NEW YORK (AP) _ The author of a children’s book pulled last month because of its smiling depiction of slaves says she herself objected to the illustrations and had expressed early concerns with the publisher, Scholastic.
In her first interview since Scholastic withdrew “A Birthday Cake for George Washington” less than two weeks after it was published, Ramin Ganeshram also told The Associated Press that she and illustrator Vanessa Brantley-Newton had little communication and essentially worked separately.
“The public does not know that the authors (of picture stories) are not in full control of their books,” she said. “The public feels if you write the book, the book is yours and you make the decisions. But in children’s publishing at least, that is entirely untrue. Authors and illustrators often do not speak, or interact. I never had a conversation with Vanessa, just a few tweets.”
The Washington book was published Jan. 5 and set off a wave of criticism from reviewers, and on social media and Amazon.com, where 270 out of 371 reader reviews were one star as of Thursday morning. Scholastic initially defended “A Birthday Cake,” which centers on Washington’s head chef, the slave Hercules. But on Jan. 17, it halted publication, explaining in a statement that the book “may give a false impression of the reality of the lives of slaves.”
Ganeshram says she was informed of the decision by her editor, Andrea Davis Pinkney.
“And I said to her, `As you know, I have always had issues with these illustrations,”’ Ganeshram said.
Scholastic spokeswoman Kyle Good said that the publisher would have no comment. Brantley-Newton, an award-winning illustrator and author, has not responded to phone and email requests for comment.
While some authors and illustrators collaborate from the start, it’s also common for publishers to choose the creative team and have them work separately, especially when they don’t know each other. Ganeshram said that she and Brantley-Newton have never met.
The author had spent four years researching the life of Hercules for a larger project, but agreed to use some material for a picture story after speaking with Pinkney, who edited Ganeshram’s novel “Stir it Up,” published in 2011. Ganeshram had hoped “A Birthday Cake” would be the first in a series of works on Hercules.
“For me, Hercules is everything,” she said, “so every opportunity to present him to the world was something to be seriously considered.”
But Ganeshram said that she emailed Pinkney last spring, objecting to the “over-joviality” of some the illustrations and adding that a recent picture book, Emily Jenkins’ “A Fine Dessert,” had been rightly criticized for similar reasons.
“And I said, `When can I start speaking to Vanessa? I would like to send some research material.’ And the editor told me, `Authors and illustrators don’t interact,”’ Ganeshram said.
An award-winning journalist and author born to a Trinidadian father and Iranian mother, the 47-year-old Ganeshram noted that the book was considered offensive despite the diversity of those who worked on it. Brantley-Newton has described herself as coming from a “blended background _ African-American, Asian, European, and Jewish,” and has illustrated the children’s series “Ruby and the Booker Boys” among other books. Pinkney is a highly respected editor and award-winning author who in 1998 founded the Hyperion imprint Jump at the Sun, which publishes African-American children’s books.
“A big aspect of the diversity movement is predicated on the idea of getting people who represent the background of those depicted in the story,” Ganeshram said. “We assume that the material will automatically be treated more delicately and more sensitively and we can see that it’s simply not true.”
Some critics also faulted Ganeshram’s narrative, saying that Washington’s determination to keep his slaves and Hercules’ eventual escape were confined to an author’s note. Ganeshram told the AP that the book only covers one day in Hercules’ life and that the author’s note was intended to “spark further discussion.”
Ganeshram also said that she had not intended to write a story about slavery, but about a “great chef who made magic out of nothing,” against great odds, and about the love of his daughter. Asked if it was possible to include slaves in a narrative without having slavery becoming the point of the narrative, she said that she wasn’t sure how to respond but that “we must be brave enough to continue to try.”
“These people were individual human beings, with their own sensibility, with their own pride, with their own foibles. And to reduce them to only slaves is incredibly diminishing,” she said.
“And the first thing we have to be brave enough to do is to reform the way we do these book, to reform the system, so we can explore this from every possible angle.”