I’m always looking for those Big Three in children’s books: story, language, and art. And in Simms Taback’s books, the story and the language ARE the art. And the art is the art, too.

The illustrations are bright and folk-y, in paint and colored pencil, with found images and collage. The pages are colorful and jumbled and exciting. The colors are strong and engaging. The pictures are rich and full of little details to notice with your kids and talk about: the back cover of
This Is The House That Jack Built is jammed with drawings of power tools, labeled in type script: Screwy-Drivers, Runny Needle-Nose Pliers, Noisy Hammer, Just Coping Saw.

And the text is not a separate thing from the art. It is not typed on a little white square in some unimportant corner of the picture. The text IS the art. The letters are hand-made or collaged and they weave themselves through and shout themselves across every page. Each letter looks different. Each letter has personality. Some are block print from the newspaper, some are drawn with crayon, some are big, some are little—and they change color constantly. They are exciting. The letters themselves are exciting!

One book of his I love: I Miss You Every Day. It’s just a book about missing someone. But it comes back over and over to that refrain:

When the sun is shining bright
or when it’s wet and gray

I think about you all the time

I miss you every day

The colors of the book are so sunny—as is the plot—that it finds a way to mix cheer with sadness, hope with longing, being together with being apart. The tension between all these things, and the refrain “I miss you every day,” both give the book an energy and a rhythm that makes you want to read it over and over.

I also want to read over and over two of his books that re-energize oldies
but goodies. In There Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly, he uses cut-outs to show the contents of the old lady’s stomach as it fills up with: the fly, the spider, the bird, the cat, the dog, the cow and the horse. The cutout gets bigger and bigger—as does the old lady—as the visuals and the story build to up to: “She died, of course.”

And the same thing happens in This Is The House That Jack Built. Each line of text is a different color, and the pages become just as wired and nutty as the rhyme does. Near the end, it looks like a carnival, and the sing-songy rhyme keeps your little ones riveted to the story, even though, by that point, there are a lot of words on each page:

This is the farmer planting his corn
That kept the rooster that crowed in the morn,

That waked the judge all shaven and shorn

That married the man all tattered and torn

That kissed the maiden all forlorn

That milked the cow with the crumpled horn
That tossed the dog

That worried the cat

That killed the rat

That ate the cheese

That lay in the house

That Jack built.

A lot of words—and great ones: crumpled, forlorn, shaven, shorn, crowed, maiden, torn. It is so fun to read out loud. Everything about the pictures says that words are important. And it’s a page-turner. The pictures, text, language and rhythm all grab hold of you—and your kids—and do not let go.

portrait of Simms Taback via Ventana