One of these characters is the great Archimedes: mathematician, scientist, engineer, bath-taker . . . . The others are a kangaroo and a wombat, icons of Australian nature. What happens when they take a bath together? This is the topic of New Zealand picture-book writer, Pamela Allen’s lovely book Mr Archimedes’ Bath (Harper Collins, 1980). . . . .
As part of my research for the Our Mythical Survey project, I’ve been digging around to see how Australian children’s writers are making connections to classical antiquity. I’ve made some discoveries. First, that Australian picture books cover an enormous range of territories and purposes, from didacticism to entertainment, from comedy to tragedy, from the national to the personal. Second, that many of them incorporate exquisite imagery with profound, witty, and thoughtful texts. And third, that in Australian children’s books, classical receptions adapt moments from antiquity and myth, recasting them in new and intriguing ways.
A case in point is Mr Archimedes’ Bath, by the great Pamela Allen. A New Zealand artist, she moved to Australia in the late 1970s, where she began an illustrious career with a children’s book writer and illustrator with this lovely book.
Mr Archimedes’ Bath is a book about bath-time (that perennial of life with young children), with a classical twist. Its premise is simple: at bath-time, Mr Archimedes and his companion animals, a goat, a kangaroo, and a wombat, notice that the water keeps spilling out. Whose fault is it? They take it in turns to jump in and out of the bath, measuring the water each time. Finally . . .
Mr Archimedes got so excited that he jumped in and out, in and out, to make the water go up and down. ‘EUREKA! I’ve found it, I’ve found it’ he shouted. ‘Jump in everyone.’ And the bath overflowed. ‘See,’ said Mr Archimedes. ‘We make the water go up.’
Mr Archimedes discovers, as we might expect, that it’s everyone’s (and no-one’s) ‘fault.’ Problem solved, they carry on, jumping in and out, making ‘more mess than ever before.’
Without going into a super-forceful reception studies analysis of this book, it’s safe to say this book has it all: a book about bath-time starring Archimedes makes perfect sense; Allen brings him to Australia by including a kangaroo and wombat (and, really, who wouldn’t want to share one’s bath with a wombat?)
Allen returns to the topic of water and weight, with the equally delightful Who Sank the Boat (in which a number of animals debate who sank their boat), and Alexander’s Adventure (in which a duckling from Sydney’s Botanical Gardens falls in a hole, and is rescued by passers by pouring in water from the Archibald Fountain). But it is Mr Archimedes’ Bath that tickles this reader’s fancy.
Mr Archimedes’ Bath is light and funny. It shows that classical reception doesn’t have to be about myth, or literature, or art, or even particularly deliberate, and that even the greatest scientist may have a slightly crinkly bottom. The principles of displacement are seldom so entertainingly depicted.