Simms Taback, a children’s book illustrator and author who won the Caldecott Medal in 2000 for his adaptation of the nonsensical Yiddish folktale “Joseph Had a Little Overcoat,” died last Sunday at his home in Ventura, Calif. He was 79.
Joseph A. Garcia/Ventura County Star
Simms Taback, at his studio in Ventura, Calif.
Courtesy of the Estate of Simms Taback
The cover of "Joseph Had a Little Overcoat," which won a Caldecott Medal in 2000.
The cause was pancreatic cancer, said his son, Jason.
Mr. Taback was one of a new breed of commercial illustrators who in the 1960s rejected realistic trends in favor of expressionistic and comic visual storytelling.
Known for a wry naïf style, he enjoyed using snappy colors and playful cut-and-paste imagery. His whimsical characterizations of human beings, barnyard animals and jungle beasts entertained audiences through tales both new and retold.
Yiddish was Mr. Taback’s first language, so he took pleasure in adapting old Yiddish stories and song lyrics. His most successful, “Joseph Had a Little Overcoat,” follows Joseph as he removes his garments until all that’s left is a button. The story takes a quirky turn when Joseph decides to make a book about his coat. Throughout “Joseph,” a menagerie of animals with human expressions watch his transformation. Visual and textual gags spice up the story, including a newspaper headline that states “Fiddler on Roof Falls Off Roof.”
But “Joseph” was not entirely a flight of fancy. Mr. Taback spent time at the Jewish Museum to view period clothing and other artifacts and learned everything he could about shtetls in prewar Poland and Russia.
Born in the East Bronx on Feb. 13, 1932, Mr. Taback graduated from the Cooper Union and, after being discharged from the Army, worked as a graphic designer for Columbia Records and The New York Times, and later as a freelance advertising artist for Eastern Air Lines, American Express and other companies. Mr. Taback started a successful greeting card company, Cardtricks, in 1989, with his longtime friend Reynold Ruffins, a founder with Seymour Chwast and Milton Glaser of Push Pin Studios.
The paper novelties, including die-cuts, that Mr. Taback developed for cards inspired him to create the children’s book “There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly,” which received a Caldecott Honor in 1998. Cut-out windows on many of the pages enabled readers to view the innards of the old lady’s stomach as she swallowed the fly and consumed larger and sillier creatures throughout the book.
Mr. Taback taught illustration and design at the School of Visual Arts and Syracuse University. As president of the Graphic Artists Guild, he helped steer the organization toward advocacy on copyright issues.
His most recent book, published last year, is “Postcards From Camp,” a warmly sardonic correspondence between a first-time camper and his father. “Simms Taback: Making Pictures for Children,” a solo exhibition, opened at the Museum of Ventura County on Dec. 4 and continues until Feb. 12.
Besides his son, Jason, survivors include his wife, Gail; a daughter, Lisa Deane; a stepdaughter, Emily Kuenstler; two grandchildren; and three step-grandchildren.