The President’s Stuck in the Bathtub!: Poems About the Presidents
By Susan Katz
Illustrated by Robert Neubecker
Clarion Books (an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
On shelves now
Funny what kids pick up. When I was a tot of four I had a little electronic game that came with its own book. You’d turn the pages and press the button that corresponded to the correct trivia question. In this way I learned that Mozart wrote his first piece of music when he was five (I figured I had some leeway because of this), that Marie Antoinette had her head cut off, and that President Taft got stuck in his bathtub because he was so fat. That’s the kind of presidential wisdom a kid’s gonna carry with them the rest of their life. It’s also how I learned that teaching kids about famous people at a young age actually will stick with them into adulthood if the medium is interesting enough. Poetry would not be my first method of instilling memories, but in The President’s Stuck in the Bathtub!: Poems About the Presidents poet Susan Katz does a darn good job locating fun facts about even the dullest leaders. They may not have been equal in stature but at least in this book each one has his say, whether it’s escaping a vicious rabbit or seeing the occasional ghost.
They’ve been dull and scintillating. Clever and thick. Remarkably tall and surprisingly short. And what’s with all the parrots as pets? With great dexterity and even greater patience Susan Katz culls, entices, and sometimes even forces interesting facts out of each and every one of our presidents. That done, she turns those traits or events into poems, being sure to include fun additional facts at the bottom of each page. The result is that kids get to meet “Elevator Operator” John F. Kennedy, the “Funny-Looking” James Buchanan, and even “Vegetating” George H.W. Bush. Accompanied by work by illustrator Robert Neubecker, the book is a ribald look at our nation’s leaders. Backmatter includes dates, quotes, nicknames, and “firsts” for each man.
As it says on the bookflap, “Susan Katz discovered while working on this book that not all American presidents were very funny people, and she found herself doing more research for this one project than for all her other books put together.” I’m not surprised to hear it since the sheer number of new facts here are astounding. She even seems to have made a conscious effort to avoid the obvious ones (George Washington’s teeth, Lincoln’s jokes, etc.). Of course, you can’t help but wonder if Ms. Katz made too much work for herself when she included a note on what each president was the “first” to do, and didn’t go with the obvious answers. George Washington? “First president pictured on a postage stamp.” Abraham Lincoln? “First president born outside the boundaries of the thirteen original states (in Kentucky).” No mean feat.
In one of the reviews I read the reviewer complained that Katz brings up facts about the presidents that aren’t particularly interesting (Millard Fillmore was boring, James Madison was short, John Adams rotund, etc.). Seems to me that isn’t very fair consider how much fun their poems (and the accompanying illustrations) are in the end. Besides, I consider Millard Fillmore the letter X of the presidential world. You know how every time you get an alphabet book you flip to the letter X to figure out how the authors chose to handle that difficult letter? Well the same goes for Fillmore. Even William Henry Harrison’s more interesting (as The Simpsons put it, “I died in thirty days!”).
The poetry itself mostly worked. There are, however, a few times that it really rankled. I’m not a particularly creative person when it comes to scans and rhymes. I like poems to make sense to me as they ABABAB or AABBCCD. In this book you really have to go on a case-by-case basis with some of these poems. “Yankee Doodle Dandy” about William McKinley, for example, threw me for a serious loop. The rhyme scheme, such as it is, appears to be ABCCD EDFFG. When I write it out like that it makes a lot more sense. On the page, however, I was stumped by how to read it aloud, particularly when the last word of “dandy” didn’t seem to rhyme with anything. Poems like these are rarities in a sea of verse that works. I just wished that they all flowed as nicely as poems like “The White House Gang” (about Teddy Roosevelt being a part of his son’s rough and tumble crew) or “A Presidential Memo” about Nixon.
Robert Neubecker was an interesting fella to tap for this book. I know he’s done a lot of different books over the years but my primary association with him is still Wow! City! and its spin-offs. Neubecker’s job here is hardly easy anyway. First there’s the issue of making the presidents recognizable (done well enough, though caricaturist he will never hope to be). Then there’s the issue of throwing more than one race into the images. Whenever we talk about the presidents we have to wait an awfully long time before we can get to Barack. Neubecker slips in different ethnicities when he reasonably can. The fellow aghast at John Quincy Adams’ skinny dipping. Folks in the angry mob of Whigs (not so sure about that one circa 1841, but all right). The trumpeter playing “Hail to the Chief” to Chester A. Arthur. You don’t necessarily believe that they were there all the time (and we could debate if it’s historically misleading to say that they were), but at least Neubecker’s making an effort. That’s something.
As for the art itself, Neubecker has a good eye for what the most interesting thing to highlight in a given poem might be. Often he has to get a little creative. Grover Cleveland was the only president to serve two nonconsecutive terms? Have him shaking hands with himself. President Eisenhower was only one of seven brothers all known as “Ike”? Show a picture of seven identical boys, all different ages, all with the same face. Sometimes the images don’t make reference to the poems but to the small notes that come afterwards. For example, the image that accompanies the Rutherford B. Hayes poem “The President’s on the Phone” shows Rutherford reacting to a high C described in the note as sung by one of his friends and that shattered the telephone’s sounding board. Hey, man. Making this kind of stuff interesting about dudes who are seriously dull is no easy matter.
The closest approximation this book has to any other in your average everyday children’s room is that classic Caldecott winner So You Want to be President? by Judith St. George. Like this book, that one identified various presidents and highlighted some quirks. Katz eschews the known stories as well as the scandals and controversies that dogged many of the men in here. In the process, she grants some of these fellows a posthumous present: something to remember them by. Not the big things, but the little ones. The details and funny matters that made them human beings. Because as far as I can tell, the best way to get a kid interested in something is to point out something weird about it. After that, it may not be smooth sailing, but at least they’ll have something to remember President Taft for (besides the Judiciary Act of 1925, of course).
Like This? Then Try:
- Our Abe Lincoln: An Old Tune With New Lyrics by Jim Aylesworth
- So You Want to Be President? by Judith St. George
- Wackiest White House Pets by Gibbs Davis
- If the Walls Could Talk: Family Life at the White House by Jane O’Connor
- Happy, Poetry Friday! We turn now to Wild Rose Reader for the round-up.
Video: To say this has a connection to the book is stretching the truth a little. I just like the song and wanted to work it in. Go, Taft, go!