarcoat slavery are not rewarded with favorable reviews (and money) but in which accurate, true, and nuanced stories about our country’s history are.

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      I think I see it as a danger, but clearly not something that’s necessarily going to happen. I know of publishers that are going the extra mile to make sure that their books are accurate. What I’d be most interested in is seeing whether or not the smaller pubs swoop in when the big guys get scared. OR no one will get scared at all. We honestly don’t know where this conversation will lead at this point. Maybe we’ll have a better sense in a year’s time.

      Cool link!

    • Rather than being scared away, I really hope that both of these books make publishers and writers be open to asking the harder questions before they move forward with an idea. I don’t mean to imply that either of these books were done carelessly, because it is clear they were not, and I regard the work of both editors extremely highly. But we haven’t made enough room, until very recently, in the children’s lit world, for questions like “What does it mean to tell this story in this way? What am I leaving out, and where does that leave the reader?” If we can create a better space for this kind of dialogue, I hope it will embolden book creators, not scare them off.

  9. The title of the post is ironic/sarcastic. People are sometimes a little too eager to take offense, which detracts from when they point out things that really ARE offensive.

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      Thank you (you keep saying what I’m going to say before I do!).

      Initially the post was “Let Them Eat Cake” but that didn’t really apply to the situation (Marie Antoinette = what exactly?). But considering that today is a day of true celebration, the fact that it’s also happening at the same time that this conversation is going on . . . well, there’s more than a touch of irony there.

      • Adrianne Russell says:

        Oh, please.

        This post’s title isn’t ironic, sarcastic, tongue-in-cheek, satirical, or any other kind of wink-wink, nudge-nudge justification that white people routinely deploy to give cover to their racism. Very specific choices were made with the title of this post and its timing. These initial actions, performed so callously and undoubtedly received as cultural affronts to black people, give little reassurance to readers of the quality and sincerity of your subsequent critique. If they dare to read on, those suspicions will be confirmed.

        You have clearly demonstrated that you know nothing about this day’s true meaning for the descendants of enslaved black people in the United States, the legacy of its namesake, or how to celebrate it. If you did, you would not have chosen this title.

        Your inherent racial biases, as well as your slip, is showing.

  10. Maia Cheli-Colando says:

    It’s worth reading what editor Andrea Davis Pinkney said upon release of the book — — if only to again consider how every textual moment is a mutual creation of audience and author/illustrator. I have not seen this book yet, but I do wonder how much of the response anger (especially from those who also have not seen the book) is rooted in a fear that this story will take space as “the one story”?

    Perhaps if one is coming from the *lived experience* that of course there are multiple narratives of black people and of slaves (and that any one individual person will live multiple narratives themselves), then one story that touches lightly on grief and oppression, and more directly on perseverance and play, would not necessarily represent the same threat?

    I worry about viral rage, and how it reduces our ability to think and feel beyond the fight/flight response. I also worry that, because we are terrified (reasonably so) that POC and women and other oppressed classes will only get a few measly representations in mainstream media, that we put more weight on each text than any text can handle alone?

    Again, I am not responding to this individual book, because I can’t yet — but I am responding to how viral abuse is becoming a constant dynamic in our field… and I am also wondering whether any author, editor or illustrator can live up to the needs we are asking them to fill.

  11. michael grant says:

    I haven’t been in school in quite a long time but I have kids in high school and it’s my sense that we do a very poor job of teaching history. To some degree this is about politics. We seem to be incapable of finding a line between myth-making and the donning of hair shirts. There’s a rightwing history (Heroes! Saints!) and a leftwing history (Scum! Murderers!). Everything has to be reduced to a simplistic and one-sided “good for you” lesson, regardless of which side is writing the history book.

    Then, too, there is the natural (though I believe over-emphasized) desire not to expose little kids to all the horrors of life.

    Why not try teaching the truth – or as much as we know of it? The United States carries on its conscience two great and terrible sins: slavery and the ethnic-cleansing of native Americans. Plenty of smaller sins, too, but once you’ve copped to slavery and genocide you’ve already dug the hole pretty deep. On the flip side we are also the country that proclaimed the primacy of the people, called rights “self-evident,” including, astonishingly, the right to pursue happiness, and proclaimed that all men are created equal. We didn’t exactly mean that at first, (though we definitely meant the “men” part) but we are slowly growing into it. We are a work-in-progress, one that requires citizens to contribute to moving the ball forward.

    There’s an exhibit at the Smithsonian that I have not been able to get out of my head. It’s a tiny pair of iron shackles designed to be used on children. Someone ordered those shackles from their local iron monger or blacksmith. Someone used them on a child, a toddler from the look of the vile objects. Maybe they needed a way to keep the child from running to their mother as they were dragged apart.

    I despise the fact that this book has been pulled, I don’t like the Orwellian tendency to want to disappear inconvenient books. But you cannot have seen those shackles, and thought about the enormity of the evil they represent, and not feel compelled to show a more complete view of what slavery meant. I don’t think every kid book author who touches on history needs to be a historian – I’ve got an alt history coming out and God knows I’m no historian. But we should make an effort to get our heads around at least the emotional truths of what we’re writing about, and try our best to convey that.

    I am absolutely confident that slaves did smile and laugh and even dance. I imagine there were people in Dachau who managed as well to find some tiny shred of joy to hold onto. Humans have amazing powers of resilience. I don’t believe history demands we show every slave bleeding from the lash, but context is vital. So show a laughing slave, but show as well the whip and the chain and the shackles. Show a person smiling in Dachau if that works in the story, but not unless you also show the showers and the ovens. A smile in the face of horror is an act of courage; the same smile deprived of context is a very different thing.

    It may be that there’s no way to do slavery in a picture book aimed so young. I don’t believe that but, then again, I’m not known for taking it easy on readers, and your mileage may vary. But IF we are to show slavery to young kids, it has to be in context, otherwise we are filling their little heads full of bull–it that is very hard to remove later in life.

  12. So many of the news articles I’ve seen are based solely upon the Scholastic press release.Two sources I’d recommend for a much more detailed background would be Ebony Elizabeth Thomas’ Storify and the Salon article by Paula Young Lee.

  13. Leonard Kim says:

    I can’t legitimately comment on this, because I likely will not get an opportunity to read the book, and that is frustrating. It’s hard for me applaud the pulling of a book. I can support a diversity movement that creates opportunities for under-represented artists and authors. It’s hard to have sympathy for the putting of conditions on that.

    Unless I get an opportunity to read the book, I can only say in general terms that the type of slave experience that is apparently depicted in this book is part of history too. Frederick Douglass, in an autobiography, describes it. And Douglass models how we could discuss it with our children, rather than suppressing it.

    “These servants constituted a sort of black aristocracy. They resembled the field hands in nothing except their color, and in this they held the advantage of a velvet-like glossiness, rich and beautiful. The hair, too, showed the same advantage. The delicately-formed colored maid rustled in the scarcely-worn silk of her young mistress, while the servant men were equally well attired from the overflowing wardrobe of their young masters, so that in dress, as well as in form and feature, in manner and speech, in tastes and habits, the distance between these favored few and the sorrow and hunger-smitten multitudes of the quarter and the field was immense. . . .

    Viewed from Col. Lloyd’s table, who could have said that his slaves were not well clad and well cared for? Who would have said they did not glory in being the slaves of such a master? Who but a fanatic could have seen any cause for sympathy for either master or slave?”

    (I read this in a book, but here is an on-line link.)

    My children were educated very early on, at home and at school, that slavery is an unmitigated evil. But as they mature, without books like this, how do we help them with Douglass’ questions? Why was it tolerated? Isn’t suffering, violence, and inhumanity obvious? What does that say about being aware of such things today?

    Assuming this book is as described, why not use it to illustrate these questions?

    • Daniel José Older says:

      Interestingly, Douglass answers those questions himself in the very next line of the same paragraph:

      “Who but a fanatic could have seen any cause for sympathy for either master or slave? Alas, this immense wealth, this gilded splendor, this profusion of luxury, this exemption from toil. this life of ease, this sea of plenty were not the pearly gates they seemed to a world of happiness and sweet content to be. The poor slave, on his hard pine plank, scantily covered with his thin blanket, slept more soundly than the feverish voluptuary who reclined upon his downy pillow. Food to the indolent is poison, not sustenance. Lurking beneath the rich and tempting viands were invisible spirits of evil, which filled the self-deluded gormandizer with aches and pains, passions uncontrollable, fierce tempers, dyspepsia, rheumatism, lumbago, and gout, and of these the Lloyds had a full share.”

      And to answer your question: “Assuming this book is as described, why not use it to illustrate these questions?” Because the section which you didn’t quote is not depicted in the book. Douglass himself refused to be photographed with a smile on, specifically because he didn’t want to perpetuate the myth of the “the Happy Slave.”

  14. I think people either underestimate – or overestimate – their readers with statements like this (from the Slate article): “The trouble is that readers who have never considered slavery from the slave’s point of view will tend to interpret those smiles as benign, irrespective of whether the illustrator intended them as smiles of mother-daughter love, or smiles of pleasure at a job well done.”

    I have read this book to many classes and never has a child or teacher pointed out or objected to the smiles on the slaves’ faces. I doubt they even noticed them. They were too busy noticing how technology has made our lives immeasurably easier, comparing it to their experiences baking with their parents, being fascinated by the fact that Blackall painted the endpapers with actual blackberry juice, and just enjoying the story. And I don’t think there was any subliminal or subconscious negative effect either, although of course I can’t prove that.

    I think Maia is right to say we can’t put the responsibility of explaining the horrors of slavery on this one book, or any one book.

    And there is something to age-appropriate explanations. My (Jewish) children first knew that during the Holocaust the Nazis were “mean” to the Jews, then that they hurt them, then that they killed many. They have no idea how many, or the gruesome way many were killed. They don’t know about mass graves or Mengele’s medical experiments. And at 10 and 8, they don’t need to. It’s our job at this age to lay the groundwork, not to terrify our children.

    • Speaking my mind says:

      It’s also our job not to add to a narrative that minimizes or even erases slavery from history.

      Ms. Bird, I second the request to rethink your post’s title. It may be intended to be ironic, but it’s coming off as making light of a grave problem. As you are a white person, that’s not a good look.

    • Were the children supposed to question or object to the reading material presented in class? Was it the child’s responsibility? Maybe the teacher could have been expected to speak up, but surely not while you were so generously giving your time to give a reading. When a trusted source presents reading material, most children and teachers will accept that the material as sound.

      I want to share a different perspective on these books.

      As a black woman who experienced life in the segregated south, I am appalled by the very idea of “Happy Slaves” and “Benevolent Slave Masters”.

      Although we were a far cry from slavery, I assure you that life was frequently ugly and mean for black children.

      I recall standing behind the white line at the back of the bus even though I could see vacant seats in the white section. I knew to pay attention to the “white only” signs, because a mistake could be costly for me, as a child, and for my parents.

      And even with that life experience to draw from, I cannot imagine life under slavery. Even for a house slave, the threats to one’s safety and the safety of loved ones would have been a constant companion. As property rather than people, slaves were unable to defend themselves or their children. They were unable to say no to any white person under any circumstances. I can only imagine the indignities slaves endured and the adaptive behavior it took to survive.

      Why this seems so difficult for so many from the majority culture to grasp, I cannot fathom. But I would like to say that for me and many others, our objections to these books goes far deeper than a desire to pile on to the latest electronic “rage”.

  15. There is not a person among us denying that slaves likely did *smile* at moments in their lives, that they hugged their children and loved them and found babies doing cute things to be adorable. Of course there have always been moments of humanity in even the darkest times of history.

    That’s not the point.

    The point is that you don’t get to start a person’s journey into history with *fake* nuance and later go, “but remember, it was actually super duper sucky and it was just occasionally that people found a moment to breathe and smile and rest.” You can’t do that when you just fed that person years’ worth of books with smiling slaves and benevolent masters and low-key whippings. America’s racial history is incredibly nuanced and complicated, but it does no one any good to start things off nice and pretty. You start things off with “slavery was absolutely and categorically awful with nothing good about it.” You get that through people’s heads. THEN, as readers mature and become more sophisticated readers and learners, you bring in the nuance. But if you start teaching people about unfathomably inhumane things on nice, marshmallowy terms, they will never fully grasp the depth of the awful when you try to present it to them later.

    I hate pulling the gatekeeper card here, but we do children a grave disservice by switching the order of things, as proponents of these books are arguing we should. We turn white children into Darren Wilsons by telling them first that slavery is fluffy and THEN trying to convince them that actually it was kind of terrible. We tell black children that they don’t have a right to a painful cultural memory that 100% to this day shapes how they live and grow up in the United States.

    Nobody has a right to claim that discussing the true nature of slavery with children is too uncomfortable for them to bother. You must. Because it’s the truth.

    And again, while I hate colonizing children and being gatekeeper-y, it’s kind of necessary here: you aren’t owed nuance until after you understand the basics. And books like these, that present happy-go-lucky moments of slavery – EVEN IF they are based on true but incidental occurrences – don’t have nuance. They just have the happy-go-lucky and assume that young readers already know the severity of slavery and can figure out that this is a less common occurrence. And those readers do NOT know that, because all they’ve been fed is books that present the deviation, not the norm. Seasoned, sophisticated readers are owed stories like this one about Washington’s relationship with his slave, because they are the ones equipped to understand how fascinating, how abnormal, how impossible-seeming, how problematic, etc it is. New readers and new historians lack that context, and being given books like these as their first forays into history make pleasantries their reference point for slavery as a result. You direct their entire future as students, as historians, and as people as based on these false contexts.

    tl;dr: You can’t expect new readers to get a book like this and automatically understand that it’s not a representation of the day-to-day experience of being a slave. So you don’t get to give new readers a book like this, period.

  16. Erin Murphy says:

    There are a lot of people, here and on Twitter, expressing pain and outrage over the title of this post. Perhaps it’s worth asking why it’s offensive? When we hear these kinds of objections and dismiss them without asking for more information, we don’t learn how others’ viewpoints might be different than our own.

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      Well put. I’d rather the title of the post not distract from the content and the conversation in the comment section, certainly. I don’t mind changing it. I certainly apologize if it offended anyone. That was not my intent.

      • Elizabeth Bird says:

        By the way, if there are going to be Twitter conversations then it doesn’t take much to include me. I’m @FuseEight. It’s at the end of this blog. Talk to me personally. Obviously if folks prefer to yell at me, that’s fine, but it doesn’t do much good if I don’t hear it.

    • I expressed my concern here at noon with my real name and everything and all that happened is that 1. no one responded to me directly and 2. right underneath me a convo between with an anon person was had about how it was ironic, how people get too “offended” about things that aren’t REALLY offensive. That’s it. So … I guess it felt like people weren’t being heard. I certainly felt that way.

      • Elizabeth Bird says:

        Well, you were right.

      • Well, being right wasn’t really my goal? I just wanted to point out that someone had commented here that the title was problematic, so it wasn’t all off-site chatter before Erin’s comment. It was just jarring title to see much less to then have an anon tell me I was offended by the wrong thing and I should save my outrage up. That kind of thing doesn’t contribute to dialogue and just made some people feel more distanced from the convo.

        Thank you for taking the steps to change the title.

  17. Anonymous says:

    Man, I hated the pictures in that book. And I wasn’t necessarily thrilled with the title of Betsy’s blog post. But I hate even more that we apparently are reaching the point where the public believes it is entitled to be the editor. It happened with public pressure leading the book to be withdrawn, and it happened right here with Betsy’s column title.

    It is not a big step from the public as editor to the government as editor. Go ahead, world. Offend me and my children in writing and art. We can put up with it, talk about it in church, at school drop-off, on Facebook, at the kitchen table, and in forums like this so graciously provided by Betsy and SLJ.

    • This kind of comment always baffles me. BECAUSE we live in a free society, Betsy has the ability and the right to change her mind and act on it. We need to be able to correct ourselves without being accused of self-censorship if anyone is ever to make any progress.

  18. I haven’t yet read this book. Hopefully, I get to before my library pulls it. I don’t believe in censorship which is what this is. believe there’s room for all stories however nuanced or not. If we want diverse books we have to allow for a variety of stories and voices. It’s also important to keep in mind the intended audience for books. What is the best way to explain the horrors of something in age-appropriate way to young children? I don’t know and the answer would vary from person to person anyway, but doesn’t the understanding have to start with the introduction that the horror even existed? I don’t think it’s necessary that young children understand all the horrors that was slavery. I think it’s enough to begin the awareness with the idea that long ago in America there used to be people who were slaves. It’s unfair to expect a picture book to do more than that. Historical picture books are never telling the whole story and they can’t. They are a jumping off point for larger discussions and teachable moments.

    • Censorship requires the power to act. None of the readers who spoke out against A Fine Dessert or A Birthday Cake for George Washington had the power to censor the books. What people did here with regard to the title of the post and with the publishers of those books was to make an appeal. To ask those who had the power and authority to take a second look. And in doing so, each writer presented a case that explained why a change should be made. Each challenged the belief that the words and images used caused no harm to others. If any change was made as a result of those appeals, it was entirely due to the ability of those in power to hear a new perspective and not censorship.

      • Perhaps, then, there being no Grand Censor – if there ever was – there can be no such thing as censorship.

      • Agreed. In this case it’s Scholastic doing the censoring. I don’t believe any person, group or entity should get to decide for everyone else what they can or can’t read. I fully support people using their voice and speaking out but once a book is published it’s up to each individual to make their own choice about reading it and form their own opinion. Scholastic took that choice away.

      • This book is no great loss, for sure. Nor would most other books be. But neither is there anything to be gained by pretending that the people who quashed it were not wielding a great deal of power.

  19. I don’t see why so many of all colors and ethnicity are cheering what is actually a hegemonic dominance of Scholastic against that rarest of rarities: an all-female, all people-of-color picture book editorial team at a major, Big Six publisher.

    The author, illustrator, and editor worked their butts off on this book. They had something to say, and they said it. When the firestorm broke, each issued statements saying that they stood by their work. There was no Emily Jenkins post-hoc mea culpa, like with A FINE DESSERT. The A BIRTHDAY CAKE FOR GEORGE WASHINGTON TEAM, all female and all non-white, was willing to stand by what they wrote, drew, and edited.

    What kind of victory is it when their publisher shuts those voices down in the most final way possible? What does it is say about those who would run roughshod over the artistic expression of these women because those folks have a major issue with the artwork and story? So do I. So do a lot of others.

    ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,’ — Beatrice Evelyn Hall

    • I would say that you have the right to say or write whatever you please. And when you offend people with your words – you should expect them to say so loudly and clearly.That is what happened.

      Any adult who wishes to find a copy of A Birthday Cake can go to Amazon’s site. A third party seller has copies for sale. Who I hope won’t be reading this book are children who have little input into what goes on the shelves at their libraries and what is assigned in class.

      And let’s remember that A Fine Dessert has not been pulled, and it had just as passionate and public an outcry. So it seems disingenuous to say that a public outcry alone, has the power to remove a book. This is a rare occurrence in the publishing world. Why Scholastic chose this action remains an unclear.

      Lastly, the fact that people of color were complicit in the birth of A Birthday Cake for George Washington does not make it one iota less offensiveness. The “Happy Slave & Benevolent Master” myth is and will always be offensive. This book was not published for POC, it was published for the same reason all books are. The publisher expected to turn a profit. And in this instance all of the parties were aware of the public criticism of A Fine Dessert. The editor acknowledged this in a statement prior to the book’s release.

      POC should never be grateful for inclusion. We should have the same expectation that when an author or editor from a marginalized group has a publishable project that it will be published. We should expect that POC are included in creative teams. This is not a favor. And we should, as readers, hold them to the same standards as any other publishing professional.

  20. Anonymous says:

    In the world of picture books, is slavery best presented as an institution safely in the past, or would a hard, unvarnished picture book about contemporary slavery be welcome?

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      There have been a few but they tend to be YA. Unless they concentrate on someone like Iqbal, of course. Then you occasionally get a picture book version of their life (Jeanette Winter did one not too long ago).

  21. Jonah Winter says:

    Anyone who would call out Betsy Bird as a racist because of an arguably misguided original title to her post needs to pull his or her head out of his or her ass. People, we’ve got bigger fish to fry than this. There is a presidential candidate (who has an increasingly good chance of getting elected) fanning the flames of massive racism in a country which has always seemed to inspire and promote rampant racism. And you, whoever you are, are picking on Ms. Bird? You are picking on Andrea Davis Pinkney, who has devoted her LIFE — her fucking LIFE — to books which promote the dignity of African Americans and the importance of African American history? What is wrong with you?! Have you no shame? And to everyone else who is pussy-footing around this ridiculousness, wake up! This is all nonsense! If you don’t like a particular book, or you feel that it is offensive, fine. But don’t turn this into some sort of PC fatwa against people who are, for all practical purposes, intrinsically and extrinsically, your allies in combatting racism and stupidity (and that would include Andrea Davis Pinkney, near the top of the list). To try to destroy Betsy Bird, Andrea Davis Pinkney, Anne Schwartz — or any author, illustrator or person who does not meet with your apparently extremely high standards of political correctness — is nothing more or less than political cannibalism. To quote Sinead O’Connor: “FIGHT THE REAL ENEMY!”

    • *slow, appreciative clap*

      And a Sinead quote at that. Yaaassss.

      This has become more than a little insane – especially when people started going after Andrea Davis Pinkney. My god – ANDREA. DAVIS. PINKNEY. As if she is part of the problem. Jeez Louise.

      Let’s go after the racist, misogynistic, homophobic, Islamophobic, and corrupt politicians and corporations who are at the heart of these problems.

      • Anonymous says:

        It’s interesting that you should mention “Islamophobia” as being at the heart of our problems, in a thread that demonstrated the continuing sensitivity to the discussion and representation of a practice outlawed in England 183 years ago and in America thirty years after that, and in the Islamic world — not yet. Perhaps it is easier to feel sympathy for the people of the past. Or perhaps I have misunderstood and the discussion wasn’t really about cruelty, but something else.

    • michael grant says:


      As is so often the case, I find myself in the middle between extremes. Genuine racists/bigots/sexists on one side, and social media bullies who can’t differentiate friend from foe on the other. I’ve made this point repeatedly and been attacked for doing so. This is an important issue which is being trivialized into ridiculousness by people who simply seize on it as an opportunity to assert their own moral purity – a purity maintained all the more easily since they do so little actual work.

      If you don’t know who you’re shooting, and you’re not 100% sure shooting is called for, don’t shoot. There are real enemies out there so have the sense and the courage to take them on. Knock off the friendly fire – it’s not social justice, it’s not ‘truth to power,’ it’s just obnoxious narcissism. When there are real bears in the woods you don’t get points for shooting at squirrels. None of the people involved in this book are bad people, none are the enemy. I think the book was a mistake, but only a mistake.

      • Elizabeth Bird says:

        I have to agree. You’ll note how quiet I’ve been lately. I always get a little quiet after being raked over the coals on Twitter. I make mistakes like everyone else. Sure I do. Allie says that I wasn’t forced to change the title and it’s true. I wasn’t. It was a bad title that deserved to be changed. But at the same time, if I had actually thought I was in the right I would have faced more than just that 24-hour cycle of public shaming. One person objected to the title and I didn’t listen. If two had objected in the comments alone I would have changed it. It didn’t happen that way. I got to be the bad guy for a day. So thank you, Jonah, for sticking up for me. It will get you criticism too, of course. You walk into it with your eyes open, though.

        As ever you say it best, Michael. “None of the people involved in this book are bad people, none are the enemy. I think the book was a mistake, but only a mistake.”

      • Speaking my mind says:

        Betsy, your comment below saddens me. This is not about you. This is about a thoughtless title you used–and please note that people did let you know that in the comments. You can’t expect not to be called out when you’re adding to a larger problem. Please don’t talk about “being raked over the coals”; that just shows your white privilege at work. How dare someone tell you you did wrong?!

        Your job is to stand up for books and the children who read and are shaped by them. So don’t play victim if you messed up. Just own it and do better. Act like the person you want children to see you as.

      • Elizabeth Bird says:

        I have absolutely no problem with people telling me I did wrong. I just need them to TELL me. Who linked to me on Twitter? I was criticized without my name being used (which is a pretty odd complaint but there it is) and the post was misrepresented as being in favor of the book in its entirety. Criticize my mistakes but do NOT then go about misrepresenting my writing.

        And you’re absolutely correct. None of this is about me. But it is about engaging in a dialogue. Flame Wars happen, but constructive criticism (as your comment here attests) is far better. You’ll note that I wasn’t complaining about people criticizing me in the comments of this blog. Twitter is a different ballgame entirely. I like this. I like it when you express anger or disappointment because it means we can discuss things. What I don’t like are people who seek to misrepresent the facts or who prefer yelling over talking.

  22. anony-mouse says:

    Maybe, just maybe, if editors and art directors were focused on the books of their talent, and not so engrossed in promoting their own books they’ve written or illustrated, mistakes would be caught early on. My social media is subjected to these promotions and I wonder if these editors/ADs are the champions of our books or our new competitors in the field. Could this be a factor in the neglect that GWBC brings up? The editor is also an author out there promoting herself and her own books. Isn’t that a conflict of interest, competing with the people one is on salary to represent?

  23. In 2007 I published THE ESCAPE OF ONEY JUDGE (FSG) which told the thrilling story of the mulatto girl chosen by Martha Washington to be her bonnet presser, later personal servant and even companion to her grand daughter. Oney Judge lived with the Washingtons at Mount Vernon and then in New York and Philadelphia after GW became President. She was treated well but forbidden to learn to read. My book explains Washington’s policy of sending slaves back to Mt Vernon every six months to avoid having to free them according to Pennsylvania law. In Philadelphia, Oney and their cook Hercules consorted with free blacks and Oney,’s eyes were opened for the first time to the idea of freedom, for which she developed a “complete thirst” that led her to take the astoundingly courageous step of running away from the first family of the United States.
    It’s all there in my book.

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      I friggin’ love that book.

    • I haven’t read your book and cannot comment on it. However, from your description, it sounds like a good read.

      What I want to address is the idea of slaves being “treated well”. This is a case of semantics, but words matter. What I believe you mean is that she wasn’t physically or sexually abused based on the historical record. That being said, the act of holding someone in captivity to perform unpaid work without any rights does not constitute being “treated well” by any measure that I’m aware of.

      When that language is employed it seems to say: it doesn’t matter that she was property, that she could be sold or kept at her owner’s discretion, and that her children would be born slaves.

      If slavery as an institution had been benign (an institution that treated people well), we would have had white slaves. Instead we had indentured servants. People who worked under contract for specified periods of time. People whose children were not born into servitude.

      Since every criticism gets labeled as a shout of racism, let me make my words clear. I am not calling you a racist. I am only asking that you consider the impact of the words used in your post.

      • Anonymous says:

        Re the parsing of “treated well’: what your language seems to say to me is: in order to score a rhetorical point, you are willing to coyly pretend not to understand the difference between “treated well” and “treated poorly” in common parlance, even if it means dismissing the daily physical facts of life for a whole lot of people.
        The good news is, it means you (and I, and all of us) are very, very far from the thing you purport to be so concerned about.

  24. Mike Jung says:

    Ah, I’m a big fan of Twitter. There’s definitely no shortage of heated words, incendiary emotion, and thoroughly unsparing bluntness on Twitter, but begging your pardon, Betsy, it doesn’t take hours of analysis to find those dynamics on the Horn Book, Heavy Medal, right here on a Fuse #8 Production, and other kidlit blogs.


    Dramatic pause.

    Twitter is populated by some of the best intellectual, critical, and creative minds in our industry, which is, of course, equally true for A Fuse #8 Production, Heavy Medal, the Horn Book, etc. I go to Twitter looking for informed, nuanced opinion about things like our current CAKE imbroglio, and I strike gold every single time. The knowledge being dropped on Twitter by creative professionals, information maestros, and full-tilt scholars is amazing, abundant, and essential. We can choose to slam the door on that flow of knowledge because there’s noise there, but we could do that here as well. I’m going to put full priority on the knowledge. Hell, I’m putting ALL the priority on the knowledge. THE TEMPTATION TO END THIS COMMENT WITH A HAMILTON LYRIC IS INCREDIBLY STRONG

    • michael grant says:


      I don’t know, dude, if I weren’t pimping a book I’d be off Twitter tomorrow, Facebook too. (My wife has effectively bailed on Twitter and was never on Facebook.) As a sales tool they are of some use, though not as much as people imagine. As a source of information I have not found either Twitter or Facebook to be useful. The signal to noise ratio is too heavily weighted toward noise for it to be efficient, and the repetition, the bullying, the whining, the umbrage-seeking and the general stupidity grows tedious pretty quickly.

      I suspect – though I have zero data to offer – that social media, far from contributing to understanding, is actually helping to drive intransigent polarization. I suspect it’s accelerating the process whereby we elevate someone one day only to tear them down the next. (See: Amy Schumer.) And I think it contributes to the nasty fascism of the Right and the sour intolerance of the Left. Structurally Twitter abhors a moderate – say something reliably liberal and you get hit by conservatives; say something reliably conservative and the liberals jump you; say something moderate and you get hit from both sides. And, too, 140 characters is far more useful to extremists whose thoughts can be boiled down to a few slogans. Twitter has a structural bias favoring the simplistic, the shouted, and thus, the extreme.

      Some good causes have been helped by Twitter, notably the Black Lives Matter movement, but it also offers people a facile hashtag approach to activism that allows them to absolve themselves of any further responsibility. So, I’d be hard-pressed to conclude that it’s a net positive, but it’s never easy to understand a still-emerging phenomenon. It will be interesting to read the papers and books that will eventually come along to analyze and contextualize social media. I would just point out that a mood of negativity and pessimism has grown progressively worse in this country, in contradiction to actual reality. Correlation is not causation, but still, if social media has made the world a better place I must have missed it.

      • Mike Jung says:

        Michael, nah, that’s not how I feel about it. I don’t have any more empirical data about Twitter’s effect on the mean old world in its entirety than you do, but personally I’ve learned a whole lot of stuff. Now, anyone who’s met me could suggest “but Mike, that’s because you were kind of a dumbass to start with,” and I wouldn’t necessarily argue, but my acceptance of individual dumbassery wouldn’t invalidate the fact that I’m learning things, because I fully believe that we ALL have a lot of learning to do. Every single one of us. Twitter’s one way it’s happening for me, and it’s an important way.

        I won’t get into this too much because I’m no expert, but have you read Steve Silberman’s NEUROTRIBES? It goes into detail about how the rise of online technology has given the autistic community a tool for self-advocacy that’s legitimately (if incrementally) changing the way we perceive and understand people on the spectrum. It’s astonishing stuff. Making the world better? I say yes.

        Did you hear Ebony Elizabeth Thomas on All Things Considered earlier today? Her Twitter feed is incredible – her questions and assertions show me avenues of inquiry that I’d probably never find if I was left to my own devices. Daniel Jose Older has an otherworldly ability to wrap huge, society-spanning ideas and specific, craft-oriented concerns into the same package. I have a lot of questions and confused ideas with regard to disability, and Disability in Kidlit’s Twitter account feeds me to a lot of different resources that it would take me much longer to find on my own. And so on. My friend and colleague Debbie Reese. Eugenia Beh. Angie Manfredi. Anne Ursu. Laura Ruby. Preeti Chhibber. Rachel Stark. And more.

        it is, perhaps, unsurprising that I give We Need Diverse Books a giant thumbs up – I’ve been a team member from the beginning – but hey, lookit, a thingie that started with a hashtag campaign and is now something much bigger! Yes, I know, you’re not optimistic about our future as an organization, but we carry on anyway.

        I’m not saying all of those people and communities are always winging 100 mph fastballs of information over the plate, of course – sometimes I just enjoy the witty repartee, and sometimes I tear myself away to spend time with my own children, the distracting little moppets – but oh yeah, I have learned and continue to learn a lot through Twitter, both as a vehicle for direct communication and a pipeline to other sources of info and opinino. Now, I know it’s possible to say “Aw, screw all those people, they don’t make any difference” – it’s flat-out wrong to say that, in my oh so humble opinion, but it’s possible to say it. A lot of people ARE saying it. A lot of people have ALWAYS said it. Which is, of course, a big reason why we’re still in the steepest stretch of the learning curve, neh?

      • I’m saving this comment; a friend and I discuss your sentiments regularly.
        Thanks to all in this thread, thanks Betsy, for continuing the dialogue.

  25. Anonymous says:

    When Twitter is good, it’s very, very good. When it’s bad, it’s awful. When it’s good, it’s about the kids of ideas that Mike talks about. When it’s awful, it’s the ugliest kind of character assassination, tarring-and-feathering, misrepresentation, opportunism, and mob mentality possible. I don’t need my kids reading that kind of vilness about anyone, least of all me. Those with kids should put themselves in the shoes and bytes of those who’ve been so violated and shamed, and imagine what it would be like to have their names and work there.

    Mike cites to NEUROTRIBES. I cite to SO, YOU’VE BEEN PUBLICLY SHAMED. It’s why I stay anonymous, and will always stay anonymous, in these kinds of conversations. Life is rough enough. When everyone who participates in Twitter calls out the public shaming the way we want children to call out bullying on the schoolyard, I’ll reconsider. Unfortunately, the schoolyard is a safer emotional space than the Twittersphere. For learning about A BIRTHDAY CAKE, A FINE DESSERT, and THE HIRED GIRL, I’ll stick to Fuse 8 etc. even if others don’t. Honestly, I feel no loss.

  26. We certainly have the option to comment anonymously if we so desire, of course. It’s not my favorite thing – I prefer to see people take ownership of their words – but it’s certainly an option to take the anon route, and I do understand why some of us go that route. I doubt that anyone who openly engages is these discussions does so without experiencing feelings of risk, and I should acknowledge that I haven’t experienced Twitter-based criticism on the same level as many if the people whose online presences I find valuable – I mean, yikes, the racism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia, and other statements of hatred directed at people who publicly support pro-diversity work is horrifying. It boggles the mind; I often wonder how so many of the people I follow keep going in the face of such hatred, but they do. I’m glad they do.

  27. Well said, Mike. It’s shameful what the diversity Jedis have to endure from what Grant called the fascist, nasty right.

    Now, try offering a non-diversity-Jedi view ,about diversity issues in children’s fiction, on Twitter or a blog like this and see what happens. It’s the same, “Yikes!” but put through the ideological looking glass. It’s the mob that Ronson talks about in his book and Michael Grant refers to as the sour, intolerant left. I think you know what I mean.

    At least kids on the schoolyard have the excuse of being kids. Thanks but no thanks. I don’t need my kids reading that kind of vileness directed at me or anyone else from any point of view. Talk about harmful reading for children!

    By the way, it’s always enjoyable to read what you have to say.

    • I feel my own share of discomfort with commentary on Twitter that gets personal– and also recognize the long history, and human emotions behind those comments. Also recognize that there are times on Twitter when a line is crossed into abusiveness.

      BUT. I strongly disagree with the idea that racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist abuse endured by people speaking out against bigotry (abuse that engages existing, historic systems of power to try to silence people because of their identities) is “the same” as personal comments from people speaking from positions of marginalization about their experiences of oppression. To me, this is a variation on the “reverse racism, sexism…etc.” line of argument. The threats, harassment, and offline violence that many women of color experience from speaking on Twitter, for example, is in no way comparable to people expressing upset on Twitter at the original title of this post.

      There have been many critiques of Ronson’s book that I’d encourage people to read as well– a couple of salient points: who gets perceived as a victim of shaming and defended as such? (In his book and elsewhere, it is often white women who have been criticized by women of color.) And, the tendency to hear and frame criticism from people of color as “bullying” or “attacks” no matter how it is voiced. Ebony Elizabeth Thomas has also spoken elsewhere to that point, along with the underlying dynamic that places the focus of criticism on people’s responses to injustice, and not on injustice itself. As always, would point people to her writing.

      Appreciate and agree with your thoughts on anonymous comments, Mike– and think this is another place where there is a disparity in risk associated with speaking publicly with one’s name attached.

      • michael grant says:

        Bullying is not defined by the perceived justice of one’s cause. To deny that is to excuse any conduct, so long as its ends are your preferred ends.

        And I’m sorry to tell you that there absolutely is bullying on the Left. I say this as a man of the Left, a lifelong liberal, a lifelong supporter of civil rights, a lifelong supporter of full equality for gays and blah blah blah. I cannot in good conscience demand that the Right discipline its wilder elements and turn a blind eye to the abuse coming from “my” side.

        There is this self-satisfied notion on the Left that “tolerance” is what other people should offer our preferred groups and our ideas. But just as free speech means protecting the speech of those whose words we despise, so tolerance applies to folks we don’t necessarily like. I frequently say political things on Twitter – I’m very vocal in opposition to the gun culture, for example, a real hot button issue for the Right wing, you’ll agree. But an anti-gun tweet will earn me far less abuse than if I were to suggest the marketplace rather than structural racism in publishing is more to blame for the small number of minority characters in kidlit. (Incidentally, I think it’s both, but for the sake of argument…)

        Try stepping outside of Leftwing Orthodoxy, Mike, and see what happens. Try suggesting that Daniel Handler was just a good dude whose mouth got away from him. Or try, as I did, to post a perfectly innocuous tweet suggesting that kids shouldn’t be discouraged from trying to write. Or argue against the notion that mass-rapist Bill Cosby is somehow typical of men generally. See how tolerant the Left is of even slight deviations from this week’s received wisdom.

        Intolerance, close-mindedness, arrogance, smugness, humorlessness and nastiness are not Rightwing failings, they are human failings and affect the Left as well as the Right. And the reason I harp on it is precisely because I am a very political guy, more political than literary to be honest, and there are some very dark forces rising in this country, some genuinely dangerous things happening now on the Right, and I’d really like it if Leftwing commissars on campuses and in social media would stop driving people to join those dark forces. When all “we” offer is a scolding, hectoring, eternally-disappointed voice we alienate friends and feed our foes.

        Yesterday I made berry crumble because I had a bunch of berries from Costco that were getting old in the fridge. The recipe involved three sticks of butter, and I ate 2/3 of the thing before end of day. Tasted good. Felt good eating it, all self-indulgent and mildly transgressive. But it was stupid (or so my scale informs me). Enforcing orthodoxies on Twitter feels good, but it’s three sticks of butter, and in the end, it’s stupid. I don’t think “we” are anything like as bad as “them,” I am well aware of what’s happening around Gamergate, I am well aware that white supremacist groups are on Twitter calling for ethnic cleansing, I can easily point you to sub-Reddits that will leave your jaw on the floor at the pure hatred there, but the bad deeds of others do not excuse ours, particularly when the net effect of our misdeeds is to empower the very people we oppose.

    • Mike Jung says:

      Leave Leftwing Orthodoxy? Right now?? What if I don’t get my security deposit back?

      Michael, I won’t dismiss your points, because I think they have merit. SEE, LOOK HOW NOT SOUR AND NOT ANTI UNINTOLERANT I AM. Still, I don’t share your view that all “we” offer is a scolding, hectoring, eternally disappointed voice, although I won’t argue that . I think “we” offer a lot more than that, although like you, I’m hesitant to use “we” in such an ideologically monolithic way – there’s plenty of disagreement to be found here in the roomy, tastefully decorated interior of the Leftwing Orthodoxy. Lots of complicated grappling with intersectionality; lots of room for growth and learning on everyone’s part. I also don’t think I need to step away from the disapproval-scented halls of Leftwing Orthodoxy to know what I’m missing, because I already know. Not in a “Rightwing Orthodoxy, Population Me” kind of way, but in a clueless, unknowing, unquestioning way.

      I’ve spent a lot of time hearing and parroting a lot of the things I question now; I’ve bought into many lies about race, gender, sexuality, religion, and disability simply by not bothering to question them and therefore internalizing them. I’ve dismissed calls for equality because I didn’t like the way they were delivered. I’ve written off advocates for positive change because I mistook their lifetime of psychic bruises and scars for in-the-moment overreaction. I’ve stood by and made no effort to see beyond the borders of my own mind.

      I’ve made some progress, heavy emphasis on SOME, but I still have a looooooooong way to go. Opening myself up to the unquestionably high-intensity process of listening for emotional truths, vulnerably described life experiences, and lines of intellectual inquiry has made a vast difference. Twitter isn’t the only place that’s happened, but it’s one of them. This is not to position myself as some brawny champion of enlightenment, I’m not saying LOOK, EVEN I HAD TO DO SOME STUFF TO REACH MY CURRENT STATE OF MAGNIFICENCE – I’m all too aware of my lack of magnificence. I’ve learned a lot, however. I’ve also discovered a whole bunch of people doing work that painfully underlines my sub-magnificence, but helps me understand how much better I can do and how much better we can be.

      So yeah. Value. Now if you’ll excuse me, there’s noise in the other room that makes me think my children may have set the building on fire, so I’ll be going now.

      • Mike Jung says:

        Oh look, a badly edited comment by me. #professionalwriter

      • michael grant says:

        “I’ve bought into many lies about race, gender, sexuality, religion, and disability simply by not bothering to question them and therefore internalizing them.”

        Maybe that’s part of the difference between us, Mike, I didn’t discover racial etc… disparities later in life. I spent a big part of my childhood in the deep south in the ’60’s. We were the liberal outsiders inviting black kids into our home, doubly outsiders because we were military, triply because we were Jews. Being relocated back and forth between Jim Crow states and northern states and France sort of objectified the question of race, and the fact that the boys in the white hoods wanted “my kind” as dead as they wanted black people left me little choice as to which side I was on. Then, too, I attended public schools, and I worked a long time in restaurants with a wide range of POC, gays and undocumented workers. And of course, jail was also a swell place to meet diverse people. It’s funny how much diversity you discover if you get off the upper middle class college track and live the blue collar life.

        I’m happy that you’re happy about discovering diversity, but it’s a bit like when college Freshmen discover the existence of hypocrisy and insist on telling us in tones that suggest we’ve all somehow missed what only they have the insight to see. In fact the stuff you’re discovering is the stuff I was learning before you were born. (Unless you’re much older than your photos.) So perhaps you can imagine how annoying it is to have some self-satisfied college kid on Twitter, fresh from a lecture where they were taught what I experienced live, screeching like a parrot that I need to “Check my privilege!” every two seconds, as if I had somehow lived the life I’ve lived for 61 years and only now discovered that it’s great to have white skin and a dick.

        But, whatever. I have teenagers of my own, so I expect to have younger folks flushed with the rush of discovering the obvious, telling me exactly what I told them years earlier, but in an accusing and condescending tone. It’s part of becoming the old dude in the room. Like prostate problems.

      • Whoa. Michael, I wasn’t going to reply to your other comment, but telling a man of color that he’s only now discovering truths about racism that you’ve known all along? I’m Jewish too, and also have family history that exposed me to a lot from a young age– if I’m still younger. But… I (hope I) would never presume to think that means I share the knowledge of, or somehow truly (or better?!) understand racism in this country than those who’ve experienced it.

      • Doubly Anonymous says:

        From your histrionic tone (they all of them wanted you dead?) I would have taken you for a much younger man, so there’s that.

  28. Mike Jung says:

    SARAH HAMBURG IN THE HOUSE–er, sorry, got a little excited there. Sarah, you beat me to a number of things I was going to say. I think you’re right on target – I’m also not unsympathetic to the emotionally human aspect of being criticized online, and I really do understand the desire to defend people we hold in high regard. Case in point: comments describing Emily Jenkins as cowardly and dishonest for her A FINE DESSERT apology have had me seeing red. And I’ve communicated with others who’ve been under the social media microscope in the recent past, and fully believe that they’ve experienced real pain. That is not an insignificant thing.

    But (OH THERE IT IS, YOU KNEW IT WAS COMING), as Sarah said with such clarity, there’s a difference, and it’s a meaningful difference. Voices that criticize societal structures (including, oh, a random example here, but let’s just casually say “publishing”) for a pronounced, intractable lack of inclusive representation have been disregarded, discredited, and dismissed for time out of mind.
    Voices who criticize “the sour, intolerant left” (geez, Michael, you really gotta do me like that? OH JUST KIDDING, I am blessedly unhurt) for speaking up in favor of inclusive representation and in opposition to systemically embedded bias, on the other hand, are heard, and have always been heard. The conversation stops. The real topic, which is always about much more than individual books and individual book creators, is pushed away. And the voices speaking against exclusion and injustice have the more complex and difficult task, because perpetuating the status quo is easier.

    Perpetuating the status quo is as easy as not trying to change anything at all. Perpetuating the status quo also requires zero in the way of malice, ill will, or ideological decision-making. It can be as simple as slamming the door on a conversation in the name of prioritizing individual feelings above all else. And to just hitch one last ride on Sarah’s coattails, when that happens, only some individual feelings are prioritized. The individual feelings that have always been stomped into oblivion belong to those who voice dissent, of course.


  29. michael grant says:


    Do you understand that your remark contains within it the racist assumption that a man of Chinese ancestry must simply by virtue of his ethnicity be particularly aware of racism? You dismiss the element of class? The element of personal experience? The element of education? You leap to the assumption that “Asian” equals black or Latino in terms of understanding race? Would you like to take a look at the relative economic demographics and explain the logic that loops Asian-Americans in with African-Americans? Are Asians being gunned down by cops? Are Asians being denied jobs due to their race? How are the educational options for Asian-Americans? Maybe just a wee bit better than for African-Americans? Or have you noticed how little time the nativists spend worrying about Asian immigrants? In fact we have this special work-around for Asian immigrants called the H1-B visa.

    See, here’s the thing: as I’ve already confessed, I am a political person. Which means the first thing I do every morning, before I can even pry open both eyes, is check the polls. And I read the cross-tabs. So I know why Asian-Americans are on the Left, and it’s not some kumbaya fellow-feeling with African-Americans.

    My daughter is Chinese. She does not play violin or do quadratic equations in her head. Those are the kinds of things our society believes about Asians. That’s rather different don’t you think from the cliches we hold about blacks and Latinos?

    Now, interestingly, Mike talks openly and honestly about having absorbed racist assumptions. Which rather flies in the face of your assumptions, right? And I talked equally openly and honestly about my intersections with matters of race, and unless you’ve concluded that I’m a liar, you’d have to admit that I have not been as far from the issue as the typical white guy.

    Lives are made up of experiences. I will guarantee you that Mike Jung has never been followed by security as he shopped at Macy’s. And I’ll guarantee you that 90% of black men have been. I guarantee you that no one ever took a look at Mike Jung and crossed the street or locked the car door. Life is more than color and gender. Not all POC are identical. (!) Bill Cosby is not Nelson Mandela, and Mandela was not LeBron James. And Sam Jackson and Laurence Fishburne? Turns out they are different guys, who knew?

    What you’re thinking is called the Magic Negro Trope, very common in movies. You’re assuming that skin color creates wisdom or insight, all by itself. Basically, “Jung is Chinese-American, he must be wise to all things racial!” And “Grant has white skin therefore he can’t possibly understand.” Those are lazy, thoughtless assumptions which cannot be defended logically.

    *BTW, I don’t know that Mike is Chinese-American, it’s an educated guess.

  30. Mike Jung says:

    Multiple comment threads…confused…head spinning…I have executive functioning issues, Michael, so pardon me if I just glob everything together into this one comment. There’s undoubtedly more than one big difference between us. I don’t pretend to have experienced life in the same way or to the same degree as you. I’m 100% sure that you’ve experienced many things that I haven’t – that’s true of a lot of people I know. And living life on the upper middle-class college track as I’ve done is inarguably a huge part of MY individual privilege. However, I also don’t believe that you’re either uninterested in or incapable of understanding privilege as it applies to you – your post about male privilege on Medium made it abundantly clear that you are, in fact, more than capable.

    That was really something! A leathery old Yoda figure like you, publicly declaring that your understanding of the world was fundamentally incomplete, denting your misty air of omniscience? Fabulous! More of that, please! Oh DAMN IT, I said something positive about you instead of lighting up the flamethrower and pointing it Grantward. I persist in intensely disagreeing with you and thinking you’re a good guy at the same time – the Leftwing Orthodoxy’s gonna start sharpening the pitchforks for sure. I better call in and report myself…

    It does rather seem like you’re suggesting my opinions, participation, etc. are something less thatn 100% valid in the context of, yanno, diversity and children’s books and making comments on Betsy Bird’s blog, because I’m A. in an admittedly early part of the learning curve, B. not a lifelong blue-collar kind of person, and C. not as old as you. Am I interpreting that correctly? Because if we’re just putting a red line through anyone who doesn’t fit those criteria, and if you are indeed THE LAST OF THE TRUE DIVERSITY JEDI, with no hope of passing your diamond-crusted baton to naive, bookwormy whippersnappers like myself, well, that pokes a big hole in the whole business. Not to turn the screws or anything, but you 61 year old, public-school educated, former inmate types aren’t getting any younger.

    Incidentally, I’m not THAT much younger than you. You are old enough to be my father, but only if I’d been born while you were high school age. Also incidentally, I did an itsy-bitsy stretch in jail – think hours, not months – and the racist slurs I heard in there were far more overt than what I heard in the cushy post-public school, public university life I otherwise led. Everyone in jall seemed to think I was Japanese! Can you imagine? Then again, a lot of people in my upscale suburban neighborhood seemed to assume I was Chinese, Japanese, or Vietnamese, although I’m not convinced all of those people actually knew what “gook” means, although some of them definitely did. I HAVE been followed through a big retail store by security – back in college – but it was because I’d actually stolen something, not because I’m Korean American, so yeah, different situation. No police brutality or white people crossing to the other side of the street for me, instead it’s been all assumptions about penis size, asexuality, ability to speak English, tiger moms, eating dogs, and being Communist! Vive la différence!

    Upper middle class college track life certainly doesn’t apply to everyone in our industry, but given that breaking into publishing apparently involves working for minimum wage while living in the most expensive metropolitan area in the country, I’m gonna hazard a guess that it describes more than a few people in our industry. So the concerns you express about MY financial circumstances growing up probably aren’t contained in a tiny black cloud over my head alone. I’m speculating, of course – I have no actual data about that.

    Ultimately, you’re firing your arrows at a point a couple of feet to the left of my point, HAR, SEE WHAT I DID THERE. I didn’t talk about myself because I believe my personal experiences (or your personal experiences) are the ultimate arbiter of what we should talk about and how we should talk about it. I talked about myself to illustrate my belief that what we are dealing with is beyond individual experience and individual feelings, but is, in fact, systemic, endemic, sweeping, and very easy to internalize without intending to. I am not black, it’s true. Which is why it’s so important for me to not dismiss what I hear and see about the experience of being a black American, or a black citizen of the world. Me being Korean American (not Chinese American) doesn’t make me all-seeing and all-comprehending on an individual level, and that being frosty, milky, uncut-cocaine-level white doesn’t automatically make you or anyone else a thoroughly uncomprehending douchenozzle on an individual level. I don’t believe ANY of us are all-seeing and all-knowing. That white privilege thing, though. Maybe you personally don’t have any anecdotes to share about it, but oh, nobody’s changing my mind about that one.

    My point…okay, I actually have a big steaming heap of points, but a relevant point right this second is that I believe it’s hugely, vitally important to approach the tangled mess of diversity in children’s publishing with the conviction that we are NOT all-knowing and all-seeing, and that there are many avenues we can take to keep growing and learning. Conversations in hotel bars. Conference panels. Arguments with our neighbors. Heated discussions with allies whose recent statements we have problems with. Excessively long comment threads on Betsy Bird’s blog. Writing, of course, for those of who do that sort of thing. Twitter. Jail! Not Twitter jail, though, that’s just irritating.

    • michael grant says:

      You want a white privilege anecdote? I got one. In my misspent youth I committed two burglaries of a business. Then I jumped bail and for two decades I was a fugitive with felony warrants out for me. During those 20 years I was hired by dozens of businesses, often handled money, occasionally was in a position of authority, was given the keys to people’s homes, and not once, not even a single time in 20 years, did a cop hassle me. The odds that a black man could have pulled that off? Pretty slim. My white privilege is that I avoided prison until I made enough money to cause it all to go away. That was a pretty damned big advantage there, avoiding prison, and it is in large degree a function of the color of my skin.

      This white advantage was not something I discovered upon seeing my first hashtag. I didn’t need my eyes opened or my consciousness raised. Those black guys who get randomly rounded up by cops? I knew them when we were all wearing orange jumpsuits and lovely state-supplied bracelets. The Mexicans with legs “the size of cantaloupes?” I used to wash dishes with them and share joints with them around the Dumpster after side work. The women in the pink collar ghetto? I couldn’t begin to guess the number of hours I’ve spent hanging out with waitresses who were counting their tips down to the last penny hoping they could buy something for their kid’s Christmas.

      On sexism, yeah, I was surprised at the vociferousness, the genuine hatred some men have for women, especially around Gamergate. No question. And I was distressed by Shannon Messenger’s experience in a school visit, and said so. But racism? Please. My family was threatened by the KKK because we had black kids over to the house when I was 10. The existence of racism was not exactly a surprise.

      I think the difference between us here is not just that we have had wildly different experiences, but that you come from what I perhaps unfairly think of as the Campus Left. You think this is about fairness and justice and getting the correct answer. I am political and see things from the perspective that the object of the game is power. Being right does not decide who packs the Supreme Court; power does. If Team Blue loses we’re looking at Scalias as far as the eye can see. What’s on the line here is the entire liberal agenda: gay rights, abortion, environmental laws, voting rights, and on and on.

      So, from my perspective as a political person, here’s what we’ve got. (And I apologize to Betsy for getting political rather than literary, but on this issue the two are one, at least to me.) In 2012 Obama took 51%, down a couple from 2008. The black vote, 13%, turned out big-time. The Latino vote underperformed, casting just 10% of the votes, 70% of which went for Team Blue. Asians were 3%, gays 4%. (Note that counting Latinos is tough since many ID as white not Latino, and the gay vote isn’t 4% net because it overlaps with already-included demos.)

      72% of the vote was white. Seven out of 10. Obama got 39% of that white vote. Now, Dems have been telling themselves everything will be okay because of the Latino vote. And I do think we’ll see higher Latino turn-out, and a better percentage voting Dem. But there were 120 million votes cast in 2012 and 86 million of those were cast by whites. Something like 12 million votes came from Latinos. Blacks are topped out – they turned out big but they aren’t growing in numbers.

      So, here’s the thing. 1% of the white vote equals 860,000 votes. 1% of the Latino vote is 120,000. So any time we lose 1% of whites we need to raise 4% out of Latinos. (Rough numbers, ignoring nuance for the moment, but you get the idea.) 1% of the white vote is four times bigger than 1% of the Latino vote.

      So, given that the black vote will probably drop a point with Obama out of the picture, we are essentially at par, 50/50. When you look at the head-to-heads (largely meaningless this early) you see a small but definite edge for Hillary or Bernie at the top level. But you also see both losing to any Republican in Florida, which, as I imagine you know, is a rather important state. People who think we could never, ever elect Trump or Cruz are blowing smoke, because we do not have Obama, we have a 68 year-old woman with a problematic husband and a possible federal indictment hanging over her. Or we have a 74 year-old socialist. We absolutely could elect Trump or Cruz.

      Nothing we can do with minority voters – nothing realistic – would be enough to offset even a 2 or 3% change in the white vote over 2012, and bear in mind that Obama dropped four points among whites between ’08 and ’12.

      So, as a political guy whose interest is in real world power leading to real world changes, what I see is that we need at the very least to avoid alienating white voters, and preferably find ways to reach out to them. And who is busily pissing off white voters? The Campus Left, or in the vernacular of the Right: PC. Political Correctness. Trump’s biggest applause lines are on PC, and yet, when you cut through the layers of bullshit what you see is that there is a commonality of interest between working class whites (Trump’s voters) and POC voters. (Bernie is trying to get there, trying to throw a rope over at least some of those people, it’ll be interesting to see if that goes anywhere.)

      The attitude expressed by Sarah, not by you, is that the only thing a white person can do is sit down, shut up, and be lectured by POC on white perfidy. This is the face “we” are showing to the voters we need. Now, I understand the objections: Isn’t it about time the white man was knocked off his pedestal? Yes. Yes, if what you’re after is the correct answer on the test. But wrong if what you want and need is to seduce a significant number of white folks to join us.

      You don’t convince people to join a conversation if you start off by telling them to check their privilege, avoid trigger words, avoid microaggressions, and then shut the hell up and listen. I don’t know how you’ve found dates, but I’m pretty sure it didn’t involve one-sided lectures on the topic of what a bitch your date is. Being right does not equal having power. We have lost the state legislatures, the governorships, the House, the Senate and the Court. And we won the last national election by 51 to 47, even with a terrific candidate and the advantage of incumbency.

      We keep being right, and we keep losing ground. I don’t want to sit here and stew in my own rightness as Ted Cruz nominates the next three Supremes, I want to win. I want power. I want power because I don’t want to see gay rights rolled back, and I don’t want to see abortion so burdened as to become inaccessible, and I don’t want minority voting rights hampered further, and I don’t want to see us pretend that climate change isn’t real. So what would be great is for the Campus Left to stop feeding fuel to the enemy. That would be great, because I already saw this movie when it was called 1968, and I didn’t like how it turned out.

      I think what you see, Mike, is righteous armies of the enlightened taking on the entrenched forces of racism. What I see is well-meaning nitwits actively trying to alienate 72% of voters and possibly giving us 4 years of an out-and-out fascist in the White House. This isn’t some seminar, it’s an election, it’s real, it will have real consequences. If we lose, real people will be hurt. If we lose, all our issues will be set back. And from where I sit that fact should trump (heh) the need of hyper-libs to denounce, lecture and generally annoy the living shit out of everyone outside their own little self-satisfied clique.

      After November 8, go for it. Speak truth to power. Invent wonderful new microaggressions to be offended by. Shout down any public speaker who doesn’t agree in advance to 100% of your demands. Hell, demand reparations, I don’t care because hopefully by then the grown-ups will have allowed the republic to stagger forward for another four years. But for now it’d be really great if you guys would stop making it impossible for us to put an end of the age of Scalia.

      • Well, you have to admit there’s a lot to listen to on the subject of white perfidy. The place where we disagree (okay, maybe there’s a lot more than one place) is in the presumption that the kind of political strategizing you outline here hasn’t already been considered by those you’re criticizing, that what you’re witnessing isn’t an organized political movement with tactics of its own, that accommodation to predominantly white interests doesn’t necessarily have the best track record (see perfidy) and that perhaps there are things you (and I) could still learn despite our advanced ages.

      • Sorry, second 2 are things being ignored, not presumed.

        And also, while I’m here: yay. Mike!

  31. Good white privilege anecdote! Or maybe I should say bad anecdote? Sounds accurate, at any rate, and very worth my attention, thank you. Are we switching topics to the prezzy election now? And isn’t it great that we can be super-concerned about diversity in children’s literature and super-concerned about the election at the same time? We are many-splendored creatures, by Jove. We contain multitudes. By the way, thanks for the election numbers, which I’m not familiar with to the degree that you are. Look at me, prioritizing valuable information over the manner in which it’s delivered! Putting my money where my mouth is! And we’re both not voting for Ted Cruz, we’re united in electoral brotherhood! #kumbaya

    Ah, the fabled Campus Left. I honestly appreciate your nod to the potential unfairness of that term, because I’m not sure there’s anything resembling unanimity on Our Great Nation’s College and University Campuses when it comes to concepts like microaggressions, trigger warnings, institutional racism, etc. There sure seems to be a whole lot of “all lives matter” still kicking around on campuses, including the ones I’m most familiar with. And invent new microaggressions? Why would I do that? It doesn’t seem like the existing microaggression shelves are out of stock just yet.

    I do, of course, object to your characterization of diversity advocates as nitwits – we’re talking about people of immense intellectual power, yes, I know, we disagree about that too – but I’m glad that your eyes have been open to racism your whole life. As we both know, there’s no shortage of people who don’t or won’t even consider opening their eyes in that way, including certain presidential candidates. I won’t say “don’t talk smack about these people I respect so much,” because hey, that would be super hypocritical of me, wouldn’t it?

    I’ll be content with saying this instead: holy moly, the people I’ve met and communicated with while finally making the effort to step up. They’re amazing. Even when someone says something I don’t agree with, even when someone criticizes work I’ve been involved with – wow. These people. OUR people, jam packed with psychic messiness, undeniably full of contradictions (SO IS INDEPENDENCE, #HAMILTON FTW), spilling over with a whole bunch of different opinions, knowledge levels, and priorities, striving to do real-world work in a slew of arenas and communities. Mercy. I’m learning so much from them.

    I won’t deny using the occasional gladiatorial metaphor to help me define my thoughts and lift my spirits when they sag, but no, I don’t really conceive of the pro-diversity movement as a gloriously unified and righteous army of warrior-poets on the march. There are too many different people to truly do that, too many different concerns, too much humanity. But there are a lot of people doing things I admire and support, and some of them tweet about stuff! Bonus!

    Michael, if you want to have the last word, go, man, go. You’ll have outlasted me at the very least, because I think I’m at the point where I’m very likely to start repeating myself wholesale. (Pssst, A Fuse #8 Production readers, do me a solid and act like I didn’t pass that point four comments ago.) Booooo, Mike Jung is departing from the arena. Or maybe hooray, Mike Jung is finally shutting it! Too bad we’re not on Twitter, I could run a poll.

  32. Anonymous says:

    Mike, at least Grant had the forthrightness to admit and elucidate the pervasiveness of male privilege and white privilege in our general society. I wish you and Sarah could do the same about the pervasiveness of Leftwing Orthodoxy on the college campuses. The data could not be more clear on that front. That bias heavily influences the way that discussions of books like A FINE DESSERT and A BIRTHDAY CAKE unfold. has fantastic information about how campaign donations break down liberal/conservative on liberalism in the social sciences. When nearly 1,000 social scientists are asked, who’s a conservative, and only 3 raise their hands? And only 36 identify as centrists or libertarians? I’m sorry. That’s a system with a structural bias and privilege, too.

  33. Oh hey , it’s Anon! Right? Is that you, Anon? ARGH, THERE ARE SO MANY ANONS THESE DAYS… Yes, I know, I’m breaking my promise not to comment anymore. Such a liar. I couldn’t resist, though, if only because I’m getting a little too psychologically involved with the image of Michael and I waving broken bottles at each other in a dark alley.

    I’d seen the second article but not the first, so thanks for that link, Anon. I have no trouble believing those numbers are accurate. I also believe they go whistling by the point, several feet off target, unimpeded by actual contact with the point, because if openly declaring support for progressive candidates or describing one’s self as liberal and not conservative were the qualifiers for Leftwing Orthodoxy membership, well, Michael would be a card-carrying member, and we know he’s not. I mean, we’re REALLY REALLY SURE he’s not. And I don’t know if there’s any data about the political leanings of people in our industry – I imagine not – but if that data did exist, I’m fairly confident it would depict children’s publishing as a wholly owned subsidiary of Leftwing Orthodoxy, Inc. It’s worth noting how many of the kidlit diversity movement’s critics are, in fact, very much aligned with my own commie pinko liberal belief system, despite all of our unseemly brawling. There are good people who I think well coming at this from all directions.

    And yet, despite what sure seems like an industry-wide tilt toward the politically progressive side, here we are with a body of literature that in terms of racial representation, persistently hovers at 90% white. Unconscious bias, systemized exclusion, relentlessly reinforced messages of dismissal – they’re what’s for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, whether we actually ordered them or not. They’re like the invisible food additives of society! Except nobody has to put that stuff on the menu!

    Okay, NOW I’m out. Really. Possibly not. *sigh*

  34. Mike, you have proved yourself to be a lovely person with a good mind and a good heart. Before I depart for the world of actually earning a living, I offer my concluding three thoughts on this issue of Leftwing Orthodoxy and A BIRTHDAY CAKE.

    First, consider why there are so many Anons these days, who we are (we’re not Leftwing Orthodox), and why we might feel compelled to be Anon.

    Two, think about why so many millennials these days seem willing to limit the First Amendment in favor of not hurting minorities’ feelings, where that comes from, and whether you agree it is a good idea..

    Three, think about what it would feel like to stand by a controversial book that you yourself have written or illustrated or edited, and then have your publisher recall it on the bonfire. Meanwhile, that book is about your and your people’s historical experience as you interpret it for a particular story.

    And now, to the galleys! Thank you for making the extended weekend more interesting.

  35. Hey Anon, of course I feel compelled to offer a rebuttal, BIG SURPRISE, but I’m with you on the “getting back to the rest of our lives” thing, so instead I’ll just say happy Monday and fare thee well.


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