I remember clearly the day my son's kindergarten-size brain first glimpsed the great sweep of history: "I know how it works!" he cried. "First there were dinosaurs, then knights and pirates, and now there's us."
The best picture books introduce ideas that are so great, readers begin contemplating them as children and continue to think about them all their lives. So what can small children get out of books about historical figures? It helps when the books are funny. Laughter lubricates the big ideas.
In "Queen Victoria's Bathing Machine" (Paula Wiseman Books/ Simon & Schuster, $17.99, ages 5-8) Gloria Whelan tells the true story of Queen Victoria's desire to swim in the ocean without compromising the dignity of her royal person. Since it was unseemly for the queen to expose herself in a common manner, her devoted husband, Prince Albert, devised an ingenious solution.
It's clear from Nancy Carpenter's whimsical illustrations that Victoria's family was just as eager for fun as any family in any age. Yet here is Victoria, leaning on the balustrade of Osborne House, being laced into her corset while gazing longingly at the sea.
"'My dear,' said Prince Albert, 'if it is your wish/to dabble and splatter and swim like a fish,/there must be a way to transport you with ease,/ while keeping the populace from glimpsing your knees.'"
Albert's first idea is a catapult, but that notion -- sketched out, with Victoria flung through the air in bathing costume and crown -- is quickly abandoned when Victoria points out that it would run afoul of the British fondness for hunting game birds:
"Whatever is up in the air they bring down/and roast it and toast it to a crispy brown,/to have for their breakfast, to have with their tea,/I'm sure you don't wish that to happen to me."
Finally Albert hits on the perfect solution: A cart shall be rolled into the sea, allowing the queen to enter the water, disport herself and return to her private chamber, all without risk of exposing clingy wet bathing clothes or -- heaven forfend! -- bare skin.
A real-world problem, experienced in the conditions of another era: the study of history in a nutshell.
"President Taft Is Stuck in the Bath" by Mac Barnett (Candlewick Press, $16.99, ages 6-9) plays on the one thing many of us might remember about William Howard Taft, the 27th president of the United States: the image of a great fat man with a walrus mustache.
The story here is simple: The corpulent president finds himself unable to rise from his bath. "'Blast!' said Taft. 'This could be bad.'" After struggling valiantly to extricate himself ("He squeezed and he shimmied. He hefted and stretched"), he calls in the first lady, then the vice president, the secretary of state and on down through his cabinet and advisers. They all have advice. The vice president is prepared to take up the duties of office immediately. The secretary of agriculture proposes greasing him up with butter ("If Congress spends the night churning ..."). The secretary of war suggests dynamite. (The president objects: "That's dangerous, man!" The secretary is unfazed: "You'd be wearing a helmet"). The secretary of the treasury's solution, naturally, is "Throw money at the problem!"
Through their combined forces, the group eventually manages to free the president, inadvertently launching him into the garden. Chris Van Dusen's illustrations create a gripping subplot through the artful application of suds to the naked commander in chief.
Although it is a matter of speculation whether President Taft ever, in fact, got wedged in his bathtub, the book documents reports that he did commission several custom tubs -- and lied about doing so.
Is there a real lesson in history here? A most profound one, easily grasped when the secretary of state proposes this toast: "Worry not, great man: One hundred years hence, no one will recall that you were stuck in the bath. Our grandchildren's grandchildren will read of your many great feats."
Among those feats were the establishment of the federal income tax, and a great deal of the law restraining business monopolies in this land. Of course, those accomplishments are not as easily lodged in our mind's eye as the image of old Taft in the bathtub -- especially after reading this book.
The lesson: No one has control over how history will remember him.