Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Book Review – Caldecott award winning book

Joseph Had a Little Overcoat by Simms Taback
Bibliographic information: Taback, Simms. 1999. JOSEPH HAD A LITTLE OVERCOAT. New York, NY: Viking. ISBN 9780670878550.

Plot: Joseph’s overcoat is too worn to use as an overcoat anymore, so he puts it to good use over and over again until there’s nothing left of it but the memory of his frugality. As Joseph’s overcoat grows smaller and smaller, the reader is left to wonder what will happen when the overcoat is finally too worn to cut down anymore. True to character, Joseph still finds use for what’s left of the overcoat – He puts those memories to good use also by creating a book about them.

Critical analysis: Joseph and his overcoat live in a Jewish Eastern European farming community. Even though the pictures are filled with colorful details, the fields and town, as well as Joseph and his neighbors have a simple look to them. As Joseph goes about his daily activities and interactions with others in his town, we get a glimpse of a simpler time of life when items weren’t discarded at the first sign of wear because it was too wasteful and material goods cost dearly. Joseph and his neighbors dress colorfully but simply. Joseph is shown in the town, in his synagogue, going about his farming duties, and in his house. His house is warm and comforting with pictures on the walls of other famous Jews, and books and newspapers with Jewish themes - more than one of them a sly reference to the movie “Fiddler on the Roof.” Joseph’s lifestyle is very close to the lifestyle portrayed by “Fiddler on the Roof.” Scenes of a Jewish wedding, Sabbath synagogue worship, and Joseph’s homespun clothing and household furnishings all contribute to the feeling of authenticity of Taback’s portrayal of the Yiddish culture of approximately a century ago.

Taback’s bold colors and simple lines add to his simple storyline by the lack of chaotic detail. Since the story is set in a time when life was also less chaotic but still colorful, the illustrations enhance the story. The background details such as the cobblestone streets and the crops in the fields contribute to the setting while not detracting from the storyline. The background also contains portraits, books, and newspapers which appeal to the adult reader since younger children would probably not catch the allusions in these, such as the previously mentioned references to “Fiddler on the Roof.”

One of the unique features of this book is its die-cutouts. On each 2 page spread, there’s a die-cut. Each time Joseph’s coat gets smaller, the die-cuts get correspondingly smaller. As the reader turns each page, the die-cuts are then revealed to show Joseph’s new use of his ‘overcoat.’ Searching out the die-cuts on the pages before they are revealed as the next item in Joseph’s wardrobe is challenging and offers a hands-on activity to the younger (and older!) reader. The back cover of this book is a photograph of buttons, all types, shapes and colors, and as far as I could tell, each one unique from the others.

The last 2 page spread clearly states the theme – You can always make something out of nothing. Taback leads up to this theme by having his character repeatedly find many simple ways to make something out of what in today’s profligate society might be discarded as trash. This book is based on a favorite childhood song of Simms Taback, “I Had a Little Overcoat,” words and lyrics of which comprise the last page of the book. Joseph’s simple lifestyle, the bold lines and colors of the pictures and the repetitive nature of the storyline all contribute to the appeal of this book.

Awards and Review excerpts:
National Jewish Book Awards, 1999 Winner Illustrated Children’s Book United States
Randolph Caldecott medal, 2000 Winner United States
Sydney Taylor Book Awards, 1999 Honor Book Younger Readers United States

CCBC (Cooperative Children's Book Center Choices, 2000)The Yiddish folksong about resourcefulness and resilience is brought to life in Simms Taback's wonderfully inventive watercolor, gouache and collage illustrations. Taback cleverly uses die-cut pages to show each bit of the garment in its new form and style. Set against the backdrop of an Eastern European village, the paintings are filled with Yiddish cultural references that add depth and humor to the story overall.

Horn Book (The Horn Book Guide, Spring 2000)Clever, humorous, visually engrossing, poignant, this tribute to a vanished way of life is worth holding on to.

Connections: Preschool children love matching activities. After you are finished reading the book, bring out a button collection and have the children match the buttons to the colors inside the book. Then have them try to match the buttons to the back cover buttons.

You can also encourage logical thinking by having the children guess what Joseph does next based on the shape of the die-cutouts.

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