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Simms Taback was the winner of the 2000 Randolph Caldecott Medal for Joseph Had a Little Overcoat, published by Viking. This is the text of his acceptance speech, delivered at the annual conference of the American Library Association on July 9, 2000 in Chicago:
Tie-er-er menschen-ah shayhem donk. Thank you very much.
I want to begin by saying here and now that I'm not going to get a swelled head about all of this, which is what I promised everyone at the Penguin Putnam party back in February. I said everything was happening so fast: my Hollywood agent had called that morning to say that he had signed with Miramax for Joseph, the Movie! and that Bruce Willis was considering taking the role of Joseph, except that he wasn't comfortable with the sewing part (didn't fit his persona) and they were thinking about casting Meg Ryan to play his wife and she would be the one mending the coat. I just want to make clear that I was only joking—yes, I was—and I'd like to apologize. I didn't mean to call Meg Ryan a shiksa.
What's really wonderful about getting this award is that I feel like a relative newcomer to the world of illustration, as if I have only just arrived as a practitioner of this craft. But actually, I have been illustrating for forty years, making pictures for just about everybody: Eastern Airlines, McDonald's, Kentucky Fried Chicken, American Express, CBS, NBC, ABC, many national consumer magazines, Sesame Street, and Scholastic's "Let's Find Out."
I also illustrated about thirty-five books during this time, although sometimes I was careless in my choice of manuscript and material. Only a few of these sold well. My father used to ask, "From this you can make a living?" Well, he wasn't far wrong, yet I always knew I would end up being a children's book illustrator. And if the Caldecott committee has any doubts at this point about awarding me the medal, let me assure you that I really deserve it. Let me tell you why.
I did my very first children's book for Harlan Quist, and I was very excited. It was called Jabberwocky and Other Frabjous Nonsense (selected poems from Alice in Wonderland). I was quite pleased with the results, and it was reprinted in several languages. The only problem was that Harlan Quist, the editor, ran off to Europe with all the royalties.
I illustrated a book called Thump, Thump, Thump for Mister Roger's Library, a start-up, independent imprint. On the day I delivered the artwork—four months of work—Mister Rogers had second thoughts and cancelled the whole project.
I was offered a book on concrete poetry for children. I was convinced to take it on as a special favor. Everyone knew it was a dud. I said to the editor, "You will always remember me for this book and never offer me another." Well, you couldn't give this book away. I was never offered another.
I illustrated a picture book called A Bug in a Jug. All the artwork was lost before it was printed and I had to create all new illustrations.
I illustrated a book called Please Share That Peanut! Though I had a lot of respect for the author, Sesyle Joslin, I didn't quite understand the title. That is—until I received the royalty statement. And I could go on from here, but I'll spare you.
But I did have some success; I won't deny it. I have a piece in the Smithsonian Collection. This is the very first McDonald's Happy Meal box, which I designed and illustrated with riddles, puzzles, and old Henny Youngman-type jokes: "It's raining cats and dogs. I know, I just stepped in a poodle." I bet this is the first time anyone has tried to impress librarians with a McDonald's Happy Meal.
But there is a downside to this experience, too. It was presented to me as a low-budget assignment because it was only going to be a test print run. It turned out to be seven million boxes.
I know the Caldecott committee does not give its prestigious award for failure—or even a string of failures. But what you should understand here is that I am making a kaynahora, that is, I am warding off the evil eye. Up in the Bronx, where I lived, if you praised someone, he or she would say, "Don't give me a canary."
If I had told my mother, "Ma, I won the Caldecott Medal," she would reply, "Yeah! I should live so long." And when it finally sinks in that perhaps it's true, she would add, "Caldecott, Shmaldecott... will it put some food on the table?" Any other reaction and you are courting disaster. The old-world Jews understood not to take themselves too seriously.
There is an old joke, told in Yiddish, about a very religious, pious man who complains to God one day: "I go to shule and pray every day. I study Talmud for hours and hours. Why, O Lord, do you reward my brother, and not me, with riches, when he is a gonif (a thief), and a person of low morals?" There is a long moment of silence and then God replies, "Because you bother me too much!"
But I will break with tradition here because what is even more wonderful is that you have awarded me the medal for this book—this book which is set in a world I heard so much about as a child and tells a story which is so personal to me. This book is filled with my family and I am kvelling, which means to feel immense pride and pleasure.
Joseph Had a Little Overcoat is adapted from a Yiddish folk song and is a good example of yiddishkayt, meaning "Jewish life or Jewish world-view." It embodies the values and struggles of life in the shtetl—the small villages where Jews lived in Eastern Europe. These were not big-city Jews, but families of farmers and tradesmen of mixed economic classes.
The Kohn (or Cohen) family lived in one of these villages where my zada, my grandfather, Meyer Kohn, earned his living as a blacksmith. I use the Kohn name in the book as Joseph's family name—Joseph Kohn of Yehupetz, Poland. The painting of Joseph having his tea is inspired by a fond memory of my zada, the way I remember him, placing a cube of sugar under his tongue and sipping his glass of tea, reading his Bible with a handkerchief always tied loosely around his neck.
Yiddish was my first language. I know little of it now. But most American goyim speak some Yiddish or some Yiddish inflection, whether they are aware of it or not; Yiddish has become so much a part of everyday English.
Goy means Gentile or non-Jew. To the Jews of the shtetl there were only two ethnicities—either you were Jewish or weren't Jewish. This is typical of how an oppressed people see the world. Goy is also used as a put-down, as in goyishe kup (non-Jewish brain) meaning that you're not very smart.
Here is a sample of the words we all use: chutzpah, megillah, yenta, nosh, kvetch, tchotchke, shlep, schlock, kibitzer, klutz, nebbish, mishmash, shmo.
I hear that Webster's Unabridged Dictionary contains some five hundred Yiddish words. And who has not heard some of the following phrases and used them:
   Get lost.
   All right, already.
   I need it like a hole in the head.
   So, who needs it?
   It should happen to a dog.
   OK by me.
   He knows from nothing.
   A person could go bust.
   Excuse the expression.
   Go fight City Hall.
   I should have such luck.
   It's a nothing of a dress.
   You should live to a hundred and twenty.
   As long as she's happy.
The following could be overheard in any Hollywood restaurant, "Listen, bubeleh, that guy is a shlepper. What's his shtick anyway? All he has is cockamamy ideas."
The use of the suffix nik, as in nogoodnik, is very common. We say beatnik and peacenik. The Wall Street Journal once carried a headline: "Revolution, Shmevolution." This was found in a review in the Times Literary Supplement: "Should, schmould, shouldn't, schmouldn't." This was seen on a button worn at a university campus: "Marcel Proust is a yenta."
OK, enough already. I don't mean to knock your head against the wall. But what about the influence of Yiddish inflection in the telling of a joke or story, or only to make a point? Leo Rosten in his Joys of Yiddish reminded me of this joke: During a celebration in Red Square after the Bolshevik Revolution and after Trotsky had been sent into exile, Stalin stood beside Lenin's tomb and read the following telegram from Trotsky: "Joseph Stalin, Kremlin, Moscow. You were right and I was wrong. You are the true heir of Lenin. I should apologize. Trotsky."
In the front row sat a little Jewish tailor. "Psst..." he whispered to Stalin, "Such a great message, Comrade Stalin, a statement for history, but you didn't read it with the right feeling." Whereupon Stalin quieted the crowd and raised his hand to say: "Comrades, here is a simple worker and a loyal communist who says I have not read this statement with enough feeling. Come up to the podium, comrade, and read this historical statement." So the tailor took the telegram from Stalin and read: "Joseph Stalin, Kremlin, Moscow. You were right and I was wrong? You are the true heir of Lenin? I should apologize? Trotsky."
And finally, there are at least a dozen words to describe a fool, like shlimazel, shlemiel, shmegegge, shmendrik, etc., but "Yiddishists" would agree that there is no Yiddish word for disappointment.
When I started school, I forgot all the Yiddish I knew as a child. So when I started to do the artwork for Joseph, I knew I had research to do. I started at the Workmen's Circle book store on East 33rd Street in Manhattan. I found five or six books on Jewish life in Poland and Russia with many wonderful photos and a video of the Jewish section of Vilna in Poland before World War II.
I visited the Jewish museum to see articles of clothing and other artifacts. The clothing was quite drab, probably faded, though beautifully sewn, and the patterns were quite plain and simple.
For the book, I decided to take some artistic license and mix it up with more with traditional Polish and Ukrainian designs. This made it more like the shtetl of my imagination. I illustrated the ethnic clothing by using collage fragments from various catalogues. So even as I created the artwork for Joseph, I was making something new from something discarded.
I listened to klezmer and Jewish liturgical music, looked at old family photographs, and did all I could to immerse myself in this old-world culture. I wanted to reflect its emotional life, yet I needed it all to be upbeat. I sang. I danced. I did the troika.
I grew up in a working-class neighborhood in the Bronx, made up mostly of socially aware Eastern European Jews. Even though it was the Depression, they built their own cooperative housing project. It was called the Coops. The people who lived there were called coop-niks. We were all poor, but it was a very special place for me. We had a community center, science and sports clubs, art classes, and even our very own library.
I spent my summers at Camp Kinderland (Land of Children) and Camp Nish-ka-dieget (No need to worry). These camps were supported by Jewish labor organizations like the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, the IWO, and Workmen's Circle. They were secular camps. You could attend Yiddish classes there, but it wasn't compulsory. It was here in these camps that I was encouraged to develop my talent and to go to Music and Art High School, even though I hated leaving the neighborhood.
Upon reflection, I see my old neighborhood as an extension of the shtetl life these European Jews had experienced as children. They left Europe for a new life in America, Der Goldenah Medina (Streets Paved with Gold), far away from pogroms, but still with a sense of community, humor, and values learned from generations of family.
I don't know how many shtetl communities existed in Eastern Europe (the word shtetl does not appear in the Encyclopedia Britannica), but they are all gone now. So is my neighborhood in the East Bronx. It is said that Yiddish is a dying language... and perhaps that is true. But as long as I can say, "I am making a gontse megillah (a big deal) here," and as long as a good number of people here tonight understand me, who knows? Enough already.
I have many to thank here this evening:
To Music and Art High School and Cooper Union who trained me and gave me a free education; my thanks.
To the Caldecott committee: Thank you so much for saying that a book with a novelty aspect is worthy of this prestigious medal and that yiddishkayt can be of interest to young children if presented in an appealing way. Thank you for this mitzve, and Ah mazaltov to you!
To my editor and publisher Regina Hayes: Thank you for seeing the possibility of successfully redoing a story I had published before. It took some chutzpah to let me do this. Thank you for your confidence and optimism.
To my art director, Denise Cronin: You are a real mensch and just a pure pleasure to work with. Thank you for guiding Joseph through a difficult production process.
Thank you Nina Putignano, Janet Pascal, Elizabeth Law, Stephanie McCarthy, and the rest of the Viking staff. Thank you, Doug Whiteman, for your support. And to my wife, Gail Kuenstler, Az meir binst du shayne, Der einer oif der velt. And to everyone here tonight: Zayn gezundt and may you live to be one hundred and twenty. Thank you.

aldecott Medal

2000 Caldecott Medal:
Simms Taback for
Joseph Had a Little Overcoat
About the Caldecott Medal
The Caldecott Medal is awarded annually by the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association, to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children published that year. It was named in honor of nineteenth-century English illustrator Randolph Caldecott. Together with the Newbery Medal, it is the most prestigious American children's book award.
The Caldecott Medal was designed by René Paul Chambellan in 1937. The bronze medal has the winner's name and the date engraved on the back. When the Caldecott Medal was accepted in 1937, the Section for Library Work with Children invited the School Libraries Section to name five of its members to the awards committee each year. For this reason the Caldecott Medal inscription reads, "Awarded annually by the Children's and School Librarians Sections of the American Library Association." This is a combination and simplification of the actual names of the sections. The wording continues even though several ALA reorganizations resulted in 1958 in the present divisions, including the Children's Services Division, now the Association for Library Service to Children, which now has sole responsibility for administering the award.
The Medal’s History
Each year the Newbery Medal is awarded by the American Library Association for the most distinguished American children's books published the previous year. However, as many persons became concerned that the artists creating picture books for children were as deserving of honor and encouragement as were the authors of children's books, Frederic G. Melcher suggested in 1937 the establishment of a second annual medal. This medal is to be given to the artist who had created the most distinguished picture book of the year and named in honor of the nineteenth-century English illustrator Randolph J. Caldecott. The idea for this medal was also accepted enthusiastically by the Section for Library Work with Children of ALA and was approved by the ALA Executive Board.
The Caldecott Medal "shall be awarded to the artist of the most distinguished American Picture Book for Children published in the United States during the preceding year. The award shall go to the artist, who must be a citizen or resident of the United States, whether or not he be the author of the text. Members of the Newbery Medal Committee will serve as judges. If a book of the year is nominated for both the Newbery and Caldecott Awards the committee shall decide under which heading it shall be voted upon, so that the same title shall not be considered on both ballots." In 1977 the Board of Directors of the Association for Library Service to Children rescinded the final part of the 1937 action and approved that "any book published in the preceding year shall be eligible to be considered for either award or both awards." Separate committees to choose the Newbery and Caldecott Awards were established in 1978 and began with the 1980 selection committees.
From the beginning of the awarding of the Newbery and Caldecott Medals, committees could, and usually did, cite other books as worthy of attention. Such books were referred to as Newbery or Caldecott "runners-up." In 1971 the term "runners-up" was changed to "honor books." The new terminology was made retroactive so that all former runners-up are now referred to as Newbery or Caldecott Honor Books.
About Randolph Caldecott
Randolph Caldecott was one of a group of three influential children's illustrators working in England in the 19th century. The other two illustrators were Kate Greenaway and Walter Crane. His illustrations for children were unique to their time in both their humor, and their ability to create a sense of movement, vitality, and action that complemented the stories they accompanied.
The illustration on the Caldecott Medal, which is taken from Caldecott's illustrations for "The Diverting Story of John Gilpin," which in turn was based on a poem from 1782 by William Cowper. It is a perfect example of the humor, vitality, and sense of movement found in Caldecott's work. The illustration shows John Gilpin astride a runaway horse, accompanied by squawking geese, braying dogs, and startled onlookers. The reverse of the medal depicts another of Caldecott's llustrations, "Four and twenty blackbirds bak'd in a pie."
Copyright 2009 American Library Association
1998 Caldecott Honor Book:
Simms Taback for
There Was An Old Lady
Who Swallowed A Fly