It’s impossible to read too many versions of the venerable Jewish folktale often titled, It Could Always Be Worse. You might be familiar with the quirky, charming tale of a family living in a house too small, who calls on the wise old rabbi for advice; he directs them to bring all their animals into the house so when the animals return to the farmyard, the house feels spacious and roomy. There are countless versions of the story, set in countless locations, but the tale is so appealing and filled with such intrinsic wisdom and charm that one hopes the variations go on and on.
This new version by Karen Rostoker-Gruber is a welcome addition to the genre. This retelling is set in a country farmhouse, and the usual advice-giving wise man is refreshingly replaced by an equally wise woman; it has lilting rhymes and begging-to-be-read-aloud rhythms, accompanied by color illustrations filled with vitality and energy. It’s an intrinsically humorous story, but here the text and illustrations are filled with additional comic touches. The “too many children to count,” the rhyming descriptions of farm animal mayhem, and the depiction of the suffering but amiable family, all make smiles turn into hearty laughs as the story proceeds. The animals sport whimsical facial expressions and the children look suitably befuddled and good-natured in their crowded, “itty-bitty” home. The illustration of one little boy is reminiscent of Sendak’s naughty boys. Each animal nestles into the house in a comic position: a horse in the tub, a duck in the toilet, a lamb unplugging the toaster. This is all worthy of more than a chuckle; only a hearty guffaw will do. The story’s peaceful resolution seems to emit an almost audible sigh of relief as the “hugely-huge” family looks forward to their happily-ever-after. This story is highly recommended for those wishing for a rollicking good time and a dose of additional humor into an age-old tale of wisdom.
Michal Hoschander Malen is the editor of Jewish Book Council’s young adult and children’s book reviews. A former librarian, she has lectured on topics relating to literacy, run book clubs, and loves to read aloud to her grandchildren.