Mac Barnett’s newest picture book, President Taft is Stuck in the Bath, will be on shelves in just a couple of weeks. I think it’s funny, and there are a lot of other funny, new picture books I could write about. But there’s one thing in particular I really like about this book. First, let me tell you about the story.
Barnett opens the book with a note about William Howard Taft’s accomplishments. Among those, he was the 27th president of the United States and became the only president to also serve as chief justice of the Supreme Court.
“But,” the next spread shows, “today President Taft is stuck in his bathtub.” Yes, legend has it that the president got stuck in his tub on his inauguration day, though variations on the story say it happened later during his presidency.
In Barnett’s story, Taft attempts to get out, and after hours pass, he resorts to merely hoping no one will see him missing. But when the first lady arrives, he asks her to call the vice president into the room. He, as it turns out, is eager to be sworn in as president. So, Taft calls for the secretary of state. On and on it goes, as various staff members devise (mostly) preposterous propositions for getting the president out of the tub: a huge vat of butter, a few sticks of TNT and a long fuse, deep-sea divers, etc. “The answer is inside you,” says the secretary of the interior. (Bah-dum-ching.)
The wise first lady can barely get a word in, yet it’s she who eventually suggests the practical winning plan: “Perhaps if we stopped using our brains and just used our arms, we could pull Willy out from the bath.” It works, even if he’s flung through the window and lands on the White House lawn. (Cue outrageous laughter from elementary students.)
Barnett tells this larger-than-life story with a pleasing, never-forced rhythm and alliteration. “Taft was aghast” is but one, small example in a story full of sentences that read as smooth as silk, making this one a great read-aloud. Illustrator Chris Van Dusen uses a palette consisting of bright colors—vivid blues, yellows, and greens—and he pulls off a lot of action with a lot of over-the-top humor. It’s impressive for a story of one man stuck in one room.
So, here’s where I get to what I like the most about this book:
In a note at the close of the book, Barnett writes that it’s possible President Taft never actually got stuck in his tub. Included is a black and white photo of Taft’s White House tub, which seats four men, “and there looks to be room for at least two more,” Barnett adds. He then lists Some Facts Pertaining to President Taft and Bathtubs, which opens with: “On August 5, 1910, President Taft denied ever commissioning a special Taft-sized tub.…He was lying.”
The final entry on that list notes that, despite the facts listed, no documentation absolutely confirms that Taft ever got stuck in a tub. It’s what he writes after this list that I like:
“So, did President Taft actually get stuck in the bath?
But more than a century later, this is the story we’re still telling. And to people like me, that’s all that matters.”
I hope all children who pick this book up are sure to read the back matter and get to that last note. It says a whole heapin’ lot in just five short sentences about…well, about a lot of things: how fiction authors might see the world; how an imagination can be put to work to tell a story; and one of the fundamental delineations between fiction and nonfiction.
And the latter—ensuring that children know their very real facts from their very fuzzy facts—is important, especially in the world today. Is everything a child sees on Google true? No, but they need to learn that. School librarians today build entire lesson plans around this notion of information literacy. To make lesson number one a bit more fun, I’d start with this entertaining book.
But wait. I lied. There’s one more thing I especially like about this book: There’s a quote from Taft that appears on the back of the book. (Granted, I’ve got only an early copy of in hand, but I assume the final hardback version will have this on the back of the dust jacket.) It says: “We are all imperfect.”
Truer words were never spoken.
PRESIDENT TAFT IS STUCK IN THE BATH. Text copyright © 2014 by Mac Barnett. Illustrations copyright © 2014 by Chris Van Dusen. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.