Scholastic Publishing said on Sunday that it would halt distribution of a children’s picture book about George Washington and his enslaved household cook amid an outcry over its visual depiction of the former president’s slaves as happy, smiling workers.
….“We do not believe this title meets the standards of appropriate presentation of information to younger children, despite the positive intentions and beliefs of the author, editor and illustrator,” it said in a statement. While defending the team that produced the book, the publisher said that without more historical background, “the book may give a false impression of the reality of the lives of slaves and therefore should be withdrawn.”
I find this whole episode pretty astonishing. How did Scholastic not realize that a whole lot of people were going to find this inappropriate and offensive? It took me about two seconds, and I’m not notably steeped in sensitivity toward racial portrayals.
More generally, is it ever appropriate to depict American slaves in children’s books like this? I doubt it. Presenting the reality of slavery is a bit much for 7-year-olds. But sanding down the reality is wrong too. All it does is provide a vague misconception that has to be unlearned later. I’m not really sure there’s a middle ground that works well for very young readers.
Maybe some of the parents and schoolteachers reading this will have other opinions. Is there any reasonable way to present slavery in books for young children? And what’s the age when you can start to present something at least modestly realistic? Comments are open.