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Museum of Ventura County
Making Pictures for Children
December 4, 2011 – Feburary 12, 2012
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about simms
All About


Reynold Ruffins

Cooper Union

Ventura Museum       ►

Tablet Magazine

Ventana Magazine

Ventura County Star


From the exhibition catalog:
Simms Taback believes he became an illustrator because he had an early interest in storytelling. When he was a child growing up in the Bronx, New York, he created his own puppet shows. He made papier-mache puppets, sewed their clothing with the help of his mother, a talented seamstress, wrote the scripts, constructed a miniature stage with drawstring curtains, and performed the plays for his friends. Later he attended the High School of Music and Art and Cooper Union, one of the most prestigious art schools in the country. He intended to become a painter, but he became very impressed with the work of one of his teachers, George Salter, a major figure in the book jacket design field.
After service in the army, he turned to graphic design and worked as a designer at Columbia Records, The New York Times and as an art director in an ad agency. But he sought greater control over his creative work, started to freelance and opened a design and illustration office with his longtime partner and colleague, Reynold Ruffins. Together, they started a greet- ing card company, which Simms eventually ran by himself, designing and manufacturing a line of die-cut greeting cards.
After some years, the line was sold to another greeting card company, but it gave Simms the inspiration for There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly. He was able to integrate the use of a die-cut throughout the book, which allows readers to see inside the old lady’s stomach each time she swallows one of the animals of ever-growing size. Apparently he guessed right that children would find this fascinating and that this old folk poem would seem entirely new. He used the same device when he created Joseph Had a Little Overcoat.
Over the years, with his interest in outsider art, naive painting, and children’s artwork, Simms developed a style of illustration that is instantly recognizable and uniquely his own. He developed a special talent for draw- ing animals that are very friendly to children, or, as one reviewer described it, “animals with human expressions.”
As a freelance illustrator working for national advertising clients and numerous magazines, his work has garnered many awards. He has written and illustrated about 50 books for children. He was selected twice for a New York Times Best Illustrated Book Award. His adaptation of There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly was described as “a tour de force in innovative book illustration and design” and was chosen as a Caldecott Honor Book in 1998. In 2000 he was awarded the prestigious Caldecott Medal for Joseph Had a Little Overcoat.
Simms has taught illustration and design at the School of Visual Arts and at Syracuse University. He served as president of both the Illustrators Guild and the Graphic Artists Guild, which bestowed on him its Lifetime Achievement Award in 1998. His alma mater, Cooper Union, awarded him the Augustus Saint-Gaudens Medal for professional achievement in 2001. He and his wife, Gail, recently relocated from upstate New York to Ventura, California. Children are quite impressed that he designed and illustrated the very first McDonald’s Happy Meal box.
“Over the years Adventures for Kids played host to a distinguished collection of children’s book authors and illustrators. Our guests would appear for a few hours, talk to children, parents, grandparents and teachers, autograph their books and then move on to the next stop on multi-city tours.
But then, in 2005, a talented and famous children’s author not only came to Ventura... he stayed!! We were amazed and thrilled. Imagine! Simms Taback moving to Ventura from New York. Unheard of.
Why here, we wondered. Perhaps to escape the clamor of demands that follows, inevitably, from winning the prestigious Caldecott Award for Joseph Had a Little Overcoat. (Children’s book lovers consider The Caldecott Award a greater feat than winning an Oscar.) If that were true, that he wished to escape the pressures of fame, we had a dilemma. Would it be rude and intrusive to try to lure him into the bookstore?
We waited, giving him at least a week to settle into his new digs, before we called. Would he be willing to come into the bookstore to promote his geshmacht new book, Kibitzers and Fools? Oh joy, he was willing. He came and charmed us all.
After that first visit, he became a regular customer, appearing in our shop to look at, discuss, and purchase the best of the new picture books illustrated by his many friends. His interest in and appreciation of other artists’ work always struck me as generous and genuine, particularly because he never left the store without a stackful to add to his collection.
In many ways I think Simms is a bit like the adaptable and creative Joseph. As his overcoat becomes “old and worn,” Joseph transforms it. From the coat, there is a jacket, then a vest, and as it diminishes, it continues to serve him in some useful way, until all that remains is the story. And what a story! The book mirrors a rich and lively life filled with friends and family, singing and dancing.
One needs only to pore over any of his books to see Simms’s wit and gentle humor in their color-filled pages. The thing is, when you look at his books you cannot imagine how hard he works to achieve the informality and intimacy that invites readers to spend time visiting each page.
In Kibitzers and Fools, a richly illustrated compilation of humorous anecdotes drawn from Yiddish tradition and storytelling, a youngster asks his teacher, “What is the meaning of life?” The poor boy gets no satisfying answer to that age-old question. However, within his illustrations, Simms has painted a field of animals each answering from its own perspective. One suggests, “Life is a goose feather pillow.” The mouse thinks, “Life is a piece of cheese.” For the hen, it’s an egg. I am guessing that, if Simms were asked, he might say, “Life is a colorful, meticulously detailed picture book.”
We are very lucky, my husband and I. We became good friends with Simms and his wife, Gail. So even after Adventures for Kids closed, we still get together over good food and talk about many things, especially politics, movies and, of course, children’s books.
Jody Fickes Shapiro, founder and former owner of Adventures for Kids,
writes books for children, including Up, Up, Up! It’s Apple Picking Time.

“I have enjoyed the best good fortune in sharing space and time with Simms in our studios for 28 years and socially for almost twice that time. He is genetically programmed to be generous. He deals with an open hand with family and friends, clients and colleagues, students, strangers, and stray dogs. He is always giving.
Simms offers more—more interest, more time and attention, more care, a bit like a loving mom with a pot of hot soup.
But on occasion, he whistles. Not the tap your toes sway to and fro kind of whistle. It’s more a toneless, twisting and jagged industrial strength blast. I’m sure these sounds in search of a song must be a manifestation of his great wealth of creative energy.
Of course over the decades we’ve seen each other at our drawing tables countless times, night and day, year in year out. I will attempt to describe Simms’s method of work:(After a few whistle blasts) He would make many, many exploratory drawings using a lead pencil. Then trying the same subject in crayon or the ballpoint pen. Then pen and ink. Or a number 6 brush with watercolor and two-ply kid-finish Strathmore.
Perhaps a number 10 brush over the ballpoint on color paper with the pastel smudge would be more interesting. Or the texture of the Arches with watercolor and pencils would lend a certain something.
In the process, this patient perfectionist produces a thousand gorgeous sketches of a character or a scene for a forthcoming Ad campaign or a gem of a book.
(This trip could be a minefield of whistle works.)
Simms’s father was a painter (walls) and although Simms’s application of paint is different from his Dad’s, Leon Taback’s sense of fairness and the family’s deep interest in social issues strongly influenced his direction and the sensibility he brought to his work and to the business of his work.
In the 1930s and 40s, Leon Taback had been a union organizer in his trade. Simms’s mother was a proud member of the ILGWU.
In 1974, Simms began organizing illustrators.
He could see so clearly the need for freelancers, who work in isolation, to be in touch with one another and to be informed about current business practice. (Do I detect Woody Guthrie in the air?) His efforts resulted in the formation of the Illustrators Guild, which affiliated with the Graphic Artists Guild.
Social consciousness, intelligence, empathy, energy, and extraordinary talent are the makings of a great Artist.
Thanks to the Museum of Ventura County for recognizing my great friend.
(What’s that sound?)
Reynold Ruffins is an award-winning illustrator and teacher
who shared a studio with Simms Taback for almost 30 years.

© 2011 Museum of Ventura County. Reproduced by permission.

Museum of Ventura County
100 E. Main Street
Ventura, California 93001