Sunday, January 1, 2012

A Yiddish Folktale, Three Ways

In an old Yiddish folktale, a boy (or man) has a beloved item of clothing.  As he outgrows it or it becomes too worn, it is cut down and transformed - into a vest or a tie... until it can be transformed no longer.  Or can it?  The owner records the story of his coat and voila! he has made something (a story) from nothing.

We own two versions which are pretty faithful to the original - Simms Taback's Caldecott-winning Joseph Had a Little Overcoat and Phoebe Gilman's Something from Nothing.  Taback's signature cut-outs and collages, his inclusion of a little Yiddish, and his allusions to shtetl culture and the pop culture that makes reference to it (newspaper headline: Fiddler Falls Off Roof) make this one very special.  The story was also a Yiddish folksong and Taback (who died on Christmas Day 2011) includes musical notation for it.  My three-year-old sings yet another version of it at preschool.  Gilman's version shows the protagonist's house upstairs and then a house of mice below.  The mice use the scraps of fabric as they fall to the ground, giving an added meaning to the title. 

A newly published third version, I Had a Favorite Dress, by Boni Ashburn, puts a modern and girly spin on the story.  I love the mixed-media illustrations by Julia Denos with their exuberant use of color.  (I definitely want to check out more of her work, including a picture book biography of Audrey Hepburn, Just Being Audrey by Margaret Cardillo, which she illustrated.)  This version is my 6-year-old's favorite, of course.  But I was bothered by the fact that nowhere does the author acknowledge that this is a retelling of an old folktale, especially because the original story is not so well-known that the connection would be obvious, in my opinion.

I know there are lots of versions of classic fairy tales, like Cinderella.  Do you have multiple versions of the same folktale?  Which one(s)?


  1. We just read that last week, my preschooler brought it home from school. It was cute.

  2. There are two versions of Cinderella that I love, because the girls in the story are much less passive. Cap O'Rushes, a version of which is in Alison Lurie's Clever Gretchen and Other Forgotten Folktales, and Mossycoat, which is retold by Philip Pullman in book form, and also here: I think that both these versions originate from the UK.