Taback, Simms 1932-

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Simms Taback

American illustrator and author of picture books.

The following entry presents an overview of Taback's career through 2003.


Children's book author and illustrator Taback was awarded the 1998 Caldecott Honor Award for There was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly (1997), adapted from a traditional American song, and the prestigious 2000 Caldecott Gold Medal for the revised edition of his Joseph Had a Little Overcoat (1977; revised, 1999), adapted from a Yiddish folk song. Taback has distinguished himself by his innovative techniques of utilizing die-cut pages and detailed mixed-media collage illustrations to enhance the text of stories written and adapted by himself and others. In addition to illustrating some thirty-five children's books, Taback has been a commercial graphic artist for over forty years and has been recognized for designing the first McDonald's "Happy Meal" box, a promotional packaging innovation aimed at children for the fast-food industry. Taback's "Happy Meal" box has been preserved as a display item in the collection of the national Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C.


Taback was born on February 13, 1932, and grew up in a working-class Jewish neighborhood in the Bronx in New York City. Taback's Polish-Jewish heritage and his exposure to Jewish culture as a youth became an important influence on his writing of Joseph Had a Little Overcoat. In his Caldecott Medal acceptance speech, Taback explained that Joseph Had a Little Overcoat holds a special significance for him, because it is "set in a world I heard to much about as a child and tells a story which is so personal to me." Taback's family belonged to a community organization that built their own cooperative housing project, which included a community center, science and sports clubs, art classes, and a library. He recalls, "Upon reflection, I see my old neighborhood as an extension of the shtetl life these European Jews had experienced as children. They left Europe for a new life in America, Der Goldenah Medina (Streets Paved with Gold), far away from pogroms, but still with a sense of community, humor, and values learned from generations of family." Taback's grandfather had immigrated to the United States from a Jewish shtetl in Poland, where he worked as a blacksmith. Taback's first language was Yiddish, a hybrid language traditional to Polish Jews, but he forgot most of it after he entered school and adopted the English language. He attended New York's prestigious Music and Art High School and went on to earn a B.F.A. in art from Cooper Union in 1953. During the Korean War, he was drafted into the United States Army and served as a private first class from 1953 to 1955. Taback got married after the war and began working to support his family as a graphic artist in 1956. He worked for several years as a staff graphic designer for a variety of corporations, before becoming a freelance graphic artist in 1960. As an illustrator and graphic designer for over forty years, he has designed packaging and promotional materials for such businesses as Eastern Airlines, McDonald's, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and American Express, as well as the television networks CBS, NBC, and ABC, the children's television show Sesame Street, and numerous popular periodicals, such as the New York Times. In 1987 he co-founded a greeting card company, which he sold in 1994. Taback began illustrating children's books during the 1960s but has commented that several of his early efforts in this medium were outright commercial failures. He began to openly protest the unfair pay scale for children's book illustrators and, in 1974, joined an organization of artists which successfully approached the publishing industry to demand an increase in fees paid for their work. This organization became the Illustrators Guild, of which Taback served as president from 1975 to 1977. In the late 1970s, the Illustrators Guild merged with the Graphic Artists Guild. Taback served on the National Board of the Graphic Artists Guild for over twenty years, serving as president of the guild from 1989 to 1991. The guild recognized Taback's contributions with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1998. Taback's break-through as a nationally-celebrated illustrator of children's books did not come until 1998, when There was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly received the Caldecott Honor Award. Taback has taught illustration and design at the School of Visual Arts in New York City and at Syracuse University.


Taback's Joseph Had a Little Overcoat is a reillustrated edition of a 1977 book by Taback of the same title. In this adaptation of the traditional Yiddish song, "I Had a Little Overcoat," Joseph Kohn, a farmer living in a Polish shtetl, has an old overcoat with so many holes that he decides to use the material to refashion it into a jacket. When the jacket becomes old and develops too many holes, he again refashions it into a vest, then a scarf, then a tie, then a handkerchief, and so on. Finally, there is nothing left of the old overcoat but a single button, which Joseph eventually loses. After that, he refashions the memory of the old overcoat into a storybook. Joseph is designed with a die-cut in each page in the shapes of the clothing items Joseph creates from the old overcoat. In acknowledging the Caldecott Committee's choice of Joseph for the 2000 Medal, Taback asserted, "I am thrilled that this almost forgotten Jewish life that went on up until World War II is now [in] a best-selling children's book. This book may fill a gap for many people whose Jewish immigrant families spoke Yiddish, but very little of the real history or real culture got transmitted to them. [I hope] it will also introduce more people to a wonderful culture and a rich history that shouldn't only be known by Jews." In There was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly, Taback portrays the progression of creatures swallowed by an old lady, including a fly, a cat, a dog, and a cow. There was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly is designed with progressively larger die-cut holes representing the old lady's stomach, as each new animal joins the others in her stomach with each turn of the page. Her final act, the swallowing of a horse, leads the narrator to provide the tongue-in-cheek moral of the story: "Never swallow a horse." For This Is the House that Jack Built (2002), Taback adapted and illustrated a classic eighteenth-century story about the various creatures who invade Jack's home. Taback utilizes a collage technique with mixed media and superimposed text to give the story a modern and whimsical tone.

Among the numerous children's books Taback has illustrated for other authors, some of the more recent titles include Road Builders (1994), by B. G. Hennessy, Sam's Wild West Show (1995), by Nancy Antle, Two Little Witches (1996), by Harriet Ziefert, and When I First Came to this Land (1998), adapted by Harriet Ziefert. Road Builders follows the process of a construction crew arriving at an empty field and building an expressway, with an emphasis on their use of heavy mechanical equipment. Sam's Wild West Show demonstrates the struggle of good cowboys and cowgirls versus outlaw bandits attempting to rob a bank. Two Little Witches is a counting book structured around the increasing numbers of a group of trick-or-treaters in various costumes on Halloween night. The story begins with two witches, who are joined by a clown, then a princess, and so on, until there are ten trick-or-treaters in all. When I First Came to this Land is a retelling of a nineteenth-century American folk song about an immigrant to America who obtains a farm, builds his own house, acquires a cow, a pig, a horse, a plow, and finally gets married and has a child.


Taback has been almost universally praised for his innovative technique of combining die-cut page design with detailed mixed-media collages to create humorous, whimsical, and playful images that enliven his own and others' original works and adaptations. His reinterpretations of traditional songs and poems have received consistently positive reviews, with critics noting his unique and engaging page layout. For example, Helen Rosenberg has lauded There was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly, arguing that, "[a]lthough there are many versions of this perennial favorite, this is one of the funniest and most innovative yet. The funky art and the terrific humor are a winning combination." The revised version of Joseph Had a Little Overcoat has also been enthusiastically received by reviewers. Barbara Kiefer, Chair of the 2000 Caldecott Award Selection Committee, in a statement regarding the choice of Joseph for the committee's prestigious Gold Medal award, commented that "[v]ibrant rich colors, playful details, and skillfully placed die cuts contribute to the book's raucous merriment that takes this Yiddish folk song beyond the simple words." Commentators such as Tim Arnold have argued that Taback's "festive yet controlled" collage illustrations in Joseph help enliven the story with warmth, humor, and humanity. Though Taback's original works have been acclaimed, critics have also noted the significant contribution of his illustrations to the works of other children's authors—particularly his frequent collaboration with Harriet Ziefert. Ziefert's and Taback's When I First Came to this Land has received generally mixed assessments from critics. In his review of When I First Came to this Land, John Peters has observed that, "Taback gives each mishap visual form with simply drawn comic scenes, festooned with cutout photos of flowers, leaves, postage stamps, and other small items." However, other reviewers have claimed that the chaotic relationship between the layout and the text lessens the impact of the narrative.


Please Share that Peanut!: A Preposterous Pageant in Fourteen Acts Concerned with the Exquisite Joys and Extraordinary Adventures of Young Ladies and Gentlemen Engaged in the Pleasurable Practice of Sharing (1965) was designated one of the ten best illustrated books of 1967 by the New York Times. Taback was awarded the certificate of excellence from Parenting magazine, a Parents' Choice Gold award, and the American Library Association Notable award, as well as a 1998 Caldecott Honor Book award, for There was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly. Old Lady was also one of ten titles to appear on the New York Times annual best illustrated books list. He also received the 2000 Caldecott Gold Medal for the revised edition of Joseph Had a Little Overcoat.


Please Share that Peanut!: A Preposterous Pageant in Fourteen Acts Concerned with the Exquisite Joys and Extraordinary Adventures of Young Ladies and Gentlemen Engaged in the Pleasurable Practice of Sharing [illustrator] (picture book) 1965

Jabberwocky and Other Frabjous Nonsense [illustrator] (picture book) 1967

Too Much Noise [illustrator] (picture book) 1967

The Amazing Maze [illustrator] (picture book) 1970

There's Motion Everywhere [illustrator] (picture book) 1970

Euphonia and the Flood [illustrator] (picture book) 1976

Joseph Had a Little Overcoat (picture book) 1977; revised with new illustrations, 1999

Laughing Together: Giggles and Grins from around the World [illustrator] (picture book) 1977; reissued as Laughing Together: Giggles and Grins from around the Globe, 1992

Fishy Riddles [illustrator] (picture book) 1983

Where Is My Dinner? [illustrator] (picture book) 1984

Where Is My Friend? [illustrator] (picture book) 1984

Where Is My House? [illustrator] (picture book) 1984

Buggy Riddles [illustrator] (picture book) 1986

On Our Way to the Barn [illustrator; with Harriet Ziefert] (picture book) 1985

On Our Way to the Forest [illustrator; with Harriet Ziefert] (picture book) 1985

On Our Way to the Water [illustrator; with Harriet Ziefert] (picture book) 1985

On Our Way to the Zoo [illustrator; with Harriet Ziefert] (picture book) 1985

Jason's Bus Ride [illustrator] (picture book) 1987

Noisy Barn! [illustrator; with Harriet Ziefert] (picture book) 1990

Snakey Riddles [illustrator] (picture book) 1990

Zoo Parade! [illustrator; with Harriet Ziefert] (picture book) 1990

Spacey Riddles [illustrator] (picture book) 1992

Road Builders [illustrator] (picture book) 1994

Where Is My Baby? [illustrator; with Harriet Ziefert] (picture book) 1994

Sam's Wild West Show [illustrator] (picture book) 1995

Two Little Witches: A Halloween Counting Story [illustrator] (picture book) 1996

Who Said Moo? [illustrator] (picture book) 1996

There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly (picture book) 1997

When I First Came to this Land [illustrator] (picture book) 1998

This Is the House that Jack Built (picture book) 2002

Simms Taback's Big Book of Words (picture book) 2004


Simms Taback (essay date 9 July 2000)

SOURCE: Taback, Simms. "Caldecott Medal Acceptance." Horn Book Magazine 76, no. 4 (July-August 2000): 402-8.

[In the following transcript of his Caldecott Medal acceptance speech, delivered at the annual conference of the American Library Association on July 9, 2000, Taback discusses the significance of his Jewish heritage to the creation of Joseph Had a Little Overcoat.]

Tie-er-er menschen-ah shayhem donk. Thank you very much.

I want to begin by saying here and now that I'm not going to get a swelled head about all of this, which is what I promised everyone at the Penguin Putnam party back in February. I said everything was happening so fast: my Hollywood agent had called that morning to say that he had signed with Miramax for Joseph the Movie! and that Bruce Willis was considering taking the role of Joseph, except that he wasn't comfortable with the sewing part (didn't fit his persona) and they were thinking about casting Meg Ryan to play his wife and she would be the one mending the coat. I just want to make clear that I was only joking—yes, I was—and I'd like to apologize. I didn't mean to call Meg Ryan a shiksa.

What's really wonderful about getting this award is that I feel like a relative newcomer to the world of illustration, as if I have only just arrived as a practitioner of this craft. But actually, I have been illustrating for forty years, making pictures for just about everybody: Eastern Airlines, McDonald's, Kentucky Fried Chicken, American Express, CBS, NBC, ABC, many national consumer magazines, Sesame Street, and Scholastic's "Let's Find Out."

I also illustrated about thirty-five books during this time, although sometimes I was careless in my choice of manuscript and material. Only a few of these sold well. My father used to ask, "From this you can make a living?" Well, he wasn't far wrong, yet I always knew I would end up being a children's book illustrator. And if the Caldecott committee has any doubts at this point about awarding me the medal, let me assure you that I really deserve it. Let me tell you why.

I did my very first children's book for Harlan Quist, and I was very excited. It was called Jabberwocky and Other Frabjous Nonsense (selected poems from Alice in Wonderland). I was quite pleased with the results, and it was reprinted in several languages. The only problem was that Harlan Quist, the editor, ran off to Europe with all the royalties.

I illustrated a book called Thump, Thump, Thump for Mister Roger's Library, a start-up, independent imprint. On the day I delivered the artwork—four months of work—Mister Rogers had second thoughts and cancelled the whole project.

I was offered a book on concrete poetry for children. I was convinced to take it on as a special favor. Everyone knew it was a dud. I said to the editor, "You will always remember me for this book and never offer me another." Well, you couldn't give this book away. I was never offered another.

I illustrated a picture book called A Bug in a Jug. All the artwork was lost before it was printed and I had to create all new illustrations.

I illustrated a book called Please Share that Peanut! Though I had a lot of respect for the author, Sesyle Joslin, I didn't quite understand the title. That is—until I received the royalty statement. And I could go on from here, but I'll spare you.

But I did have some success; I won't deny it. I have a piece in the Smithsonian Collection. This is the very first McDonald's Happy Meal box, which I designed and illustrated with riddles, puzzles, and old Henny Youngman-type jokes. "It's raining cats and dogs. I know, I just stepped in a poodle." I bet this is the first time anyone has tried to impress librarians with a McDonald's Happy Meal.

But there is a downside to this experience, too. It was presented to me as a low-budget assignment because it was only going to be a test print run. It turned out to be seven million boxes.

I know the Caldecott committee does not give its prestigious award for failure—or even a string of failures. But what you should understand here is that I am making a kaynahora, that is, I am warding off the evil eye. Up in the Bronx, where I lived, if you praised someone, he or she would say, "Don't give me a canary."

If I had told my mother, "Ma, I won the Caldecott Medal," she would reply, "Yeah! I should live so long." And when it finally sinks in that perhaps it's true, she would add, "Caldecott, Shmaldecott … will it put some food on the table?" Any other reaction and you are courting disaster. The old-world Jews understood not to take themselves too seriously.

There is an old joke, told in Yiddish, about a very religious, pious man who complains to God one day: "I go to shule and pray every day. I study Talmud for hours and hours. Why, O Lord, do you reward my brother, and not me, with riches, when he is a gonif (a thief), and a person of low morals?" There is a long moment of silence and then God replies, "Because you bother me too much!"

But I will break with tradition here because what is even more wonderful is that you have awarded me the medal for this book—this book which is set in a world I heard so much about as a child and tells a story which is so personal to me. This book is filled with my family and I am kvelling, which means to feel immense pride and pleasure.

Joseph Had a Little Overcoat is adapted from a Yiddish folk song and is a good example of yiddishkayt, meaning "Jewish life or Jewish world-view." It embodies the values and struggles of life in the shtetl—the small villages where Jews lived in Eastern Europe. These were not big-city Jews, but families of farmers and tradesmen of mixed economic classes. The Kohn (or Cohen) family lived in one of these villages where my zada, my grandfather, Meyer Kohn, earned his living as a blacksmith. I use the Kohn name in the book as Joseph's family name—Joseph Kohn of Yehupetz, Poland. The painting of Joseph having his tea is inspired by a fond memory of my zada, the way I remember him, placing a cube of sugar under his tongue and sipping his glass of tea, reading his Bible with a handkerchief always tied loosely around his neck.

Yiddish was my first language. I know little of it now. But most American goyim speak some Yiddish or some Yiddish inflection, whether they are aware of it or not; Yiddish has become so much a part of everyday English. Goy means Gentile or non-Jew. To the Jews of the shtetl there were only two ethnicities—either you were Jewish or weren't Jewish. This is typical of how an oppressed people see the world. Goy is also used as a put-down, as in goyishe kup (non-Jewish brain) meaning that you're not very smart. Here is a sample of the words we all use:














I hear that Webster's Unabridged Dictionary contains some five hundred Yiddish words. And who has not heard some of the following phrases and used them:

Get lost.

All right, already.

I need it like a hole in the head.

So, who needs it?

It should happen to a dog.

OK by me.

He knows from nothing.

A person could go bust.

Excuse the expression.

Go fight City Hall.

I should have such luck.

It's a nothing of a dress.

You should live to a hundred and twenty.

As long as she's happy.

The following could be overheard in any Hollywood restaurant, "Listen, bubeleh, that guy is a shlepper. What's his shtick anyway? All he has is cockamamy ideas." The use of the suffix nik, as in nogoodnik, is very common. We say beatnik and peacenik. The Wall Street Journal once carried a headline: "Revolution, Shmevolution." This was found in a review in the Times Literary Supplement: "Should, schmould, shouldn't, schmouldn't." This was seen on a button worn at a university campus: "Marcel Proust is a yenta."

OK, enough already. I don't mean to knock your head against the wall. But what about the influence of Yiddish inflection in the telling of a joke or story, or only to make a point? Leo Rosten in his Joys of Yiddish reminded me of this joke: During a celebration in Red Square after the Bolshevik Revolution and after Trotsky had been sent into exile, Stalin stood beside Lenin's tomb and read the following telegram from Trotsky: "Joseph Stalin, Kremlin, Moscow. You were right and I was wrong. You are the true heir of Lenin. I should apologize. Trotsky."

In the front row sat a little Jewish tailor. "Psst …" he whispered to Stalin, "Such a great message, Comrade Stalin, a statement for history, but you didn't read it with the right feeling." Whereupon Stalin quieted the crowd and raised his hand to say: "Comrades, here is a simple worker and a loyal communist who says I have not read this statement with enough feeling. Come up to the podium, comrade, and read this historical statement." So the tailor took the telegram from Stalin and read: "Joseph Stalin, Kremlin, Moscow. You were right and I was wrong? You are the true heir of Lenin? I should apologize? Trotsky."

And finally, there are at least a dozen words to describe a fool, like shlimazel, shlemiel, shmegegge, shmendrik, etc., but "Yiddishists" would agree that there is no Yiddish word for disappointment.

When I started school, I forgot all the Yiddish I knew as a child. So when I started to do the artwork for Joseph, I knew I had research to do. I started at the Workmen's Circle book store on East 33rd Street in Manhattan. I found five or six books on Jewish life in Poland and Russia with many wonderful photos and a video of the Jewish section of Vilna in Poland before World War II. I visited the Jewish museum to see articles of clothing and other artifacts. The clothing was quite drab, probably faded, though beautifully sewn, and the patterns were quite plain and simple. For the book, I decided to take some artistic license and mix it up with more with traditional Polish and Ukrainian designs. This made it more like the shtetl of my imagination. I illustrated the ethnic clothing by using collage fragments from various catalogues. So even as I created the artwork for Joseph, I was making something new from something discarded.

I listened to klezmer and Jewish liturgical music, looked at old family photographs, and did all I could to immerse myself in this old-world culture. I wanted to reflect its emotional life, yet I needed it all to be upbeat. I sang. I danced. I did the troika.

I grew up in a working-class neighborhood in the Bronx, made up mostly of socially aware Eastern European Jews. Even though it was the Depression, they built their own cooperative housing project. It was called the Coops. The people who lived there were called coop-niks. We were all poor, but it was a very special place for me. We had a community center, science and sports clubs, art classes, and even our very own library. I spent my summers at Camp Kinderland (Land of Children) and Camp Nish-kadieget (No need to worry). These camps were supported by Jewish labor organizations like the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, the IWO, and Workmen's Circle. They were secular camps. You could attend Yiddish classes there, but it wasn't compulsory. It was here in these camps that I was encouraged to develop my talent and to go to Music and Art High School, even though I hated leaving the neighborhood. Upon reflection, I see my old neighborhood as an extension of the shtetl life these European Jews had experienced as children. They left Europe for a new life in America, Der Goldenah Medina (Streets Paved with Gold), far away from pogroms, but still with a sense of community, humor, and values learned from generations of family.

I don't know how many shtetl communities existed in Eastern Europe (the word shtetl does not appear in the Encyclopedia Britannica), but they are all gone now. So is my neighborhood in the East Bronx. It is said that Yiddish is a dying language … and perhaps that is true. But as long as I can say, "I am making a gontse megillah (a big deal) here," and as long as a good number of people here tonight understand me, who knows? Enough already.

I have many to thank here this evening:

To Music and Art High School and Cooper Union who trained me and gave me a free education; my thanks.

To the Caldecott committee: Thank you so much for saying that a book with a novelty aspect is worthy of this prestigious medal and that yiddishkayt can be of interest to young children if presented in an appealing way. Thank you for this mitzve, and Ah mazaltov to you!

To my editor and publisher Regina Hayes: Thank you for seeing the possibility of successfully redoing a story I had published before. It took some chutzpah to let me do this. Thank you for your confidence and optimism.

To my art director, Denise Cronin: You are a real mensch and just a pure pleasure to work with. Thank you for guiding Joseph through a difficult production process.

Thank you Nina Putignano, Janet Pascal, Elizabeth Law, Stephanie McCarthy, and the rest of the Viking staff. Thank you, Doug Whiteman, for your support. And to my wife, Gail Kuenstler, Az meir binst du shayne, Der einer oif der velt. And to everyone here tonight: Zayn gezundt and may you live to be one hundred and twenty. Thank you.

Simms Taback, Cyndi Giorgis, and Nancy J. Johnson (interview date December-January 2000-2001)

SOURCE: Taback, Simms, Cyndi Giorgis, and Nancy J. Johnson. "2000 Caldecott Medal Winner: A Conversation with Simms Taback." Reading Teacher 54, no. 4 (December-January 2000-2001): 418-22.

[In the following interview, Taback discusses his creative process and his design technique in illustrating Joseph Had a Little Overcoat.]

Vibrant rich colors, playful details, and skillfully placed die cuts contribute to the book's raucous merriment that takes this Yiddish folk song beyond the simple words.

Barbara Kiefer, Chair of the 2000 Caldecott Award Selection Committee

Each year the Association of Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association, awards the Caldecott Medal to the "most distinguished book illustrated for children during the preceding year." Joseph Had a Little Overcoat, an adaptation of a Yiddish folk song, illustrated by Simms Taback, is the recipient of the 2000 Caldecott Award. "Joseph had a little overcoat. It was old and worn. So he made a jacket out of it and went to the fair." In a recent interview, Taback provided us with insight into his career as a graphic artist and children's book illustrator. He also takes readers "inside" his award-winning book to discover some of the intricate details and clever nuances woven throughout this warm and humorous tale to prove you can always make something, even out of nothing.

An Illustrator's Odyssey

Taback began illustrating books for children in the 1960s. One of his earliest efforts was Too Much Noise by Ann McGovern, published in 1967. At that time he was also a partner in a design firm and was known primarily as a graphic artist. He did not consider himself a children's book artist and never specialized in illustrating books until about 6 years ago. Until that time, Taback illustrated a book every year or two, which added up to approximately 35 titles by the mid-1990s. When the best-selling There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly received a 1998 Caldecott Honor Award, his career took a dramatic turn.

Growing up, Taback displayed artistic abilities. His mother encouraged his talent by enrolling him in private art classes. Later, he graduated from Music and Art High School in New York City.

I was privileged to go to that high school. It was a very strong experience for me because a lot of kids who were artists were not from my working class neighborhood of the Bronx. It sort of moved me more in the direction of arts and pursuing it as a real career. And from there I attended Cooper Union, which is another free art school where they trained me to be a painter when I graduated. But then I got married and had to support a family so I drifted into graphic design and got jobs as a graphic designer, which in those days was called layout artist. I worked in the advertising business on staff for some years before I quit and started to freelance.

Taback currently lives in the Catskill Mountains of New York state. He generally begins work around 10 a.m. in his studio, which is situated approximately 75 feet from his house. He can often be found in his studio until the "wee hours" of the morning illustrating his newest book. This follows years of his work in advertising and owning a greeting card company, where he designed a novelty type of card that consisted of die cuts. There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly grew out of those 6 years designing die-cut cards.

The Odyssey of Collage

Readers who are familiar with Taback's previous work will notice the introduction of collage in When I First Came to this Land (1998) retold by Harriet Ziefert, and in Taback's version of There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly (1997):

You can go back 15 or 20 years and look up the posters that I did for Scholastic and Children's Television Workshop. My stuff basically didn't change except for the collage, which is what I did with There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly. And then I had a contract to do When I First Came to this Land and I did it on that book, too, and with Joseph. Those are the only three books that I did collage on, and now it seems I am doing it all the time and thinking in those terms. When I had this idea that I could do There Was an Old Lady with a die cut, I thought that since I am making a hole in the book that I could introduce a lot of elements that looked like cut outs or torn pieces of paper that lay over it. So the whole book would have that three-dimensional feel to it. It added to the playfulness of the die cut. It is funny because I look at a painting and think, "Well, this is the way it is going to look and I am going to have a hole in it. That hole is not comfortable. It doesn't feel right. So, what kind of elements could I introduce into the picture so that hole just doesn't look so completely out of place?" And that is how the idea of using collage came about.

The use of collage makes readers realize there is another story going on besides the one that is being told through the text. It also invites readers to revisit the book again and again—each time discovering something new that did not catch their eye previously. If readers look closely, they will find that in There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly, Taback has actually extended the rhyme through newspaper headlines, posters, recipes, and well-placed food items.

What Taback began in When I First Came to this Land and further developed with There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly has now been brought to another level with Joseph Had a Little Overcoat by the addition of stories being told within the background illustrations.

A "Tour" throughJoseph Had a Little Overcoat

Before beginning the illustrations for Joseph Had a Little Overcoat, Taback needed to conduct research to provide as much accuracy and authenticity as possible. This involved learning more about his own culture and brought back memories from childhood:

My parents spoke Yiddish at home, and that was my first language. I didn't really learn to speak English well until I started school. Eventually, I forgot all of the Yiddish I ever knew, which is what happens with a lot of kids where English is their second language. So, somehow Joseph provided me the opportunity to get back into it again. I did a lot of research for it. I went to a bookstore in Manhattan, which is run by a Jewish organization called the Workmen's Circle. I spent half a day down there, and I came back with at least a half dozen books. I actually got familiar with my background again—relearned a little Yiddish and tried to remember some of the stories that my parents told me. I even bought some CDs of Yiddish songs, which I played while I was working just to get me into that frame of mind. A lot of things came back to me in the process, and I got into it in a way that I didn't when I was a child.

The process involved in illustrating a book varies from illustrator to illustrator. Taback explained his own process in illustrating Joseph Had a Little Overcoat.

When I do a book I start at the beginning and work my way to the end. So, the book builds up and gets more involved in some of these things by the fourth or fifth spread. I'm already doing stuff I haven't thought of doing in the first spread. I leave the cover for last. I think most picture book people do that.

In examining the illustrations in Joseph, readers will see how Taback cleverly incorporates each one of the die cuts into the next illustration. The die cuts are so well done that often it is not apparent that they exist until the page is turned. Taback shared how this is done:

Well, of course it is a bit of an engineering feat because you have to design it so that the die cut works both ways. You initially see that spread and when you turn the page it has to work that way too, so it has to be designed very carefully. You build the composition around that problem, which is tricky. We had some reproduction problems, and you'll notice some of the die cuts are not completely cut out like the one where he has the handkerchief around his neck. The entire handkerchief was initially supposed to be die cut but the positioning was a little hard for them [printers]. You have to leave close to a 1/4 of an inch leeway so that if things move and do not get bound correctly, that something else doesn't show through that you are not supposed to see, like the background or something rather than the fabric and only the fabric that was under it. I am very pleased with the die cutting in this book in that it shows kids visually how you make things out of something else. I think the die cut works as a very intrinsic part of the story.

It is interesting when an artist provides an inside look at the illustrations gracing the pages of his or her book. Small details worked into Taback's background design; characters modeled after family members; significance of names, dates, or places; aspects of the illustrator's life and culture; and other characteristics of the illustrations that may be lost on readers if they do not look closely.

When readers arrive at the page where Joseph is dancing at a wedding, they will see more details such as pieces of a Yiddish newspaper that has been cut up like confetti and thrown on the floor. In the next double-page spread, where two men are standing at the window and gazing into Joseph's house (they will eventually be discovered on the next page, singing in the chorus), Taback has integrated a great deal of Yiddish culture and family history.

It was [with] this particular spread that I really got into it. I started to use Yiddish sayings like, "when the coat is old only the holes are new." I had pictures hanging on Joseph's wall, and I began to make them into something more than what I had originally thought. Right over Joseph's right shoulder is a photograph of a Yiddish musical comedy star named Moshe Oysher. To the left of the photograph is a poster of Maurice Schwartz [even though that is not a picture of Schwartz himself] who was the first Tevye from the play Fiddler on the Roof and a very distinguished actor of the Yiddish stage. When you go to the other side of this spread there is a photograph of an actress named Molly Picon. She was also a star of the Yiddish musical stage. The book that's lying on the bench has a photo of folk writer Sholom Aleichem, who wrote many wonderful and humorous stories including "If I Were a Rothschild." I chose that particular story because it went with the poverty of this poor man's life. Then the book started to get filled with my family and references to them. If you go to the other side of the window I have my daughter Emily in one of the pictures. I just drew a babushka around her. I named the boat on the postcard Estonia because that was the boat my mother traveled [on] to this country. So, the book started to get filled with my family and references to my family. I gave Joseph the last name of "Kohn," which is the Polish spelling of my mother's maiden name, Cohen.

On the following page, Taback shows the chorus singing a song about playing music called "Tumbalalaika." Two pages later, readers see Joseph visiting his married sister, and numerous faces appear in the windows of the background buildings. Some images are clippings from magazines, others are reproductions of old Jewish postcards, while the faces of Taback's daughter and three grandchildren also appear in the windows. The Yiddish newspaper lying on the ground is called The Morning Freiheit [freiheit means freedom]. And then there are some comical references made to Fiddler on the Roof, such as the scene where there is actually a man playing his fiddle while sitting on the roof of a house.

The fabrics and textures Taback uses on most of the pages are from seed or clothing catalogues. In the illustration where Joseph's scarf is getting very old, Taback has cut out leaves to create the collage. In that same spread, there are fragments from spinach, lettuce, and cabbage plants. "Whatever I could pick up and find, I incorporated into the illustrations, including four or five sayings that I found in books that I bought to use for research."

Simms Taback illustrated a previous version of Joseph Had a Little Overcoat that was published in 1977. When asked why he chose to reillustrate it he gave these reasons:

It's kind of the successor to Old Lady in expanding the die cut idea further. I was actually trying to get Joseph republished for years because I didn't feel it had gotten a very fair shake in the market place. It came out when there was not much interest in ethnic books. It was difficult to understand how to market it in those days. It came out as a novelty book, and I think that nobody was ready for if yet. It didn't do well. Except that through the years I would get these wonderful letters from people who had found the book at a discount shop or some bookstore. So, I knew there was a tremendous interest for it even though the book initially had done poorly. No publisher would take it because it already had this history of not having done well. So, when Viking asked me if I had another die-cut idea similar to Old Lady, I just whipped this book out. I think they thought they were taking a chance on it because it had already been a book once and it had not done very well. People take that very seriously these days. But of course it was 20 years later and things change, you know. And there was a big interest in ethnic stuff going on for the last 10 years. So, they gave me the go ahead to do it.

This is the first time in the history of the Caldecott Medal that a book that had been previously published by the same illustrator has won the award. However, the illustrations from the 1977 book do not resemble the current offering.

The Caldecott Announcement and Life Afterwards

Every author or illustrator who has received a Newbery or Caldecott Medal has a story to tell about the infamous phone call. Readers often want to know if there were any indications that the book might be seriously considered as a top contender.

I was as knocked out as anybody else. I really didn't expect it and was totally surprised. There is always some talk before-hand about the book saying, "Oh, you know, this very well could be a Caldecott winner," but I didn't indulge in any of that with anybody. I was hoping, actually, that there was a chance that it could become a Caldecott Honor Book, which is what I was hoping for if I was hoping for anything. I didn't even know the dates of when they would announce it [the award]. So, when the call came in on Monday morning, of course I was totally surprised. And then it didn't come in directly from the committee, who usually are the people who inform you. The chair of the committee calls you and the other people on the committee cheer in the background. Evidently, they couldn't get through to me so the first call that came in was from a person connected with the Today Show who was doing the publicity and asking about my appearance on the show. So, I had no idea what they were talking about. I asked, "Are you sure you have the right number?" And the person said, "Oh, you don't know." I was thinking was this really true or is someone playing a practical joke. I have a friend who plays practical jokes, although I don't think he would do anything as bad as that. So, when I finally connected up with them I had to go lay down for about 15 minutes. It is quite a hunk of news to get.

When an illustrator receives the Caldecott Medal for his or her work, it results in some life changes. For Taback, it has involved making more author appearances and interviews that take him away from his work:

I have never been sent out before on tour, so it is a first time for me. I haven't been doing very much work. I was in the middle of a book and I had to put that aside, basically. It's just been kind of a little crazy for me, not what I am really use to. But it has been an interesting experience.

Other changes that occur in an illustrator's life are the types and amount of manuscripts sent to them for consideration. This has happened for Taback as well:

I didn't get near as many manuscripts sent to me as I have been getting since I did There Was an Old Lady. I am very willing to work on somebody else's manuscript but I haven't seen anything that I was that excited about. There was a time when somebody sent me a story and I would say, well, I could make something of this but I certainly wasn't very picky about it. The result was that I wanted very much to be doing kids' books, and I probably wasn't doing the best kids' books because of that. Also, I just can't dash them off anymore. There were times I illustrated a book in 2 or 4 months. Well, Old Lady took me almost a year and Joseph took me a year. So, that is a big difference in terms of how much time and effort I am putting into them now, and I need to be selective on what I choose to do.

An Odyssey for Illustrator and Committee

Receiving the Caldecott Medal has been an odyssey for this talented illustrator, who has pursued various artistic endeavors throughout his illustrious career. It is also an odyssey for the Caldecott Medal itself as changes in the printing industry have affected the way books are produced. Taback recognized this as he acknowledged the work of the 2000 Caldecott Award committee.

I am thrilled over the fact that a book on this subject won the Caldecott. I congratulate the Caldecott committee for selecting it. I am thrilled that this almost forgotten Jewish life that went on up until World War II is now [in] a best-selling children's book. This book may fill a gap for many people whose Jewish immigrant families spoke Yiddish, but very little of the real history or real culture got transmitted to them. [I hope] it will also introduce more people to a wonderful culture and a rich history that shouldn't only be known by Jews. I don't think it matters what your ethnicity is because our American culture has adopted a lot of Jewish sayings and Jewish words. There are 500 Yiddish words in the American dictionary. When you do a kids' book, adults are often the ones reading to children. There should be something in there for parents that is interesting aside from the story or the playfulness of the text—there is something else going on at another level that they can appreciate.

Taback's next book will be a version of The House that Jack Built, which will not incorporate die cuts. Readers can continue to enjoy the inventiveness of this creative artist who brings originality and playfulness to his illustrations while opening their eyes to aspects of culture through his work.

Books Cited

McGovern, Ann. (1967). Too Much Noise. Ill. Simms Taback. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 45 pp. ISBN 0-395-18110-0.

Taback, Simms. (1997). There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly. New York: Viking. Unpaged. ISBN 0-670-86939-2.

Taback, Simms. (1999). Joseph Had a Little Overcoat. New York: Viking. Unpaged. ISBN 0-670-87855-3.

Ziefert, Harriet. (1998). When I First Came to this Land. Ill. Simms Taback. New York: Putnam. Unpaged. ISBN 0-399-23044-0.


Diane Roback (essay date 24 January 2000)

SOURCE: Roback, Diane. "Curtis, Taback Take Newbery, Caldecott." Publishers Weekly 247, no. 4 (24 January 2000): 171.

[In the following essay, Roback provides a brief overview of recent children's book awards, including Taback's Caldecott Medal award for Joseph Had a Little Overcoat.]

The highlight of the American Library Association's annual midwinter meeting is always the Monday morning announcement of the winners of the top two prizes in children's books, and this year proved no exception. The 2000 winner of the John Newbery Medal was Christopher Paul Curtis, author of the novel Bud, Not Buddy, published by Delacorte and edited by Wendy Lamb. The Randolph Caldecott Medal went to Simms Taback for his picture book Joseph Had a Little Overcoat, published by Viking and edited by Regina Hayes.

Delacorte had gone to press four times already for Bud, Not Buddy, for a total of 65,000 copies in print; a fifth printing of 100,000 copies was ordered just after the announcement. Viking's first printing of 30,000 for Joseph will be augmented by a two-tiered second printing of 100,000 as well.

There were three Newbery Honor Books: Getting Near to Baby by Audrey Couloumbis (Putnam); 26 Fairmount Avenue, written and illustrated by Tomie dePaola (Putnam); and Our Only May Amelia by Jennifer L. Holm (HarperCollins).

Four Caldecott Honor Books were announced as well: Sector 7 by David Weisner (Clarion); The Ugly Duckling, adapted and illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, based on the fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen (Morrow); When Sophie Gets Angry—Really, Really Angry by Molly Bang (Scholastic/Blue Sky); and A Child's Calendar, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman, written by John Updike (Holiday House).

Newbery Medalist Curtis was also given the Coretta Scott King Author Award, which recognizes excellence by African-American authors; the Illustrator Award went to Brian Pinkney, illustrator of In the Time of the Drums, written by Kim L. Siegelson (Hyperion/Jump at the Sun).

The first winner of the brand-new Michael L. Printz Award for excellence in literature for young adults was Walter Dean Myers, for his novel Monster (Harper-Collins). The award honors the late Michael L. Printz, a school librarian, known for discovering and promoting quality books for young adults. Three Printz Honor Books were announced: Hard Love by Ellen Wittlinger (Simon & Schuster); Skellig by David Almond (Delacorte); and Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson (FSG).

In other awards news, Walker & Co. won the Mildred L. Batchelder Award for The Baboon King by Anton Quintana, translated by John Nieuwenhuizen; the award goes to the best children's book first published in a foreign language in a foreign country and translated into English for publication in the United States. Chris Crutcher was named the 2000 recipient of the Margaret A. Edwards Award honoring lifetime contribution in writing for teens.

Reynold Ruffins (essay date July-August 2000)

SOURCE: Ruffins, Reynold. "Across the Drawing Board from Simms Taback." Horn Book Magazine 76, no. 4 (July-August 2000): 409-12.

[In the following essay, Ruffins, a friend and colleague of Taback, describes Taback's creative process in designing his illustrations.]

For twenty-eight years, I shared a studio with Simms Taback. He's innovative, creative, warm. He sees the overview, the underview, and the details. He cares. But his work habits are a strange symphony of beauty and agony.

First the many, many exploratory drawings using a lead pencil. Then a colored pencil. Then trying the same subject in crayon or with ballpoint pen. Then pen and ink. Or a number 6 brush with watercolor and two-ply kid-finish Strathmore. Perhaps a number 10 brush over the ballpoint on color paper with the pastel smudge would be more interesting. Or the texture of the Arches with watercolor and pencils would lend a certain something. In the process, this patient perfectionist produces a thousand gorgeous sketches of a character or a scene for a forthcoming gem of a book. That's the beauty.

The agony comes with the whistling that accompanies the creation. Sometimes the whistle is meandering. Sometimes it is piercing. It is a sound in search of a song. Perhaps it's a sound that is necessary, like the sound that comes before a fine cup of tea. Perhaps it's as integral to his creative process as the grinder to the sausage factory. Perhaps it is the agony of creation.

Simms Taback, like Giovanni Bellini, Hans Holbein, and Pieter Bruegel, is the son of a painter. But unlike those earlier artists, Simms did not study painting under the tutelage of his father. In fact, it can be said with some certainty that most of Leon Taback's work is now covered by fresh coats of Benjamin Moore—or even wallpaper. The younger Taback was, instead, privileged to study art with the best and brightest at two of the finest art institutions in New York City—the High School of Music and Art and the Cooper Union.

Although Simms's application of paint was different from his father's, Leon's sense of fairness and the family's deep interest in social issues shaped the young artist. They strongly influenced his direction and the sensibility he brought to his work and to the business of his work. In the 1930s and 1940s, Leon Taback had been a union organizer in his trade. Simms's mother was a proud member of the ILGWU. In 1974, Simms began organizing illustrators. He could see so clearly the need for freelancers, who worked in isolation, to be in touch with one another and to be informed about current business practices. His efforts resulted in the formation of the Illustrators Guild, which, in 1976, affiliated with the Graphic Artists Guild. He conceived of, led, art directed, and gently shepherded Pricing and Ethical Guidelines, a publication central to the Guild's mission—to raise standards and protect the interests of the freelancer and, in fact, of all art professionals. Simms served as president of the Illustrators Guild from 1975 to 1977 and of the Graphic Artists Guild from 1989 to 1991. He sat on the Guild's national board for over twenty years. He was chair of the Society of Illustrators' groundbreaking show and book, The New Illustration.

Simms dedicated himself one hundred percent to every Guild endeavor—generating ideas, selecting staff, organizing and chairing meetings, art directing publications, and dealing with the management of minutia. As a freelancer, he also dedicated himself one hundred percent to creating unique, beautifully conceived and executed illustrations for advertising and publishing. Impossible, you say? That's Simms Taback, I say.

Simms's work has given pleasure in so many varied areas over a long, successful career. He has won many awards from the Art Directors Club and the Society of Illustrators for work done in advertising and publishing. He has worked as a designer for the New York Times, Columbia Records, various advertising agencies, and his own studio and greeting card business. His strength as a designer is manifest in all his work. He is designer, illustrator, letterer, and typographer on all his projects.

All these accomplishments come despite Simms's ongoing battle with an addiction that threatens his brilliant career and clear complexion. Often, working late into the night, poor Simms is seized by an all-consuming craving. All attempts to dissuade him are futile. It's a sad and tragic thing to see an otherwise sterling man sneaking out to his supplier and hungrily requesting "a Hershey with almonds, please."

Simms once did a series of posters for children published by Scholastic. One in particular expresses his philosophy of life. It is called "Giving and Sharing," and it depicts those acts in simple imaginative ways that cross the lines of gender, ethnicity, disability, and age. No better person could have been chosen to illustrate what might have become joyless or trite in other hands. Simms combined sensitivity and humor—without being maudlin or cartoony—to create engaging, well-designed teaching tools.

He has done this many times over in books and posters that sometimes deal with difficult social or scientific topics. He has the enviable ability to take any subject and infuse it with his own personality. Simms's hand is always evident, enlivening without intruding on the subject. Two very different assignments come to mind: one, illustrating construction equipment in the book Road Builders ; the other, depicting insects on a large poster called "Bugs, Beetles, Flies & Wasps." Engineers and entomologists alike would be impressed and, perhaps, surprised by his accuracy. Certainly, they would be charmed by his style.

Simms is genetically programmed to be generous. He deals with an open hand with family and friends, clients and colleagues, students, strangers, and stray dogs. He is always giving. Simms offers more—more interest, more time and attention, more care. A bit like a loving mom with a pot of hot soup.

Although his talent has been commissioned countless times in the service of advertising and publishing, it's particularly magical when performed for family and friends. When Simms's kids were away at camp or when they were separated from him for any period, he would always write, draw, or paint the perfect personal postcard. (Often they were part of a series, "Believe It or Don't.") He has often had to work late into the night because he spent the day finding just the right gift, illustrating just the right sentiment, decorating the paper and wrapping the present in the most perfect personal way. He couldn't do less.

Randolph Caldecott's name is synonymous with excellence in illustration. Caldecott gave up the life of a bank clerk to become a freelance illustrator. Simms Taback put aside an early interest in engineering to study art. How fortunate their career choices were for the rest of us. The Caldecott committees of 1998 and 2000 are to be praised doubly for twice recognizing and rewarding Simms Taback for his very special and tradition-breaking work.

The good people on the 1998 Caldecott committee wisely chose to award a Caldecott honor to Simms Taback for There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly. It should be noted, however, that if there are a few holes to be found in the fabric of Simms's nurturing, empathetic nature, they appear in this book. Usually caring to a fault, Simms barely managed to squeeze out a tear as he coolly, deftly, and humorously documented the demise of an elderly and obviously demented woman who kept swallowing things she must have known were not good for her. Children and teachers, parents and pastors find themselves in paroxysms of laughter as the dear, unfortunate, omnivorous woman topples over with a large Equus caballus clearly seen inside her.

Simms's transformative magic goes into high gear with Joseph Had a Little Overcoat, this year's Caldecott winner. Simms makes ingenious use of die-cutting, drawing, design, collage, and exciting color to move the story with a surprising focal point on each page. The book is a Möbius strip of creation and re-creation: Joseph is Simms, Simms is Joseph. In this hole-y book, Joseph, using the wit and wisdom given him by his creator, shows us that "you can always make something out of nothing." If that's true—and Joseph convinces us it is—imagine what we can look forward to from Simms, a man who has so much of so many things—and who gives so generously.



Linda Ludke (review date January 2000)

SOURCE: Ludke, Linda. Review of Joseph Had a Little Overcoat, by Simms Taback. School Library Journal 46, no. 1 (January 2000): 112.

Pre-Gr 3—A book bursting at the seams with ingenuity and creative spirit. When Joseph's overcoat becomes "old and worn" [in Joseph Had a Little Overcoat ], he snips off the patches and turns it into a jacket. When his jacket is beyond repair, he makes a vest. Joseph recycles his garments until he has nothing left. But by trading in his scissors for a pen and paintbrush he creates a story, showing "you can always make something out of nothing." Clever die-cut holes provide clues as to what Joseph will make next: windowpanes in one scene become a scarf upon turning the page. Striking gouache, watercolor, and collage illustrations are chock-full of witty details—letters to read, proverbs on the walls, even a fiddler on the roof. Taback adapted this tale from a Yiddish folk song and the music and English lyrics are appended. The rhythm and repetition make it a perfect storytime read-aloud.

Tim Arnold (review date 1-15 January 2000)

SOURCE: Arnold, Tim. Review of Joseph Had a Little Overcoat, by Simms Taback. Booklist 96, nos. 9-10 (1-15 January 2000): 936.

Ages 4-7. This newly illustrated version of a book Taback first published in 1977 [Joseph Had a Little Overcoat ] is a true example of accomplished bookmaking—from the typography and the endpapers to the bar code, set in what appears to be a patch of fabric. Taback's mixed-media and collage illustrations are alive with warmth, humor, and humanity. Their colors are festive yet controlled, and they are filled with homey clutter, interesting characters, and a million details to bring children back again and again. The simple text, which was adapted from the Yiddish song "I Had a Little Overcoat," begins as Joseph makes a jacket from his old, worn coat. When the jacket wears out, Joseph makes a vest, and so on, until he has only enough to cover a button. Cut outs emphasize the use and reuse of the material and add to the general sense of fun. When Joseph loses, he writes a story about it all, bringing children to the moral "You can always make something out of nothing."

Martha V. Parravano (review date January-February 2000)

SOURCE: Parravano, Martha V. Review of Joseph Had a Little Overcoat, by Simms Taback. Horn Book Magazine 76, no. 1 (January-February 2000): 68-9.

"Joseph had a little overcoat. It was old and worn. So he made a jacket out of it and went to the fair." So begins this adaptation of a Yiddish folk song [Joseph Had a Little Overcoat ] (a newly illustrated version of a book Taback first did in 1977). The text is simple to the point of prosaicness—nowhere near as inventive and jazzy as the illustrator's riff on There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly —but the art sings with color and movement and humor and personality. Taback employs die-cuts with the same effectiveness and cleverness as he did in There Was an Old Lady to tell the story of resourceful Joseph, a farmer/tailor of Yehupetz, Poland, who recycles his worn overcoat into ever-smaller elements (jacket, vest, scarf, tie, handkerchief, and button). Taback incorporates detail after detail of Jewish life—the Yiddish newspaper the Morning Freiheit; references to Sholom Aleichem and other writers and philosophers; Yiddish proverbs and Chelm stories—to create a veritable pageant of pre-WWII Jewish-Polish life. (In fact, the book is as much a tribute to a vanished way of life as it is a story, but the tribute only enriches the tale.) Broad comedy plays an important part of the pageant: Joseph looks so unhappy and gets such expressively reproachful looks from his animals when his garments become "old and worn"; in contrast, he is all smiles when, each time, he makes something new out of the old. (The exceptionally clever cover design—which incorporates die-cuts to show first a distressingly full-of-holes and then a jauntily patched overcoat—echoes this satisfying pattern.) Double-page spreads employ a mixture of painting and collage to somewhat surreal but delightful effect, such as the one in which Joseph is standing in a field covered with photographs of fruits and vegetables of every kind, from watermelons to jalapeño peppers. In the end, Joseph loses his button, his last bit of overcoat; left with nothing, he makes one more item—this book. Don't you lose it: clever, visually engrossing, poignant, it's worth holding on to.


Publishers Weekly (review date 20 June 1994)

SOURCE: Review of Road Builders, by B. G. Hennessy, illustrated by Simms Taback. Publishers Weekly 241, no. 25 (20 June 1994): 104.

This soup-to-nuts explanation of how roads are constructed [Road Builders ] begins in an empty field and ends on a busy freeway, and it offers just the right amount of information for its intended audience. Readers watch as members of a road crew bulldoze, dig, dump, grade, pave, roll, paint, mark and light a new roadway—and then drive off into the sunset to their next job. Bolstered by Hennessy's (Jake Baked the Cake) concise text, Taback's (On Our Way to the Forest ) bold, attention-grabbing colors and oversized, up-close-and-personal illustrations are action-packed and will thrill young truck-lovers everywhere. It's a splendid introduction to a world that many children find riveting. Ages 2-7. Children's BOMC main selection.

Louise L. Sherman (review date September 1994)

SOURCE: Sherman, Louise L. Review of Road Builders, by B. G. Hennessy, illustrated by Simms Taback. School Library Journal 40, no. 9 (September 1994): 208.

PreS-Gr 2—Large busy pictures and a simple declarative text introduce children to the process of building a road [in Road Builders ]. The focus is on the vehicles involved, depicting them all together and then individually or in pairs as the project unfolds. Taback's cartoon illustrations show the multiethnic crew at work and a flatbed truck carrying them to the next job when the highway is completed. This book is a good choice for both beginning readers and pre-school construction buffs. It is simpler than Gail Gibbons's New Road! (Crowell, 1983) and the drawings are larger and more detailed. Some of the same equipment is described in Ken Robbins's Power Machines (Holt, 1993), but that book doesn't show the building process.


Hazel Rochman (review date July 1995)

SOURCE: Rochman, Hazel. Review of Sam's Wild West Show, by Nancy Antle, illustrated by Simms Taback. Booklist 91, no. 21 (July 1995): 1885.

Gr. 1-3. The comedy will draw new readers into this Dial Easy-to-Read story, [Sam's Wild West Show, ] which is set in the Wild West. The cartoonish color pictures add to the action, as the cowboys and cow-girls trick the outlaws and clean up the town.

Gale W. Sherman (review date August 1995)

SOURCE: Sherman, Gale W. Review of Sam's Wild West Show, by Nancy Antle, illustrated by Simms Taback. School Library Journal 41, no. 8 (August 1995): 114.

K-Gr 3—A fast-paced easy reader about performing cowgirls and cowboys who ride, rope, shoot, and finally foil a bank robbery by plying tricks of their trade. The use of staccato simple and compound sentences [in Sam's Wild West Show ] mimics the humorous dialogue, action, and jerky movements of old Western films. The cartoonlike illustrations convey a slapstick atmosphere, complete with knocking knees and bugged-out eyes. They are done predominately in shades of gold, orange, and browns, and are framed with rope borders. Although the intended audience might wonder exactly what "I'll be sheep dipped" means, they'll get most of the humor, enjoy the sentence patterns, and read with delight.


Susan Dove Lempke (review date 1 September 1996)

SOURCE: Lempke, Susan Dove. Review of Two Little Witches: A Halloween Counting Story, by Harriet Ziefert, illustrated by Simms Taback. Booklist 93, no. 1 (1 September 1996): 138.

Ages 2-5. In this cumulative counting story, [Two Little Witches: A Halloween Counting Story, ] two little witches meet one small clown to make "three trick-or-treaters in the dark on Halloween night." As they go on their way, they meet a pumpkin, a princess, and so on, each one wearing a cheerful homemade costume. Once 10 individuals have gathered, they go to a house with the number 13 over the door, where they find a spooky surprise that sets nine of them running for home and the tenth running for her broomstick. Taback adds funny details, including a few animal characters that children can follow as they turn the pages, but he keeps the design simple and clear to make the counting easy.

Elizabeth Devereaux and Diane Roback (review date 30 September 1996)

SOURCE: Devereaux, Elizabeth, and Diane Roback. Review of Two Little Witches: A Halloween Counting Story, by Harriet Ziefert, illustrated by Simms Taback. Publishers Weekly 243, no. 40 (30 September 1996): 85.

Little goblins learn to count to 10 with this yarn [Two Little Witches: A Halloween Counting Story ]—and they'll pick up some good costume ideas, too. What is counted are trick-or-treating friends: two witches who meet up with a clown, a skeleton, and so forth. Nothing a macabre whatsoever here—just happy, brightly colored characters on a slightly spooky mission for candy. Ages 2-5.

Claudia Cooper (review date December 1996)

SOURCE: Cooper, Claudia. Review of Two Little Witches: A Halloween Counting Story, by Harriet Ziefert, illustrated by Simms Taback. School Library Journal 42, no. 12 (December 1996): 110.

PreS-Gr 1—[Two Little Witches: A Halloween Counting Story is a] simple counting story for group sharing and beginning readers. One little witch plus another little witch add (one at a time) a clown, skeleton, striped cat, and so forth, to their retinue until there are "ten trick-or-treaters going trick-or-treating in the dark on Halloween night." Encountering a monster at a spooky old house, all scatter until only the two little witches remain. One rides off on her broomstick and the other walks home and counts her treats, leaving none. The text is simple and the addition predictable, ideal for novice mathematicians. The phrases "going trick-or-treating" and "in the dark on Halloween night" are used repeatedly, but do not build a strong rhythm or invite children to join in the oral reading, as does Sue Alexander's Who Goes Out on Halloween? (Bantam, 1990). Taback's large, primitive, watercolor-and-ink cartoons are especially delightful, though, both spooky with bold uses of black backgrounds and reassuringly familiar with the obviously homemade costumes. And Ziefert's surprise ending is a nice bonus.


Elizabeth Devereaux and Diane Roback (review date 18 August 1997)

SOURCE: Devereaux, Elizabeth, and Diane Roback. Review of There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly, by Simms Taback. Publishers Weekly 244, no. 34 (18 August 1997): 91.

In Taback's (Joseph Had a Little Overcoat ) ingenious take on the cumulative tale, [There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly, ] there's a die-cut hole where the old lady's stomach should be, so the audience can see where everything she swallows ends up. What's more, the hole grows bigger to accommodate the increasing gastro-population—by the tale's end, it's the size and shape of the horse that causes her demise. The digested wide-eyed animals float in a confetti-dusted space (which matches her dress), while everything about the elderly woman's exterior is equally askew, including the pupils in her eyes. Older children should get a kick out of the amusing asides liberally tucked into every spread. For example, there are bogus front page headlines ("LADY WOLFS DOWN DOG" screams one); a recipe for "Spider's Soup"; editorial comments by the menagerie and Taback himself ("Even the artist is crying," says a small caricature of Taback when she meets her gluttonous end); as well as factual information (various types of flies, birds or dogs are clearly labeled and paired with accurate pictures). The gleefully dizzy mood is intensified by Taback's use of black hand-lettered words set in blocks of bright colors laid atop orange or black backgrounds, and occasionally sprinkled with collage images (whose sources range from old field guides to the Wall Street Journal). Children of all ages will joyfully swallow this book whole. All ages.

Helen Rosenberg (review date 15 November 1997)

SOURCE: Rosenberg, Helen. Review of There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly, by Simms Taback. Booklist 94, no. 6 (15 November 1997): 565.

Ages 4-7. Although there are many versions of this perennial favorite, [There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly, ] this is one of the funniest and most innovative yet. The funky art and the terrific humor are a winning combination. The song remains the same, but the animals involved add their own rhyming commentary on the situation: Says the cat of the fly, "She gulped it out of the sky." The illustrations are cleverly handled. For example, a left-hand page shows the dog surrounded by other canine types, while the old lady is pictured on the opposite page, with a cutout in her dress that reveals a picture of everything she has swallowed so far; turn the page, and the cutout surrounds the next victim—in this case, the unfortunate dog. Newspaper headlines ("Senior Swallows Cat" and "Lady Wolfs Down Dog") keep up with the story, and there's a moral at the close: "Never swallow a horse." The many details in the artwork ensure a new surprise with each reading, making for a fun-filled romp for young and old alike. A brief note on the song concludes.

Martha Topol (review date December 1997)

SOURCE: Topol, Martha. Review of There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly, by Simms Taback. School Library Journal 43, no. 12 (December 1997): 101.

PreS-Gr 3—From cover to moral (never swallow a horse), this cleverly illustrated version of an old folk favorite [There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly ] will delight children. Each page is full of details and humorous asides, from the names of different types of birds, to a recipe for spider soup, to the rhyming asides from the spectating animals. As for the old lady, with her toothy grin and round bloodshot eyes, she looks wacky enough to go so far as to swallow a horse. A die-cut hole allows readers to see inside her belly, first the critters already devoured and, with the turn of the page, the new animal that will join the crowd in her ever-expanding stomach. The pattern of the lady's dress, with its patchwork of bright, torn colored paper pasted on black, is used as the background motif for the words. The text is handwritten on vivid strips of paper that are loosely placed on the patterned page, thus creating a lively interplay between the meaning of the words and their visual power. All in all, this illustrator provides an eye-catching, energy-filled interpretation that could easily become a classic in itself.



Diane Roback, Jennifer M. Brown, and Cindi Di Marzo (review date 4 May 1998)

SOURCE: Roback, Diane, Jennifer M. Brown, and Cindi Di Marzo. Review of When I First Came to this Land, by Harriet Ziefert, illustrated by Simms Taback. Publishers Weekly 245, no. 18 (4 May 1998): 212.

With the same jolly spirit of last year's Caldecott Honor book, There Was an Old Lady, Taback and Ziefert interpret another classic American folk song [When I First Came to this Land ]. The cumulative verse tells of a man who arrives in America with next to nothing and cheerfully makes the most of adverse conditions: "I called my cow / No-milk-now! / I called my shack / Break-my-back! / I called my horse / I'm-the-boss!" Lest anyone take the narrator's complaints seriously, Taback's boldly colored and zestily skewed illustrations deliver the comedy, as when the narrator's newly introduced spotted pig ("Too-darn-big!") stands on its hind legs, hugs its owner and seems poised to deliver a sloppy lick on the face. The artist handily acknowledges the historic aspects of the verse as well. Cleverly exaggerated folk-like paintings subtly incorporate foreign objects—for example, in the opening scene, which shows the narrator making his landing on U.S. soil, the bottom of the picture is strewn with canceled stamps, snippets of ticket stubs and a tiny newspaper facsimile trumpeting "Immigrants Arrive!" Readers are treated to playful perspectives as the horizon curves crazily or as the interior of the shack lists at impossible angles. All that's missing is the music; happily, the art has rhythm aplenty. Ages 4-8.

Susan Lissim (review date June 1998)

SOURCE: Lissim, Susan. Review of When I First Came to this Land, by Harriet Ziefert, illustrated by Simms Taback. School Library Journal 44, no. 6 (June 1998): 136.

PreS-Gr 2—Even with its catchy language and colorful illustrations, this popular folk song [When I First Came to this Land ] falls flat as a picture book. The author indicates, in very small print above the CIP data, that this song was brought to Pennsylvania by a German immigrant over a century ago, but offers no real information about this well-known tune. The endpapers feature a hand-drawn map of the United States in 1885. Taback's cartoon illustrations depict a scruffy man who is rather inept on his new farm with his cow, horse, pig, etc.; he is suddenly shown to be successful after the appearance of a wife and baby. The real problem with this book is how to use it. The song could be sung in preschool storyhours or a resourceful teacher could use it as a jumping off place for a unit on U.S. Westward expansion, but without additional information on the song or simple sheet music, there's not much to it. Picture book versions of songs such as "Over in the Meadow" or "Wheels on the Bus" beg to be used in a storyhour. This one just does not hold that same appeal.

John Peters (review date 1-15 June 1998)

SOURCE: Peters, John. Review of When I First Came to this Land, by Harriet Ziefert, illustrated by Simms Taback. Booklist 94, nos. 19-20 (1-15 June 1998): 1775.

Ages 5-7. A nineteenth-century Pennsylvania immigrant's rhyme, drawn and retold from Alvin Schwartz's And the Green Grass Grew All Around (1992), gets a sprightly rendition from the team that produced Two Little Witches (1996) and Who Said Moo? (1997). [When I First Came to this Land is] a cumulative tale of disasters with a happy ending; after struggling with a plow called "Don't-know-how!" and a horse named "I'm-the-boss!," building a shack dubbed "Break-my-back!," and buying a cow named "No-milk-now!," the bearded farmer winds up contented. Taback gives each mishap visual form with simply drawn comic scenes, festooned with cutout photos of flowers, leaves, postage stamps, and other small items; the animals look on with astonished expressions as the smiling young narrator finds a wife ("Spice-of-my-life!"), welcomes a son ("Somuch-fun!"), and then, lest any hint of earnestness intrude, adds a giant duck ("Duck-Duck-Duck!") to the menagerie. Ziefert has rearranged the order of events and, by changing the wife's name from "Run-for-your-life," made the language less sexist. Although, unlike Oscar Brand's old edition (1974), there is no musical arrangement, children will have no trouble adding their own music, or lines, to this bouncy, rhythmic saga, which beginning readers could give a try.


Diane Roback, Jennifer M. Brown, and Jason Britton (review date 22 July 2002)

SOURCE: Roback, Diane, Jennifer M. Brown, and Jason Britton. Review of This Is the House that Jack Built, by Simms Taback. Publishers Weekly 249, no. 29 (22 July 2002): 176.

Caldecott Medalist Taback (Joseph Had a Little Overcoat ) offers a spirited interpretation of this cumulative rhyme [This Is the House that Jack Built ]. From the very start—as endpapers reveal a variety of pencil-drawn houses with yellowing real estate ads as captions—the artist fills these busy pages with abundant details and diversions. The first spread introduces Jack's home on the left, with the text on the right, and the word "house" in eye-popping collage type. Ancillary images and asides accompany the vividly hued mixed-media illustrations and hand-lettered text that introduce the invading characters. On the spread announcing the cheese, for example, Taback reveals nine varieties (one of which "lay in the house that Jack built") and ranks them according to their pungency ("Not so smelly"; "Really stinky"). Superimposed on the image of "the cow with the crumpled horn" are labels indicating its parts (tail, hoof, udder) as well as the anatomical sources of some kid-pleasing delicacies (meatballs, Big Mac, etc.). As previous characters move to the right of each spread, they (and the growing text) begin to crowd out the house itself. Taback slips himself into the tale at its end (wearing a beret bearing the words "Guess who?"), applying the finishing touches to a picture that gathers the entire cast of characters. A zany and fun take on this 18th-century classic. Ages 4-8.

Janice M. Del Negro (review date October 2002)

SOURCE: Del Negro, Janice M. Review of This Is the House that Jack Built, by Simms Taback. Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books 56, no. 2 (October 2002): 81.

Jack has built a lot of houses over time, and here he is with a brand new one [in This Is the House that Jack Built ]. Taback's visual reimagining of this familiar piece includes colored backdrops on the versos alternating with black backgrounds on the rectos, the versos featuring the character or element (house, cheese, rat, etc.) that anchors the rhyme, the repetitive portion of the rhyme (in varicolored text) accumulating on the recto, along with brilliantly colored spot art reflecting the action. Bits of textual business (rhymes, labels, etc.) add humor to the illustrations; kids will easily guess the identity of the mystery guest on the last spread, while adults will be amused by the endpapers, which feature newspaper real-estate ads illustrated with Taback-style architecture. The artist takes this rhyme through the same sort of illustrative metamorphosis, short of die cuts, he used with There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly (BCCB 3/98), and the result is equally effective. Make some room on the block for this funny new neighbor.

Martha V. Parravano (review date November-December 2002)

SOURCE: Parravano, Martha V. Review of This Is the House that Jack Built, by Simms Taback. Horn Book Magazine 78, no. 6 (November-December 2002): 769-70.

Taback's version of the age-old cumulative rhyme [This Is the House that Jack Built ] is an explosion of color, energy, zaniness, and pore-over-able detail. Left-hand pages introduce each new item/animal/person in Jack's house. The "this is the cow with the crumpled horn" page features a large portrait of the cow with a helpful arrow pointing toward the crumpled horn; fanciful labels identifying hoof, udder, rump, and "whopper w/cheese"; and a surrounding assortment of products made from cow's milk. Right-hand pages continue the verse in a riot of hand-lettering and beleaguered players (the dog looks properly tossed; the cat, all shook up; and the rat, unmistakably dead). So far so good. But unlike Taback's previous tight, cohesive constructions (There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly ; Joseph Had a Little Overcoat, rev. 1/00), this House has a few loose floorboards. Classified-ad-like collage endpapers and a "for sale" sign on Jack's higglety-pigglety house seem to presage some type of transaction that never materializes; a glimpse of blueprint, a tape measure on the title page, and a catalog of tools on the back cover imply a building theme, but no; and though Taback's tip of the hat to Randolph Caldecott, whose own House that Jack Built was published in 1878, is lovely and generous, the reference will surely be lost on many readers (we are told only that the mystery artist's name "rhymes with 'forget-me-not'"). Still, the basic structure is sound, and Taback's House should pass inspection with his many fans.

Instructor (review date April 2003)

SOURCE: Review of This Is the House that Jack Built, by Simms Taback. Instructor 112, no. 7 (April 2003): 55.

The collage illustrations are frantic and fun in this lively version of the classic children's nursery rhyme, [This Is the House that Jack Built, ] first published in 1755. Children will recall and chant the ever-growing rhyme in sequence, as the farmer feeds the rooster who wakes the judge, who marries man and maid, who milks the cow, and so on.



Davis, Susan E. "Crossover Appeal." Step Inside Design 15, no. 4 (July-August 1999): 34-45.

Describes the design process used by Taback in creating Joseph Had a Little Overcoat.

Heller, Stephen. "Faces in the Crowd." New York Times Book Review (17 November 2002): 45.

Lauds the "expressive hand lettering" in This Is the House Jack Built.

Krull, Kathleen. "Of Thee I Sing." New York Times Book Review (15 November 1998): 26.

Argues that Taback's "utter lack of white space" in When I First Came to this Land creates an "extralively pulse."

Lewis, Shirley. Review of There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly, by Simms Taback. Teacher Librarian 26, no. 4 (March-April 1999): 44.

Compliments Taback's There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly as a "splendidly presented" retelling of the classic fable.

McElmeel, Sharron. Review of Spacey Riddles, by Katy Hall and Lisa Eisenberg, illustrated by Simms Taback. School Library Journal 38, no. 6 (June 1992): 108.

Assesses the strengths and weaknesses of Spacey Riddles.

Additional coverage of Taback's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 115, 171; Literature Resource Center ; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, Ed. 2; and Something about the Author, Vols. 36, 40, 105.