If you are seeking a good laugh, then look no further. President Taft is Stuck in the Bath by Mac Barnett and Chris Van Dusen is a humorous interpretation of the speculative story that President Taft did indeed get stuck in his bath. Barnett’s prose is witty and comically irreverent. Van Dusen’s illustrations add another layer of hilarity to create picture book perfection.
Candlewick Press recommends this book for ages 4-8, but I believe all audiences will find great enjoyment in it. Young children will laugh at the ridiculousness of the situation and the illustrations that play out Taft’s indelicate dilemma. Older children and adults will appreciate the incorporated wordplay as government officials are brought in to help Taft out of the bath.
There is some uncertainty as to whether Taft was ever stuck in his bath, but there are two pages in the back that recount some of the theories. In addition, there is a funny historical account of Taft’s factual interactions with bathtubs. As such, President Taft is Stuck in the Bath would be an entertaining supplement when studying this president in American history.
The Cat in the Hat forever changed the stigma of “early reader” in the best way. Challenged to write an engaging story that young readers could tackle themselves, Dr. Seuss created his masterpiece to promote literacy. The book has maintained “classic” status ever since it was published in 1957. Its popularity led to a sequel (The Cat in the Hat Comes Back) and spawned a whole series of easy reader books, some written by Seuss, some written by other authors. Many of these books are also classics in their own right (Green Eggs and Ham, Hop on Pop, Fox in Socks, Go, Dog. Go!), continuing to teach newer generations of children to read.
In 2007, fifty years after The Cat in the Hat debuted, popular author-illustrator Mo Willems introduced young readers to Elephant and Piggie. In under ten years, Willems created 25 books in his series, all done in comic-book style. Text is sparse and done in dialogue. The stories are engaging, full of heart, and always served with a heaping dose of humor. Adults and kids love Elephant and Piggie, and I know I am not alone in being seriously bummed that The Thank You Book, published last year, is the final book in the series.
Just like the Cat in the Hat, Elephant and Piggie have become iconic. Go out and find first and second graders and ask – they all know Elephant and Piggie! And just like the Cat in the Hat generated a new line of early readers, Elephant and Piggie now give their stamp of approval on early readers written by various authors.
The American Library Association (the same group awarding the Newbery and Caldecott Medals) created the Theodor Seuss Geisel Award in 2004 as a way of honoring Seuss’s contributions to children’s literature. The award is given annually to “the author(s) and illustrator(s) of the most distinguished contribution to the body of American children’s literature known as beginning reader books published in the United States during the preceding year.” (For more information on the Geisel Award and to see past recipients, visit the ALA’s site here.) It’s fitting that several of the Elephant and Piggie books have either won or received honors.
I’ve already mentioned several books illustrated by Caldecott Winner Melissa Sweet, but I didn’t want to leave this one out. In what was clearly a labor of love, Sweet wrote and illustrated Some Writer!, which is long enough to be a middle grade novel, but also has the feel of one of Sweet’s picture books.
Many will recognize E. B. White as the iconic writer of Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, and Trumpet of the Swan, but I doubt many know much about his life. Even though Charlotte’s Web is one of my favorite books, I admit I did not know what E. B. stood for. (Elwyn Brooks, for those interested.)
Sweet covers White’s life from beginning to end, enriching the narrative by incorporating writing from White’s letters, essays, and books. We read of White’s summers in Maine as a boy, and readers of Trumpet of the Swan will see how much nature inspired White, even at an early age. We learn about the connection to Professor William Strunk, Jr. that would later lead to Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. We are introduced to White’s adventurous days in which he roamed from one end of the country, supporting himself by odd jobs and various writing gigs. We gain a deeper connection to White’s personal life in learning more about his wife, son, and stepchildren. White’s granddaughter, Martha, even provided an afterword and granted Sweet access to some of White’s personal items and letters.
There are chapters that discuss the background and making of each of White’s books. Young readers may be surprised to learn about White’s ongoing employment with the elite literary magazine, The New Yorker. Through captions and editorial comments, we witness White’s sense of humor and his love for playing with words.
Some Writer!: The Story of E. B. White is a great nonfiction read for those who love his work, and it is inspiring to future writers. The book is appropriate for ages eight and up, though I suspect older readers will catch more of the details that make the book so interesting.
You’re probably scratching your head wondering why I’ve mentioned Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales in a discussion of children’s literature. And if so, your confusion is well founded. No, I don’t believe The Canterbury Tales is a children’s book, but The Inquisitor’s Tale by Adam Gidwitz is a beautiful middle grade novel that evokes the spirit of Canterbury.
In full disclosure, I must admit that I have not read The Canterbury Tales in completion, but I have read several of the tales. Here’s a quick background. The tales, many of which are written in verse, are a collection of stories that pilgrims share on their journey from London to Canterbury.
The Inquisitor’s Tale draws from this concept, but with a delightful twist. As in Canterbury, there are several storytellers, each with unique voices and points of view, but in this book they are providing pieces of the same tale. Set in thirteenth century France, the Inquisitor is assembling these stories to create a full narrative of three children, their holy dog, and their adventures.
Perhaps most remarkable, The Inquisitor’s Tale manages to feature Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and mysticism in a respectful way, without placing preference. Each of the children comes from diverse backgrounds. William’s parents are a crusading father and Muslim mother. He never knew his mother and has grown up in the care of a monastery, but his overall appearance is startling to the predominantly Caucasian medieval French population. Jeanne (who the author named after Joan of Arc) is a peasant who has visions. Jacob is a Jewish boy who fled after a hate crime burned down his village and killed his parents. As to be expected, the children are first skeptical of one another, but they come to rely on each other, and eventually develop a deep friendship.
The Inquisitor’s Tale is a fresh story for kids, set in a time period and dealing with issues often overlooked in children’s literature. Gidwitz spent years researching, with help from his wife who happens to be a professor of medieval history. Illuminations, drawn by Hatem Aly, enhance the story in the same way illuminations would have been added to medieval manuscripts.
The Inquisitor’s Tale would be a wonderful supplement to medieval studies, though the story is enjoyable on its own as well. Gidwitz provides several pages of his own historical commentary and a bibliography that includes sources appropriate for both kids and adults. The publisher recommends this book for ages 10 and up, which I agree with, but I do think it would be more appreciated by a reader at least 12 years old.