In which Brianna takes absurd delight in the plight of a former Commander in Chief of these United States. Though the story is probably apocryphal, it nevertheless makes for a silly and charming picture book. This post contains affiliate links. If you purchase anything using those links, we get paid, which helps keep Busy Nest News running. Thanks!
President Taft is Stuck in the Bath, by Mac Barnett and Chris Van Dusen
One of my favorite kinds of humor involves taking a very silly or trivial matter, and coloring it with such seriousness and hyperbole, that it becomes absurd. I tell my husband that his cookies will be ready in 10 minutes, and he says he’s appalled that he’ll have to wait 15. I remind him the number was 10, and now he moans about the 20 minute wait. By the time the cookies are done, he is dramatically moping about having waited three hours for them. Then he grins, says “thanks” as he gives me a kiss, and takes a cookie.
That is exactly why I could not resist the highly controversial picture book President Taft is Stuck in the Bath, by Mac Barnett and Chris Van Dusen. The story features the high drama surrounding the probably apocryphal tale of the time that President Howard Taft got stuck in the White House bathtub. His wife can’t get him out. The Vice President can’t remove him. Eventually President Taft is removed, but it’s a job for his whole cabinet.
I’ll be honest. People hate this book. I’ve seen librarians self-censoring upon reading this book. Van Dusen’s vivid gouache caricatures reveal an awful lot of presidential skin. The first critique I heard was an aghast “this is so undignified!” If you take presidents very seriously, this book is not for you. Some reviews I’ve read explain that they were not fond of the body shaming that is implied in this scenario. I agree that that is a potential problem.
But I think most kids will read this as a real, but simple problem. President Taft is stuck. Kids get stuck all the time! They get a limb stuck in a chair rail or baby gate. Their feet get stuck in the mud. Their shirts get stuck on their heads. They get tangled trying to secure their seatbelts. When I read this book to Monkey, I said “He’s stuck! Do you ever get stuck?” She answered a very serious and concerned “Yes. I get stuck.” If you refuse to allow the conversations around these illustrations to become unkind, I think there is still a lot to be enjoyed. As I mentioned at the start, the humor in this book doesn’t necessarily derive from President Taft’s enormity, so much as how seriously he and his advisors take the relatively trivial problem of getting stuck in something.
The nature of caricatures allows for exaggerated facial expressions. Asking your child how each person is feeling should lead to some good answers in this book. The original critique that this is an undignified situation for a president of the United States holds some water (hehe), but I’m impressed by how much dignity and authority President Taft wields in his face, despite his situation.
If you’re concerned about passing on a presidential urban legend as fact, you will be relieved to know that the facts of this case are all covered in the last two pages of the book. Barnett goes out of his way to provide research and explain that there is no proof that this story is true. Indeed, you probably won’t skip these pages, especially with school-aged children, because even the straightforward timeline is amusing. Bonus: there’s even a photograph of one of President Taft’s very real special-order bathtubs for you to wonder over.
I give President Taft is Stuck in the Bath four eggs. Kids are sure to find the story hilarious and the pictures are beautiful. You can even learn a tiny bit about the function of the president’s various advisors from this story. But it does lose an egg, because it’s a bit of a risk. Teachers: sorry, but you might want to avoid this one.
Would you read this story to your kids? Do you think it's funny, or just mean? Please, tell us in the comments; we REALLY want to know people's thoughts on this book. While you're down there, get in on our sweet weekly newsletter and follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest.
Ariel and Brianna are friends who met while working in a library. Now they collaborate to develop life-enhancing book club experiences.
Let's keep in touch!