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Joseph Had a Little Overcoat by Simms Taback
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Oct 25, 2008

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A colorful, fun-filled story based on a Yiddish folksong, about a resourceful man named Joseph, who makes new things out of his old clothes.

Intended age group: 5-8

It was a mistake to read this book with a migraine, since each page in this book is a kaleidoscopic shower of color--buttons, scraps of cloth, patterns on clothing, tiny photographs of vegetables and flowers, all on a contrasting dark background. Under normal circumstances, however, the story is a delightful fantasy about a man in an idealized Jewish shtedl, whose overcoat wears out, so he sews it into a jacket. The jacket gets frayed, so he makes himself a vest, and so on, until he is left with a mere button, which gets lost. Ever resourceful, he writes a book about it, the moral being that "you can always make something out of nothing." Joseph's colorful surroundings are not only peppered with everyday objects, but also Jewish folk sayings and jokes--adding interest for adults reading the book aloud.

From the title, I had thought this book would be based on the biblical story of Joseph, which it isn't. Instead, it is based on a Yiddish song: I had a little overcoat, or Hob ich mir a mantl, the words and music of which are printed in the back of the book. A brief Internet search yielded the tune of the song, which is quite catchy; reading the book aloud in conjunction with teaching children the song might make an enjoyable storytime or classroom activity for a small group. Additional interactive features of the book are the cutout pictures anticipating the next smaller item of clothing Joseph will make, and the predictable repetitive narration, in which children could easily join. In spite of the creative presentation and humor, my gut feeling is that this book might actually be more amusing for adults than children, because the story is about a bearded middle aged man rather than a child.

Reviewers in Publisher's Weekly (11/1/99) and School Library Journal (Jan, 2000) agreed that the book was "tailor-made" (groan) for reading aloud. Both reviews were primarily descriptive but expressed admiration for the repetition of the story, the colorful artwork, the cutout pictures, and the witty sayings on the walls of Joseph's house.
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