Simms Taback: Welcome to the Shtetl

Born February 13, 1932, Mr. Taback grew up in the East Bronx of New York City in the 1930s and 40s. His family was Jewish, and they had strong ties to Eastern Europe. Their neighborhood was made up of many such families who together created a community rich in the traditions of the Old Country. When he was a young boy, he spoke the Yiddish language. Although he remembered little of it as he grew older, the traditional songs, stories, and ways of life made a tremendous impact on the work of this Caldecott Award-winner. In old Poland, a village such as the one he grew up in would be called a shtetl.

Time for Studies

Simms Taback had to leave the neighborhood to study at Music and Art High School (now called Laguardia Arts High School) and later Cooper Union, where he graduated in 1953. For many years, he was a practical, graphic artist, doing all kinds of work to put bread on the table. Every so often, he would illustrate a children's book for another writer, but they weren't so very popular. He did, however, design the very first McDonald's Happy Meal box. That was popular, but he didn't make much money from it. He also did work for KFC and lots of other big companies. But he kept dreaming of drawing and writing books for children.There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly

Award-Winning Books

In 1997, he wrote and illustrated a favorite old rhyming story, There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly. It was silly, crazy fun (the moral: never swallow a horse!), and it won Mr. Taback the Caldecott Honor that year. He used die-cut holes to let readers see inside the Old Lady's stomach, lots of bright patterns, and a technique called collage to mix in different materials by gluing them on the surface of his pictures.

After the Old Lady's success, he went to his publisher to see if they would be interested in another book using die-cuts and collage. Many years before, he had written Joseph Had a Little Overcoat. It was a story about a tailor in long ago Poland who has a favorite coat. When the coat gets too old and frayed, he cuts off the worn-out pieces and makes himself a vest. When the vest gets to be too worn to be worn, he makes himself a scarf, and so on until he has just enough left to cover a button. When the button gets lost, he is able to do something with that, too. Like the tailor, Mr. Taback wanted to take his old story and make something useful and beautiful from its pieces.

Joseph also uses the collage technique, but it is much more than just an interesting way to tell an old story with new art. In many ways, this is a book of love and memories for Mr. Taback. Look carefully, and you will see pictures of his family, Jewish sayings, and, in the back, a copy, complete with music, of the Jewish folk song from his childhood on which this story is based.

Simms Taback won the Caldecott Medal for Joseph Had a Little Overcoat in 2000. In his acceptance speech, he reminded the audience of the rich trove of words and sayings that come from Yiddish, carried over from the shtetls of the Old Country. Below are some Yiddish words we often use in America. How many do you recognize?

Being extremely self-confidentJoseph Had a Little Overcoat

To eat a snack

A clumsy person

To complain all the time

If you enjoy Joseph Had a Little Overcoat and There Was an Old Lady…, you may also want to try another book, This is the House That Jack Built, which weaves lots more silliness into an old rhyme. Click here for all the children’s books we own that were written and/or illustrated by Simms Taback.

Fast Facts about Simms Taback

Born: February 13, 1932, in The Bronx, New York City, NY
Education: The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Art (B.F.A., 1953)
Military Service: U.S. Army, private first class, 1953–55
Career: Illustrator. CBS Records, New York, NY, graphic designer, 1956–57; New York Times, New York, NY, designer, 1957–58; William Douglas McAdams, New York, NY, art director, 1958–60; freelance illustrator, 1960–63, 1970–; Ruffins/Taback Design Studio, New York, NY, partner, 1963–70. Teacher of illustration and design at Syracuse University and School of Visual Arts. Member of the board, Graphic Artists Guild, for twenty years 
Fun Fact: Mr. Taback designed the first McDonald’s Happy Meal box in 1977.
Selected Awards: Caldecott Honor (1998) for There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly; Caldecott Medal (2000) for Joseph Had a Little Overcoat, which also won the Jewish Book Council’s Louis Posner Memorial Award in 1999.
Died: December 25, 2011, at his home in Ventura, California, of pancreatic cancer.

Read more about Simms Taback online:

Across the Drawing Board from Simms Taback
In this article, from Horn Book Magazine, an artist who shared a studio with Simms Taback for many years talks about his methods, career, and personality. You can find this article and others by using the Literature Resource Center database and searching Simms Taback. You will need a CRRL card to use our databases.Noisy Barn!

Interview with Simms Taback
Simms Taback answers several questions about his career and tells how family traditions played a big part in Joseph…

The Official Simms Taback Website
The author's website has a short biography, articles about him, and his 2000 Caldecott acceptance speech.

Simms Taback (1932–) Biography - Personal, Addresses, Career, Member, Honors Awards, Writings, Adaptations, Sidelights
Additional details on this author's life and work.