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Simms Taback

Interview with the Year 2000 Caldecott Gold Medal Winner

Graphic artist Simms Taback is the award-winning author-illustrator of Joseph Had a Little Overcoat and many other books for children. Joseph is based on a Yiddish folksong which Simms adapted and illustrated using colorful patchwork collages and diecut cut outs. The book tells a joyful tale of resourcefulness and recycling.Simms lives with his wife in upstate New York.

Where did the inspiration for Joseph Had a Little Overcoat come from?

The book spoke to my life as a kid. Yiddish was my first language. My parents weren't religious but they were left-wing working class Jews. I've dedicated the book to Alex Cohen who was my mother's youngest brother. He was just nine years older than me and went to graduate school at NYU. He introduced me to songs by Pete Seeger and Hootenannys at Astor Place. My family was filled with this sense of tradition.

I grew up in a terrific neighborhood in the Bronx. We called it "The Coop." We had clubs, and a community center, our own library. We had a camera club and a science club -- all run by the community center.

How did you get back in touch with these roots for Joseph?

When I got the contract to do the book I reconnected with my past. I went to the Workman's Circle Bookstore. I looked at books about Life in Poland, ghetto life, and the Yiddish theater. A lot of my past came back. Now people send letters saying that they appreciate this connections to roots. I even got a book to sign from Linda Johnson Robb who has collected Caldecott books for the past 30 years. She said she liked the references to Sholem Alechem.

When I went on tour people were interested. I sang the first stanza in Yiddish. I was surprised to see that non-Jewish audiences were interested.

There's an unusual story behind Joseph Had a Little Overcoat.

I had done Joseph Had a Little Overcoat as a novelty book for Random House many years ago. It wasn't successful, but it became a cult book. Even 15 and 20 years later people would ask for it or contact me saying they'd found it somewhere and liked it. I thought that maybe now the audience would be more receptive. I took Joseph to Regina Hayes at Viking and she went for it. There is something to be said for persistence.

What changed between 1976, when the first version was published, and now?

People are now interested in Yiddishkeit. When the book was first published it didn't seem to touch people. I won for best illustrator, but the material has to be interesting. A picture book is of a whole cloth -- the story and pictures have to work together.

The amount of text in Joseph is minimal, but the background and cultural elements are there. Kids books have to have something for the adults as well as the kids, since the adults are doing the reading.

How did you get involved in writing and illustrating children's books?

I've always had a talent and interest in art, and my mother took me to special art classes. I was ambivalent about following that path, but my teachers pushed me to take the exam for the High School of Music and Art. Going there was a wonderful experience because I met other kids with similar interests. It was hard to leave my neighborhood school and friends. At Music and Art I saw that there was something else in life.

I got into Cooper Union and was planning to be a fine artist. I did a children's book every few years. I always loved doing children's books.

For many years you were also a graphic artist doing other kinds of work.

I was worried about how I was going to support myself. Having parents who were immigrants gets to you. I took design and graphics classes. I was on staff as a graphic artist and became a freelance illustrator in 1960 and have been ever since. I supported myself mainly by doing editorial assignments -- some in the children's area.

What else did you do to earn a living?

I started a greeting card business in the '80's where I created and marketed greeting cards. I struggled with that for 7 or 8 years and it just about paid the bills. I sold that business around 1994 and have been doing regular illustration work since.

How did you decide to focus on children's books?

In the 1980's I got together with a packager doing flat books that are marketed like toys. They get shipped to the publisher later and you get a flat fee rather than a royalty. In the 80's I did novelty books and trade books. One of my books, for Viking was Road Builders, which did well and people liked. It didn't pay to put energy into the other areas of my career when the children's book area was one area that could matter if I concentrated on that.

There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly won a Caldecott Honor award in 1998. How did that book evolve?

I wanted to do a book that was my own. I'd been sent manuscripts, but they were for concept books where I'd be doing what the publisher wanted. I'm not sure why I picked the material, but when I did, I didn't think anyone else was working on it. I went to the library and was surprised to see the print out. There were five prior versions including two still in print. However, I'd already started on the book.

I'd been fooling around with die cut and it seemed just right for this story. It made it a little different. It took about a month to do. I made a 2"by 3" dummy. The dummy became the manuscript.

Were you able to get that book published right away?

For 8 months the dummy of the book got passed around. It was turned down 10 or 12 times. People were interested but decided not to go ahead. It needed to fit into the right area. Viking was the first publisher I thought of -- so I sent it to the editor. I managed to get the book to Regina Hayes. A good editor and good house looking for fresh material. I gave her two sample pieces to make her more comfortable. Originally it was going to be a novelty book but then it was decided that it would be a trade book.

What's special about There Was An Old Lady?

It's interactive. I added to the poem -- asides and a variety of details. Librarians loved the details -- the printed matter from newspapers; the very small headlines. They looked at it very carefully.

How was There Was An Old Lady received?

It got great reviews and a number of awards including one from the New York Times.It also became a Caldecott Honor Book. That really broke the ice since it's not the kind of book the Caldecott Committee usually awards.

How has winning the Caldecott Gold Medal changed your life?

I was in Florida when I got the news. We were planning to be there for a few more months, but the call disrupted those plans. I was on the Today Show the next morning. Since winning I've been on book tours and done numerous interviews. Scheduling is an issue. It's hard to find time to work. But it's very exciting. I'm just catching my breath now. The award ceremony is in Chicago in early July. They give out both the Newbery and Caldecott at once with over 1,000 people at the dinner.

What advice would you give people interested in writing for children?

Be persistent about what you do. Keep faithful to what you're interested in and eventually something could happen. I've had a wonderful career as an illustrator. I always found work. There were some little pet projects that I had faith I'd be able to do something with. I kept trying to convince people to publish Joseph and never, never stopped. I felt vindicated when I won the Caldecott Gold Medal.

I'm basically a commercial artist. A lot of people are talented, but not many take it seriously enough or work at it. I applied myself seriously over a long time. It took persistence. An essential part of being an artist is finding ways of supporting one's self. You just have to keep at it.

Have your own kids followed in your footsteps?

My own kids are talented. One daughter is a musician even though she had talent as an artist. My son is involved in print production. And my step-daughter is involved in film, doing art direction and scenic design.

If you want to learn more about Simms Taback, please contact us. Tell us what you think of his books.

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