The first time I read this story, it was a series of sentences tucked away in a storytelling publication. Each time I would tell it to a group of students, sighs or gentle gasps of oh would be heard when the final phrase was spoken. The element of possible, the presence of truth, echoes long after the last word.
As is the way with all good stories, especially those traveling from one part of the world to another, readers are likely to find more than one adaptation. My Grandfather's Coat (Scholastic Press, October 21, 2014) retold by Jim Aylesworth with illustrations by Barbara McClintock brings a new historical perspective to the Yiddish folksong, I Had a Little Overcoat. This man's tale is the tale of many who immigrated to the eastern shores of the United States.
My grandfather came to America when he was very young. He came alone and with little more than nothing at all.
With hard work the grandfather becomes a tailor. With luck the grandfather meets the love of his life, the narrator's grandmother. With work and love in his heart, this tailor sews an elegant long coat to wear on their wedding day.
Now as happened during this time period, the tailor needed to also farm to provide for his family. By the time their first child is born, the coat is looking worn and torn. From the remnants he is able to make a comfy jacket.
Before long it seems the little girl is walking about on the farm and helping inside with household tasks. Now the jacket is looking worn and torn. The clever grandfather knows exactly what to do. And he does it.
Year after year passes until the mother of this teller gets married. And her grandfather, thrifty and inventive, fashions another article of clothing, wearing it proudly as he walks down the aisle with his daughter. The daughter has a child of her own (the narrator) who grows and grows as the fabric becomes more and more frayed.
This child has a child and a new handmade gift is given, using the last of the original elegant long coat. Least you think the tale concludes when this is worn and torn, the bits and pieces serve another purpose. You can always create something from nothing with a little imagination.
With his first two sentences Jim Aylesworth gives readers his first small variation on the original, a single word bringing us full circle. We begin with nothing. Between each of the alterations, uses for the cloth, his word choices further tie the changes together as well as give a cadence to the story.
He snipped, and he clipped,
and he stitched, and he sewed.
The beat is enhanced more when he uses the same words to describe the aging of each new item. These rhythms he writes make the telling closer to a song to be sung. Repetitions invite participation and make a story memorable to the reader and listener.
The illustrations throughout are rendered by using
a Hunt #100 steel pen nib and dip pen, Higgins Waterproof Ink, and Winsor & Newton Colours on Arches go-pound cold press watercolor paper.
Barbara McClintock's matching dust jacket and book case frame with tools of the trade of a tailor the grandfather happily coming to America through Ellis Island. On the back is a recipe for Grandfather's Coat Cookies. A smaller illustration in the corner, nearly identical to one at the end of the book, shows five items linked together with a single red thread. The blue used in the title becomes the solid color spanning across the opening and closing endpapers. On the title page we are given a bird's eye view, a miniature of the New York harbor.
Intricate lines, a full color palette, light, shading and shadows form the illustrations illuminating the text on single pages or as smaller pictures placed together on a page. Paper quality and white space pull our eyes toward each image. McClintock's research is evident in the architecture, home decor and clothing styles she features. With a line her characters are lively, fully animated and the kinds we wish were our neighbors.
One of my favorite series of illustrations is of the wedding covering two pages in the upper half and of the two scenes in the future beneath it on the left and right. Every detail conveys place and time perfectly. I want to know more about these people; their lives have become important to us.
My Grandfather's Coat written by Jim Aylesworth with illustrations by Barbara McClintock is a beautiful retelling in words and pictures of a cherished folksong. Readers will be repeating phrases, maybe even humming them in memory. I would like to see this paired with the Caldecott Medal winning Joseph Had a Little Overcoat written and illustrated by Simms Taback. This title My Grandfather's Coat, is the recipient of three starred reviews, Kirkus, Publishers Weekly and School Library Journal. Both the author and illustrator have included notes at the book's end.
For more information about Jim Aylesworth please follow the link embedded in his name. He has provided a page of Classroom Connections.