African American Children's Book Fair Saturday at community college

A few weeks ago, the children's book world was in an uproar over educational publisher Scholastic's history-based picture book about African American slaves, a Founding Father, and a baked good.

The title of the made-for-kids tale: A Birthday Cake for George Washington. The story: Washington's enslaved chef, Hercules, and Hercules' enslaved daughter Delia make a dessert in the Philadelphia kitchen of their master, the first president of the United States of America.

The controversy, which drew hundreds of negative reviews on Amazon.com and more than a thousand signatures to a petition on Change.org: The text and illustrations offered a one-dimensional, all-too-happy portrayal of slavery. Indeed, the tale suggests the main characters' main concern is ... running out of sugar.

The protests took the media by storm - for a second, at least. But some of the country's preeminent creators of historical nonfiction for children were not all that surprised at what happened.

Offering kids an accurate picture of slavery, or any travesty, requires walking "a fine line," said African American children's book author and poet Carole Boston Weatherford, adding, "One step too far to the right or to the left, and we get lambasted by critics."

Weatherford is one of two dozen authors and illustrators scheduled to attend the 24th annual African American Children's Book Fair this Saturday at the Community College of Philadelphia. Weatherford and her peers have won Caldecott Honors and Coretta Scott King Awards, created classics and best-sellers.

If the Birthday Cake story sounds familiar, it is. Months earlier, another children's title, A Fine Dessert, similarly glossed over slavery to deliver a story about blueberry fool. Unlike A Birthday Cake, the other dessert book is still for sale.

This go-round, readers weren't having it. They protested, and Scholastic pulled the book before it went on sale. (Review copies are currently selling on Amazon for $144 and up.)

While some authors presenting at Saturday's book fair have written about slavery, African American kids' books more often have topics that are "good, old-fashioned fun, stories of courageous women, or just stories of being young," said longtime event organizer Vanesse Lloyd-Sgambati. One book is about Shaquille O'Neal as a boy.

The fair will include author presentations, book signings, activities to encourage reading, and book giveaways and sales. Attendees looking for ways to explain difficult history to their children will find what they're seeking, too. Weatherford and her peers said they'd worked hard to portray life during slavery and segregation accurately, age-appropriately and effectively.

Weatherford is known for penning the Image Award-winning Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom. She will bring her new picture book for primary-school-age children, Freedom in Congo Square, to the fair.

Much like A Birthday Cake, Freedom in Congo Square has as its subject happier times for slaves. In rhyme and illustration, its pages focus on the half-Sunday each week when blacks in antebellum New Orleans could "connect with other African descendants, free and enslaved, and just kind of be themselves for an afternoon," said the author.

Those few, measured hours of freedom, said Weatherford, "looked like a celebration," with drumming and dancing and merriment. Still, she chose to begin the book with these lines:

"Mondays, there were hogs to slop,

mules to train, and logs to chop.

Slavery was in no ways fair.

Six more days to Congo Square."

"I wanted kids to understand that [the enslaved people's] half-day off in no way compensated for the inhumanity that they faced in bondage," Weatherford said, adding, "I don't want to juvenilize the suffering of the people I'm writing about. There's no way to pretty up the Holocaust, nor should we whitewash slavery."

Whitewashing was the primary criticism of Scholastic's protesters. A Birthday Cake didn't make mention that in real life, Hercules escaped from Mount Vernon - on Washington's birthday, no less - or that the chef left daughter Delia behind. Like all slaves' stories, Hercules' involved cruelty and complications.

Cruel and complicated is something author Tonya Bolden knows intimately. Among the centuries-ago black lives she's documented are Maritcha: A Nineteenth-Century American Girl, about the first black student at Providence High School; Searching for Sarah Rector: The Richest Black Girl in America, about a child emancipated from Native American owners at age 11; and Capital Days: Michael Shiner's Journal and the Growth of Our Nation's Capital, about an enslaved Marylander and Washington Navy Yard worker who spent a lifetime toiling to buy his freedom.

When it comes to explaining slavery to children, "my approach is to tell the truth with texture," Bolden said. "I think you just start with the truth."

All the truth? Well, eventually, yes, said Bolden. But begin with basics.

"It is simple. Slavery was theft. If children can understand that stealing is wrong, they can understand that slavery was wrong. They know what it would be like to be taken away from their family, or to have family taken away from them. They understand meanness and cruelty," she said.

Bolden encourages parents to give their kids some credit. Children are smarter and more resilient than you think.

"I think sometimes the adults worry more than the kids," she said, "There's nothing like knowing about outrages and evils and horrors to develop empathy. We want [children] to be disturbed - not traumatized, but disturbed. I was a young adult when I saw digits tattooed on the forearm of a Jewish woman. It was disturbing, and it needed to be disturbing."

Also important: Conveying complexity, when appropriate. "In real life, things are not so simple, not so cut and dried," said Weatherford. When Bolden writes about slavery, she also writes about the movement to end slavery.

When Floyd Cooper of Easton, Pa., a Coretta Scott King Award-winning illustrator, portrays Frederick Douglass or Revolutionary War double agent James Armistead or barrier-breaking Shakespearean actor Ira Aldridge or another historical hero, "I always approach the subject. I always imbue every brushstroke and every thought with dignity and love," he said.

To gloss over any human's full humanity, however painful or multifaceted the person's truth might be, does young readers a disservice. Said Bolden, "We are made by history. How can children understand Jim Crow or racism today, if they don't understand slavery?"

The African American Children's Book Fair, 1-3 p.m. Saturday, Community College of Philadelphia, 17th and Spring Garden Streets, free, 215-878-BOOK, theafricanamericanchildrensbookproject.org.