Jim Aylesworth’s and Barbara McClintock’s satisfying new book is based on the Yiddish folk song “I Had a Little Overcoat,” which has been adapted to picture book form in various ways over the years, most notably in Simms Taback’s 2000 Caldecott Medal winner, Joseph Had a Little Overcoat. Here, author and illustrator make the story their own. It’s a pleasing new adaptation of a treasured story.
The basic idea: One man’s overcoat is recycled over generations. His overcoat, once it’s worn out, becomes a jacket, then a vest, then a tie and so on. Through the stories of five generations, Aylesworth's version becomes an ode to immigrant families who came to America to build brand-new lives.
A young man comes to America, marries and builds a family—not to mention a new life from scratch. Since the traditional folk song has Jewish roots, McClintock gives readers a wedding in a synagogue (the man’s daughter). His daughter has her own daughter, who then has a son. It is to this great-grandson that the man gives a toy mouse for his kitten, made from the tie that was once his overcoat. (And it doesn’t stop there. The piece of material goes on to nourish even further.)
In a closing author’s note, Aylesworth acknowledges the hard work of immigrants and the process of building new things from “what you have that [is] still good.” In an illustrator’s note, McClintock writes about her own family’s roots and her decision to set the book in northeastern Connecticut, where she now lives. Her watercolors throughout this story are expressive and warm, and she knows when to let white space frame a moment. Aylesworth’s text includes pleasant rhythms and rhymes, never forced: “My grandfather loved the vest, and he wore it, and he wore it, and little bit by little bit, he frayed it, and he tore it.”
This tenderly-rendered story is a spirited testament to life itself.
Julie Danielson features authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children’s literature blog.