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My Grandfather’s Coat

aylesworth_my grandfather's coatHeart-on-sleeve confession about My Grandfather’s Coat: I cannot read this book without crying. Some days even thinking about it makes me weepy. It’s not like anything bad happens (the grandfather doesn’t die!), and the tone is neither wistful nor melancholy. It’s such a joyful book, and then oy vey! The emotion sneaks up.

The first time I read it, I thought, “Well, that’s a nice little story.” The second time, some months later: “Huh. I didn’t remember such richness.” And then I read it aloud to my son. Start the waterworks. The scene near the end where the (great)grandfather carries the sleepy child up to bed? Bawling. (The expression on my kid’s face was that cross between confusion and bemusement with a little terror thrown in; that look they get when a grownup does something inexplicable or out of character.)

But enough about me: let’s talk about Barbara McClintock. And what I think of her art. (So I guess back to me.) For my taste, her work can be a little precise and pretty. It has nothing to do with her prodigious skill – I just tend to like my picture books a little on the messier side. But here? It’s perfection. It’s the tiny details that tell the story in those fabulous vignettes – the facial expressions, the sewing equipment, the Judaica, and always that piece of cloth that started as the grandfather’s coat. And McClintock’s pacing: those smaller spot illustrations of daily life and the larger images of Big Life Events; those intimate moments – birth of a child, for example, and the learning-to-ride-a-bike sequence. It’s all the things that change and all that stays the same, while the text, comforting pattern or no, moves ever onward until “There was nothing left at all. Nothing, that is, except for this story.” (And now I’m teary eyed… even though that’s a happy thing, right?!)

Drawing from the same source material, Simms Taback won the 2000 Caldecott Medal for Joseph Had a Little Overcoat, but that may be where the comparison begins and ends (and in any case, the sames and differents are a moot point for the committee). Taback’s take on the traditional Jewish folksong could not be more different: it’s silly, colorful, ebullient, and decidedly for a younger audience (those cute die-cuts and funny animals). The Aylesworth/McClintock version is quiet, understated, beautiful; it’s something a reader can revisit as the years pass, bringing a different understanding or a new perspective, noticing small details or asking big questions. Or just, you know, enjoying the time with their mothers, fathers, grandparents, even their own children someday… *sniff sniff.*

I never felt Cats-in-the-Cradle-ed because the pictures are so cheery and the emotion comes naturally – it’s brought by the reader (i.e., my own mishigas), not imposed by the book. And my kid likes it – he enjoys poring over the pictures, and he thinks the text is funny. But: am I being too much of a sap? Or do people love this book as much as I do?

Elissa Gershowitz About Elissa Gershowitz

Elissa Gershowitz is executive editor of The Horn Book, Inc. She holds an MA from the Center for the Study of Children's Literature at Simmons College and a BA from Oberlin College.

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Comments

  1. I love this one, too! Hopefully, this will be McClintock’s year! The committee has two to choose from.

  2. Hee hee. “Cat’s-in-the-Cradled.” Love it!

  3. Terrific post, Alissa! Thank you for sharing your thoughts about this lovely book.

  4. Yes, Linda, “Where’s Mommy?” is also lovely. I’m not the one to make its case, but I know one can be made.
    Heh, Marjorie, I like to think of myself as Not a Sap, but I must admit that I *did* also tear up at the end of “Frozen.” It’s true love! It’s her sister! And although I do roll my eyes, I’m not totally immune to the Harry Chapin.

  5. It seemed like everywhere I looked this year I was reading about Where’s Mommy, when my heart belongs to My Grandfather’s Coat! I thought it was just lovely and perfect, one of the best of 2014.

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