Written by Jim Aylesworth and illustrated by Barbara McClintock, My Grandfather’s Coat is an adaptation of a Yiddish folk song that weaves a tale of immigration and continuation in a new land. This retelling is full of joy, with a rhythm and rhyme that excites readers young and old. The story follows a single coat as it transforms and changes shape over the years, becoming something brand new. The song is also present in Simms Taback’s Joseph Had a Little Overcoat (Viking, 1999) and Phoebe Gilman’s Something from Nothing (Scholastic, 1992) and is reimagined once more in this charming picture book.
SEEMI: This book carries on the theme of continuation in a lighthearted narrative. The cartoon-like images and colors further reinforce the joyful representation of this story. There is also a hopefulness in one generation’s impact on the next as they pass the coat on to new individuals. The circularity of life is also present as we observe the decay of the jacket and the new characters who adopt it. It reminds me of those same themes in our last book, The Tree in the Courtyard, where the tree persists across generations.
The life of the grandfather and his creations are connected as they adapt and change across many years. The granddaughter’s narration also touches the heart, as her connection to her grandfather seems enduring and strong.
However, the cover image of the happy, dancing grandfather belies the truth about many immigrant accounts, both past and present. The turmoil that millions of immigrants are facing as they reach foreign shores is heartbreaking. Leaving your home and your way of life behind is never an easy process.
DOREA: I’ll admit, Seemi, I also notice the lighthearted nature of this immigrant story. The story can perpetuate the simplistic, problematic narrative that success in the U.S. is directly related to how hard one has worked. However, as we learn from the author’s note, this story is a retelling of a beloved Yiddish Folksong, “I Had a Little Overcoat” (“Hob Ikh Mir a Mantl”). In this note, Aylesworth sets the focus of this story not solely on hard work and perseverance, but also thrift and conservation, which offers another perspective from which to explore our theme of continuation.
What I think this story offers is the opportunity to see continuation as dynamic, rather than simply as “keeping something the same”. The book begins with a young immigrant tailor making a beautiful coat to wear on his wedding day. The repetitive nature of the book allows our youngest readers to join in as “He wore it and he wore it. And little bit by little bit, he frayed it, and he tore it, until at last he wore it out!” Viewing this tattered coat as usable cloth, “he snipped, and he clipped, and he stitched and he sewed” and the continuation of the coat begins. Over the years, it changes to a jacket, a vest, a tie, a toy and at last, with only threads and fuzz remaining, a nest for a mouse.
I am struck by the thought that if we expect something to remain exactly the same, it is unlikely to continue. For example, the author’s choice to adapt a folksong into a book creates the potential for the message to reach a broader audience. Similarly, if the narrator’s grandfather decided that his coat should remain a coat, its usable life would have ended quickly. However, by viewing continuation as dynamic, the coat lives–and is used–through multiple generations in multiple ways. If we think about the tree in our first book, it was able to continue through its seeds, not by the preservation of the tree itself.
This book also highlights the role of storytelling in continuation. With each iteration of the coat, there are stories–events, people and places–to which it connects. The illustrations show us weddings, the birth of a new child and grandchild, the opening of a business, celebrations, the day-to-day practices of a family and the ways that the variations of the coat are present in all of them. One can choose to preserve an object behind glass, keeping it in its original form. However, My Grandfather’s Coat asks its readers to consider the ways that human interactions and the stories surrounding them are equally as important for something to continue.
Title: My Grandfather’s Coat
Author: Jim Aylesworth
Illustrator: Barbara McClintock
Date Published: October 21, 2014
This is the second installment of September 2017’s My Take/Your Take. To catch up, check out our first installment on The Tree in the Courtyard.