Representing History and Race in Picture Books

One of the eighth grade language arts teachers and I closely followed the stories and conversations about A Fine Dessert and A Birthday Cake for George Washington. Her students had already worked with case studies on controversial books, so this process wasn’t totally new to them; they’d also just finished reading To Kill a Mockingbird, so they were primed to discuss race and history. Their discussions were fascinating.

Grade level: 8+

Background: This group of students had discussed book challenges at length, and we’d also talked about diverse literature and why it’s important. I think that students need at least that much background to be successful with this lesson. I used the “further questions” at the end as an exit slip – kids wrote their responses on post-it notes and stuck them up on the whiteboard. I left them there for a few days and they generated a lot of conversation!

Big question: How does this controversy connect to larger issues in children’s literature? (Diversity and representation, censorship)

A Fine Dessert, Emily Jenkins
A Birthday Cake for George Washington, Ramin Ganeshram note: this book is not easy to source, since it was pulled from publication. My local library had a copy, and yours might too; check WorldCat to find out. If you can’t get ahold of one, drop me a line and I’ll see what I can do.
My Google Slides presentation has the back cover of Happy Birthday and the discussion questions
Enough copies of the primary source packet for each group (see below for links)

Instructional plan

Show picture from back cover of A Birthday Cake for George Washington on the whiteboard. Ask students to discuss it at their tables for 1 minute. What do you think of when you see it? What’s happening in this picture? What’s absent?

Introduce the two books.

A Fine Dessert: Give backstory, then read first two sections. Briefly explain the rest of the story. Display author’s note.

A Birthday Cake for George Washington: (This is where the back cover came from.) Read entire book out loud

Compare & discuss. What do you think the response might have been to these books, and why? What questions do you have? What do these stories highlight in our history, and what do they obscure?

Explain A Fine Dessert backlash;  show AICL article (here) with link round-up (all circa Oct-Nov of 2015). End result: A Fine Dessert remains in print; Birthday Cake (Jan 2016) was recalled & pulled from publication.

Show Jenkins’s apology note (on presentation) and ask for student responses.


In groups, students examine primary sources through the lens of two questions: How do/should we represent these topics in books for children? Is the recall of Happy Birthday George Washington an act of censorship?


    1. Scholastic (publisher) statements (first statement, second statement)
    2. Ramin Ganeshram (author) statement
    3. Andrea Pinkney (editor) statement
    4. School Library Journal & Kirkus (industry journal) reviews
    5. NCAC/PEN (free speech advocates) statements
    6. Two articles comparing uproar over both books (article one, article two) – these are long, it’s okay for students to skim

Wrap-up & exit slip

Bring conversation back to the whole group and ask groups to share their responses to the questions, or any additional thoughts they have. “I don’t expect us to solve anything or answer these questions in any definitive way: I just want us to engage with these issues.”

Further questions: How can you connect these conversations back to your life as a reader? How does (or will) this conversation change the way that you read fiction – particularly historical fiction? Who has the right to tell certain kinds of stories?

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