Joseph Had a Little Overcoat by Simms Taback

Taback, Simms. 1999. Joseph Had a Little Overcoat. New York: Viking. ISBN: 0670878553

Joseph Had a Little Overcoat by Simms Taback is a retelling of the Yiddish “something from nothing” tale.  There is an easily recognizable pattern.  Joseph has something old and worn that he turns into something else useful.  Even when he loses the final something, a button, Joseph can still tell the story, therefore he still has something.  I did find it rather random the things Joseph decided to do with his new clothes.  It makes sense to go to a fair because you have a new jacket, but I don’t think a handkerchief is required to drink hot tea with lemon.

Taback says that “the artwork was done using watercolor, Gouache, pencil, ink, and collage” (1999).  For me the art is both intriguing and off-putting.  On one hand, there are cutouts on every other page showing the transformation of the overcoat into the jacket, and then into a vest, and so on.  On the other hand, The people and animals have the quality of a child’s artwork.  The hands are blobs with five un-jointed appendages coming off of them.  While the animals are easily recognizable, the people are all near copies of each other.

The collage functions in two ways.  One way is through the inclusion of highly detailed objects, such as the vegetables, or the china, or the flowers on the bride’s hat.  The second way is more profound.  Somewhere on every page there are scraps of collage paper with Hebrew characters.  It took me a few times to realize just what they were.  They serve as additional clues to the nature of the tale.

This version of the tale is set in Poland.  Adults might be able to figure this out from the clothing or the Fiddler on the Roof references, but the most obvious references to Poland are the letters Joseph gets. The address is to “Joseph Kohn,Yehupetz, Poland” (1999).

Another fun thing in this version is the song at the end.  Not only does it come right after an explanation from Taback that this was his favorite song as a child, it also explains where the book came from.  It tells the story again and has a lot of “la la la”s which makes it easy to learn and relatively painless if someone forgets the words.  This is a great chance to get the music teacher involved in a school library.

PUBLISHER’S WEEKLY: “Taback works into his folk art a menagerie of wide-eyed animals witnessing the overcoat’s transformation, miniature photographs superimposed on paintings and some clever asides reproduced in small print (a wall hanging declares ‘Better to have an ugly patch than a beautiful hole’; a newspaper headline announces, ‘Fiddler on Roof Falls off Roof’).”

BOOKLIST: “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.’”

Awards : 2000 Caldecott Winner

Arnold, Tim. 2000. Joseph Had a Little Overcoat, by Simms Taback. Booklist Online. http://www.booklistonline.com/Joseph-Had-a-Little-Overcoat-Simms-Taback/pid=1063941

Ludke, Linda. 2000. Joseph Had a Little Overcoat. School Library Journal.

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