Home » Big Publishing, Children's Books, PG's Thoughts (such as they are) » Slavery book author says she had concerns

Slavery book author says she had concerns

17 February 2016

From the Associated Press:

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.

. . . .

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.

Link to the rest at the Associated Press and thanks to Bill for the tip.

PG says the managers, editors and publicists at Scholastic must be living on an island below the Antarctic Circle to have failed to forsee this type of problem.

These self-proclaimed curators of culture have effectively destroyed the brand equity which Ms. Ganeshram had built up in her name.

Should Ms. Ganeshram approach a publisher with another book, does anyone doubt that her Scholastic disaster will be remembered and factor into any sane publisher’s decision about the book? Who wants to risk more bad publicity by associating themselves with an author who has an awkward past, regardless of whether the problems were her fault or not?

PG says the lesson for authors of any sort of picture or illustrated book is to include in their publishing agreements both the right to review illustrations prior to publishing and the right to disapprove any illustrations the author doesn’t like.

PG will not speculate about whether Ms. Ganeshram has a basis for suing Scholastic for damages to her reputation and adverse impacts on her future earnings, but he hopes she has.

What about publishing malpractice? After all, almost any person or organization that holds themselves out as a professional – lawyers, law firms, doctors, hospitals, chiropractors, podiatrists, tanning salons, etc. – can be sued for professional malpractice. One question which comes to mind is whether Scholastic is a professional publisher with expertise in its field of endeavor or an amateur.

Big Publishing, Children's Books, PG's Thoughts (such as they are)

16 Comments to “Slavery book author says she had concerns”

  1. One question which comes to mind is whether Scholastic is a professional publisher with expertise in its field of endeavor or an amateur.

    Ooo. Burn. I love it when PG gets snarky.

    • I always thought that the difference between professional and amateur was based on whether it is the livelihood of the person (company?) in question, not a measure of skill.

      Skilled amateur work is often equal or better quality than professional work. Though perhaps not in sport.

  2. Publishing is such a small community, and people do talk. It would be a shame if this does ruin her chances of ever publishing again, but I do feel speaking openly about what went down might save her in the public’s eye. She needs to keep saying just how little control she had over the final product. In fact, someone needs to beat that drum for a very long time.

    • I particularly hope the “I want to be validated by tradpub!” crowd hears that drum. This couldn’t have happened to an indie.

      Last week or so someone commented that books aren’t handled by real editors, but by college interns. I recall that Scholastic is the publisher whose editorial staff didn’t know about historical maps(!) and I gotta wonder. I know I wouldn’t want to put my career in the hands of people so blissfully clueless.

  3. I hope you’re right, Incog. Unfortunately when a book project is a huge success, it’s because of the publisher, and when things tank, it’s always the author’s fault. I’ve never yet seen a publisher take accountability for such disasters.

    • And it said in the article that Scholastic hasn’t commented. (Yet?) Way to nurture your authors, big guys.

  4. My publisher (Harper Collins) did something like this to me–gave my boy-adventure book a romantic, insanely girly cover. I protested that no boy would be caught dead with the book, and that there would be a lot of angry misled reviewers, but they totally railroaded me. Just as predicted, the book got terrible reviews with the main complaint that it wasn’t what readers were expecting. I’m not interested in suing (even if I had grounds–and if this case does, then I’m pretty sure I do too) but I’ll never be working with them again. The moral of this story is just as PG says–have it written in your contract that you must review and approve what the publisher does to your book.

    • I understand it is very rare for a traditionally-published author to have approval rights over covers.

      And even more rare for that author to have a veto.

      Considering how important covers are said to be, it is a very strong reason for doing it yourself.

      • Right, but it’s often rare for a picture book author to work with an illustrator as well. That being said, I agree that it makes for a good case to self publish, if only for editorial arrogance. I think my main reserve (for picture book and MG, which is what I write) is that not a lot of kids own ereaders, and those genres still skew strongly in print.

  5. Barbara Morgenroth

    Traditional publishing is like being a passenger on a runaway train.

  6. The host of deep criticism that this book received was not focused on just the illustrations, and most children’s lit critics were focused on Ganeshram’s own statements about what she was trying to do in the text — which was to counter the prevailing “somber tone” in children’s lit that deals with slavery.

    This AP article allows her to throw the illustrator under the bus, without interviewing the illustrator. It reeks of a PR attempt to set backfires to defend reputation — without citing what was actually in the book.

    A brief search against #SlaverywithaSmile will find a deeper and important discussion that counters this tissue-thin reputation-saving salvo. If she wants to save her reputation, this author should engage with the real issues in an intellectually honest and open way.

    This isn’t an S** complaint – respectable writers don’t throw other professionals under the bus; respectable journalists dig for the deeper story instead of helping with the bus-tossing.

    But yes, also, Scholastic was remarkably stupid.

    • Yes, I can’t find a link now, but my impression is that readers objected not only to the smiling illustrations, but also the text of the book that left out many of the realities of slavery.

  7. I’ve read multiple stories of trad pub authors appalled by the horrible covers their book received, including big names like Meg Wolizer and Rex Pickett. I think Pickett ended up hating trad pub so much he’s an indie now. It’s pretty terrible, especially how books by female authors are given prissy, romantic covers despite the content of the book.

  8. I belong to 2 public library systems and just searched both of their catalogs online. Neither carries this book.

    Perhaps not a coincidence as they are both certainly well-stocked in the children’s picture book area.

  9. I decided to look the book up on Amazon and discovered:

    1. This is the only book I know of with 23% 5-star ratings and 72% 1-star ratings (out of 374 reviewers).

    2. The book is still for sale and the book sample is accessible. I think I could see 8 illustrations. The illustrations might have been worse (considering the size of the controversy), but if you take a look–be sure to scroll all the way to the end of the sample. There’s an illustration there that’s unforgivable (no matter how you decide to assign blame).

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