If academics had a hard time with the naked Mickey yelling Cock-a-doodle-doo in In the Night Kitchen, what would they say to a kid’s book where all the adults get into the bathtub together? What exactly would they conclude from a big, hairy, naked king jovially commanding all of his subjects to conduct their business with him–fishing, eating lunch, having masquerade balls, planning battles– in the bubbly waters of his bath? Maybe something smart about Freud and patriarchies. Wouldn’t blame them. The king’s reversion to a naked child revisiting the joy of bathing and treating adult responsibilities like rubber duckies sort of begs psychoanalysis.
It might be said that in putting out a kid’s book about a naked man forcing people into his bath, Don and Audrey Wood are pushing the limit on what is acceptable. Now, King Bidgood’s in the Bathtub is another one of those Caldecott Honor books, so obviously not everyone is offended by King Bidgood’s antics. Sure, you could point to the issues of power abuse in that the naked man is a king ordering his subjects into his bath. Just look at the faces of each person as they leave the bath, sodden, shrunken, and demeaned with that look of “I’ve just been violated” on their faces. But, that said, you could also point to the jovial child-like quality of the king, to a call-back to a more innocent time in which kids bathed together, to an FU to the Puritan fear of nudity. You might even find a message which lauds individual thinking over blind participation in a cultural norm. The whole story revolves around the fact that King Bidgood will NOT get out of the tub. His wife, knights, subjects try to gently entice him out, acting as those loyal subjects unallowed to tell a king he is wrong. It is in fact the page who succeeds in getting King Bidgood out of the tub by simply pulling the plug. He is the only one who doesn’t pander to the king’s antics.
Now I don’t mean to say that the authors are pointing us to these views of their book. That kind of sociohistorical analysis of authorial intention kind of creeps me out anyway. After all, New Historicism killed that beast decades ago, took the power of intention out of our greedy little hands. Nowadays all we can talk about without feeling outdated is the push and pull a reader– you and me– might experience while reading something. And even then, well, a little self-consciousness helps keep us in check. With all these possible (and contradicting) reactions to the book, you might imagine the push and pull could be a little unsettling. Uncomfortable. But the glory of King Bidgood’s in the Bathtub is that while it let’s adults indulge in frivolous questions of interpretation (as any good book should do), it isn’t confusing (as any good kid’s book shouldn’t be). It isn’t uncomfortable. It’s just fun. Adults get several layers for playing interpreter, kids get something they can sympathize with (the glory of the bathtub and toys and friends) and everyone has fun. And that’s why I like this book so much. At the end of it all, everything’s drowned out by riotous glee and while we may indulge our adult mind with Freudian implications and Machiavellian systems, the fun ultimately just washes all those trained thoughts away. And of course the art, as all of Don Wood’s art does, only helps, adding the beautiful, thoughtful, and realistic to make the absurdity of the situation somehow real. Really, you kind of wish you were in that bathtub too, with the toy war ships, the big cake, the leaping fish, and the masked dancers. Everyone else is doing it…
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