One of the best things about having kids is that they just so deliriously, gloriously weird. And I mean “weird” in the absolute best sense of the word. I love how impossibly random my daughter can be. She’s just this beautiful little sponge who soaks up so many inputs and pieces of information from the world around her, and I never can predict how she’s going to process that information and spit it back out again. This is all a prelude to explain why I was so surprised that one family vacation and one trip to our local library could ever inspire my five-year-old daughter to turn to me one day and say, with complete earnestness, “Dad, my absolute favorite U.S. President is President William H. Taft.”
That’s right. William H. Taft. The twenty-seventh President of the United States. Also known as “Not one of our best-known presidents AT ALL.” He’s the guy who came after Teddy Roosevelt, a.k.a. “TOTALLY one of our best-known presidents, plus he was in those Night at the Museum movies, so it REALLY wouldn’t be weird if your five-year-old knew HIM.” But, nope, my kid likes Taft. She’s funny that way.
So, how did my daughter become enamoured with a president whom some might understandably label as “obscure”? Well, earlier this year, we visited some friends who live right outside of Washington D.C., and we spent one day walking around the National Mall, seeing the White House, visiting the various memorials, and generally having a great time. I wasn’t prepared for how much my daughter enjoyed the experience. She was endlessly curious about everything we walked past, and I spent the day trying to explain everything from the legacy of Abraham Lincoln to the cause of the Korean War.
(One of my favorite moments was, while standing outside the FBI Building, finding myself very seriously explaining The X-Files to my five-year-old. I, apparently, want my kid to “believe.”)
But, for whatever reason, the thing that really interested my daughter were the U.S. Presidents and, when told she could pick out one souvenir, she selected a laminated placemat with all the presidents on it from the Thomas Jefferson Memorial gift shop. She combed over that placemat for our whole drive home to Michigan, peppering us with constant questions like “What’s a Whig?” or “Which were the good presidents and which were the bad presidents?”
We were walking to our local library a few days after we got home from D.C. and my daughter informed me that she wanted to get some books on the presidents. I said that was a great idea, and she then asked me if I knew any stories about the presidents. I paused for a moment and said, “Well, did you hear about the president who was so fat he got stuck in the White House bathtub?” That was, of course, William H. Taft.
My daughter’s eyes went HUGE with excitement. “You are joking,” she said. “Really?” She then started laughing hysterically. Once she stopped, I recounted a half-remembered anecdote about Taft, being the fattest president on record, once getting stuck in the tub – a bathtub that he later replaced with a tub supposedly big enough to bathe four men. My daughter went CRAZY for this story. She loved it. She couldn’t get enough of it. She kept asking me for more details, which I didn’t have. I’d heard the story once before and wasn’t entirely sure it was true.
Once we got to the library, my daughter ran over to the youth librarian and the two of them disappeared into the stacks together. Minutes later, she came running back to me, beaming and holding a picture book. “I found it! I found it!” she yelled. And she opened her book to a lovely illustration of the late great William H. Taft being hoisted out of a bathtub.
I don’t think my daughter thought I was lying about my Taft story, but the fact that she was able to find a book so quickly with such visual proof of my anecdote – she just thought it was the best thing in the world. That something that crazy could actually happen to an American President. It somehow turned Taft into this legendary figure in her mind, far more interesting than John Adams or Richard Nixon.
The book she found was So You Want to be President? by Judith St. George and David Small, a fantastic nonfiction picture book that won the Caldecott Medal in 2001. If you’ve sometimes resisted reading history books with your kids for fear that the subject matter would be too dry, I really encourage you to give So You Want to be President? a try. It does an amazing job of humanizing the office of the American presidency. It offers a hodge-podge of historical facts, recounted in playful tone, that truly bring the various Presidents to life. St. George alternates between reveling in the minuatue of their presidencies – recounting who the best-looking presidents were, what the presidents’ hobbies were, or how many presidents were named “George” – and offering simple, direct commentary on the presidents themselves.
For example, St. George isn’t afraid to mention the simple, yet profound truth that not all of the presidents were good at their jobs. (She makes a solid case for Warren Harding being one of our worst presidents, a statement that’s backed up by quotes from Harding himself.)
Also, So You Want to be President? is illustrated by David Small, one of our family’s favorite artists, who has written and illustrated a number of picture books, including Imogene’s Antlers, which stands as one of my daughter’s favorite books of all time. My daughter is a huge fan of Small – we check his books out from the library incredibly often – so, the fact that she found proof of my Taft anecdote, illustrated by one of her most beloved illustrators, it was a huge moment.
From that moment on, she talked about Taft CONSTANTLY and even flirted briefly with dressing up as Taft for Halloween this year. (In the end, she wasn’t sure she wanted to walk around all night with a bathtub on her back.) But the crazy thing is – her love of Taft was completely based around the legend of Taft as – to put it bluntly – “the big fat president.” She knew nothing about his policies or personality. All she knew was that he was fat enough to inspire an amusing story.
Her view of Taft as the “big fat president” was further reinforced by our next trip to the library, when she asked the librarian for more books on Taft and came home with The President and Mom’s Apple Pie by Michael Garland. In this picture book, Taft travels to a small town to dedicate a flag pole in 1909, but, when he gets off the train, he follows his nose around town, looking for the source of a particularly delicious aroma. A young boy leads Taft through the city, helping the President sample various dishes, including spaghetti and meatballs, ribs, and Chinese steamed vegetables, until the President heads for the young boy’s house, apparently transfixed by the smell of an apple pie, baked by the boy’s mother.
It’s an interesting picture book. The story is passable, though I found Garland‘s artwork to be hit or miss – his almost circular caricature of Taft is the book’s strongest visual element. The President and Mom’s Apple Pie unquestionably casts Taft in the role of “big fat president”, further expanding the legend to suggest that Taft could follow an apple pie around town like a bloodhound tracking down his prey. But it’s obvious that Michael Garland also has a lot of affection for Taft. The best part of The President and Mom’s Apple Pie is a two-paragraph biography of Taft that’s included on the copyright page, which does a wonderful job of humanizing Taft. It gives you a sense of who he was as a man and casts him as responsible politician who was thrown into the presidency against his will. (It goes as far to say that “Taft never really enjoyed the job.”) However, I do find it hard to reconcile the tone of that biography with the tone of the rest of book, which makes Taft seem like a more genial version of Sonny the Cocoa Puffs Cuckoo Bird.
Granted, I find the idea that my daughter is so taken with a mustachioed president from the 1800s as a very funny and very cool turn of events. But I worry that it’s disrespectful and/or trivial that my daughter selected her favorite president based solely on the legend of what a great big fatty-fat-fat he was.
In order to balance the scales a bit – and help our daughter learn even more about her new “favorite” president – my wife bought her a copy of I Grew Up to Be President by Laurie Calkhoven and Rebecca Zomchek, a well-organized nonfiction book that gives a short, succinct history of each president – along with some interesting personal details – accompanied by a picture of the grown president and an illustration of what the president looked like as a young boy. While the text isn’t as clever or perceptive as Judith St. George‘s text in So You Want to be President?, this is a much more complete look at each president. I Grew Up to Be President is more of a reference book than anything else, though to her credit, Calkhoven‘s writing is strong enough that sitting down to read the whole thing wouldn’t be a completely painful experience.
My daughter really enjoyed reading the history of William Taft‘s life in I Grew Up to Be President, which does a nice job of mixing the legend with the man himself. While my daughter learned much more about Taft than she had previously – particularly about his friendship and eventually falling out with Theodore Roosevelt – there still was a short rubric in his personal history titled “Big Bill” that made sure to mention his weight and the bathtub incident. (The illustration of Taft as a child also has the young Taft sitting in a bathtub – which made me laugh.)
While I enjoy seeing my daughter so engaged by American history, I’m definitely of two minds about her recent Taft fixation.
On one hand, I love that reading nonfiction picture books has really inspired my daughter to learn more about history and historical figures. The amount of Taft knowledge that she’s got stored in her almost six-year-old brain amazes me, and I marvel at how picture books like So You Want to be President?, The President and Mom’s Apple Pie, and I Grew Up to Be President have been so effective at drawing her in as a reader and engaging her with facts and anecdotes.
On the other hand, I suspect that the main reason my daughter loves Taft so much is because she regards him as “the big fat president.” The legend of his fatness, for whatever reason, has made him his loveable, jolly figure in her mind. And I worry if that’s a too frivolous, dismissive reason to be interested in this man – this actual person, not Santa Claus – who actually accomplished a great deal with his very, very interesting life.
But, at the end of the day, though his “fat president” legend may be exaggerated and embarrassing, you can’t deny that Taft’s legend HAS made him interesting to at least one very young American. Can John Tyler (President #10) or Franklin Pierce (#14) say the same thing? Heck, if it wasn’t for my daughter’s laminated placemat, I probably wouldn’t even know who they were. But I definitely know Taft, bathtub at all.
So, is it better to be a slightly embarrassing legend or a historical footnote nobody? In the case of William H. Taft, I think the “big fat president” thing is working for him. He’s inspired some fantastic children’s book portrayals of his presidency and he almost inspired a five-year-old girl to glue on a mustache, shove a pillow under her shirt, and trick-r-treat as a long-dead nineteenth-century politician. Can Chester A. Arthur say the same?