Simms Taback’s picture book, Joseph Had a Little Overcoat, is a favorite of many and National Jewish Book Award and Caldecott winner besides, so his latest creation will be greeted with enthusiasm. In most respects, it does not disappoint. Taback wrote and illustrated this zany, clever collection of stories, sayings, and jokes. Among the 13 tales, you’re sure to find a variation of a story you already know. Perhaps it’s a Chelm story about which side to butter your bread (“A Philosophical Debate”) or the one about the rabbi who answers difficult questions while he’s standing on his head (“An Important Question”). Other familiar stories include “If I Were Rockefeller” and “The Restaurant.” For all the stories’ potential to delight readers, the book is definitely a case of old tales dressed up in new clothes. There is no information about the sources of the stories, many of which appear in other collections. All are sprinkled with a generous helping of Yiddish words and expressions. Unfortunately, many of the Yiddish words in the glossary have incorrect definitions. In addition, the Yiddish is written in English transliteration. Hebrew characters, at least in the glossary, would have been desirable.
The strength of Taback’s work lies in his art. Like the best folk art, the illustrations are colorful, expressive, and filled with clever jokes and surprises. For example, books fill the rabbi’s study to overflowing. “The Book of Most Often Asked Questions” lies open on his messy desk. In another clever touch, a signpost in Chelm states, “You are leaving Chelm. Gey Guzundt.” Nu, the wit is obvious.
Aside from the few criticisms expressed above, Kibitzers and Fools is an attractive and accessible collection for readers of all ages. Taback quotes a Yiddish saying: “It is easier to be a critic than an author.” Who am I to disagree? Ages 5 to 12.