The Story Tree: Tales to Read Aloud is a large format book containing seven known folktales from world folklore, including “Monkey-See, Monkey-Do” (Indian), which is a version of the famous Caps for Sale, “The Magic Porridge Pot” (German), from Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and “The Three Billy Goats Gruff” (Norwegian). The book includes one Jewish story, “The Blue Coat,” which is the very popular story often titled “Joseph Had a Little Overcoat” as in Simms Taback’s Caldecott Medal winning book. However, in Hugh Lupton’s version, there is no indication that it is from a “Jewish” source, not even in the source notes — only that he had heard the story either from an English or a Scottish storyteller and saw it in print in Parabola magazine, (but without stating which issue or version). Actually, this story comes from a Yiddish folksong called “I had a little coat.” In 1978, storyteller Nancy Schimmel made the song into a story (“The Tailor”) and published it in her book Just Enough to Make a Story: A Sourcebook for Storytelling (Sisters’ Choice Press). If one did not know the origin of this story, there is nothing identifiable as cultural markers to indicate that this is a Jewish folktale. The boy’s name is Tom, a rather nondescript choice. As the coat gets cut down to a waistcoat (yes, a waistcoat), and then to a hat, then to a bow-tie, then to a button, and finally to a story, the mother repeats, “Oh dear, oh dear, that coat [or other item] is tattered and torn beyond all redemption!” Now, redemption is a Jewish concept, but I wonder how many parents will be able to explain clearly what that means in the context of this story. Why weren’t more American words used in place of ‘waistcoat’ and ‘redemption’? There are, however, some repetitive sections of the story that make it a delightful participatory experience for the reader and listener to say out loud together. The cartoonish illustrations are delightfully spaced all over the pages with a lot of color and humor. However, there’s a scene with snow and a palm tree, which don’t seem to go together. Ages 5 – 10.
Peninnah Schram, well-known storyteller & author, is Professor of Speech and Drama at Yeshiva University’s Stern College. Her latest book is an illustrated anthology, The Hungry Clothes and Other Jewish Folktales (Sterling Publishing) and a CD, The Minstrel & the Storyteller, with singer/guitarist Gerard Edery (Sefarad Records). She is a recipient of a Covenant Award for Outstanding Jewish Educator and the 2003 National Storytelling Network’s Lifetime Achievement Award.