Simms Taback's Joseph Had a Little Overcoat
Children's book review by Steve Barancik
How often do you get a do-over?
In 1977, Simms Taback published his first version of Joseph Had a Little Overcoat with Random House.
I can't even find a picture of it on Amazon.
In 1999, Penguin Putnam gave him the second chance he was looking for. In 2000, 20 years after initial publication, this second version of Taback's adaptation of the old Yiddish folk song, I Had a Little Overcoat won Taback a much-deserved Caldecott Medal.
I'm thinking that maybe Taback bought back all those old copies!
His second attempt succeeds on all visual levels, pulling everything out of his artistic bag of tricks, including watercolor, gouache, collage, pencil, ink and die-cut pages for some visual sleight of hand.
The song is a simple one, and so is the story. Joseph, who looks to be from the "old country," has a worn old overcoat, dotted with patches. So he takes the good material and turns it into a jacket. When that grows worn...well, you get the idea.
While the text says nothing of it, the illustrations depict a pre-mechanized, Eastern European Jewish community and are all the richer for it. Sly tributes to late 19th-early 20th century Yiddish author Sholem Aleichem are peppered throughout the pages, along with other Jewish personages of a certain era and some homegrown Yiddish wisdom.
(Taback, by the way, is also the author-illustrator of perhaps the better known There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly, also visually striking and terrifically absurd!)
While a short read, Joseph Had a Little Overcoat contains enough visuals to justify a long wait between turns of the page. An English translation of I Had a Little Overcoat appears on the final page, with music.
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