Simms Taback: Welcome to the Shtetl
Mr. Taback grew up in the East Bronx of New York City in 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 remembers little of it today, the old songs, stories, and ways of life have 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.
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.
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 glueing 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 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-confident
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 his newer book, This is the House That Jack Built, which weaves lots more silliness into an old rhyme.
Readers may write to the author at his home in the beautiful Catskill Mountains of New York: 96 Hickory Road, Willow, New York 12495-5008.
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.
Embracing the Child: Simms Taback
A short biography with a black and white photo.