Simms Taback: Award-winning children's author

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The Independent Online

Simms Taback was an award-winning children's author and illustrator.

In a career spanning over five decades Taback wrote or illustrated about 50 books for children as well as working for the likes of American Express, Pepsi, Kentucky Fried Chicken, NBC and McDonald's, for whom he designed and illustrated their first Happy Meal box in 1976. In 2000 his book Joseph had a Little Overcoat, an adaptation of a Yiddish folk song, won the Caldecott Medal. His original sketches are now held by the Smithsonian Institute.

Taback's breakthrough book as an author-illustrator came with his interpretation of "There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly," which was later described as "a tour de force in innovative book illustration and design" and was a 1998 Caldecott Honour Book. The book had been declined by 12 other publishers before Taback sent interactive versions to Viking's editor Regina Hayes.

Hayes recalled, "When the art came in, everybody was so dazzled." Taback wanted it to be a novelty book but upon seeing the quality of the artistry, Hayes decided it would be a trade book with the highest production values.

It received great acclaim,full of details and humorous touches, from the names of different types of birds, to a recipe for spider soup, to the rhyming asides from the animals not yet swallowed. As for the old lady, a die-cut hole allowed readers to see inside her belly, with the animals already devoured and, with the turn of the page, the new animal that will be devoured in her ever-expanding stomach. The text was handwritten on vivid strips of paper that were loosely placed on the patterned page, thus creating a lively interplay between the meaning of the words and their visual power.

Joseph Had a Little Overcoat continued the die-cut approach. One critic wrote, "In today's throwaway world, Joseph's old-fashioned frugality is a welcome change." Based on Taback's Jewish upbringing and research in museums, the book follows Joseph, who frugally creates new uses for his deteriorating overcoat, which, with thrifty industry, reduces from a jacket to a vest, a scarf, a tie, a handkerchief and, finally, a button. As more and more holes appear in Joseph's coat, die-cut holes appear on the pages, hinting at the next manifestation. Ever resourceful, he then makes a book about his coat: the moral of the story – "You can always make something from nothing."

Simms Taback, the son of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, was born in 1932 and grew up in the Bronx. He attended New York's High School of Music and Art, then entered the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science & Art. Graduating in 1953, he served in the US army for two years before becoming a graphic designer.

Taback worked as art director at CBS Records and the New York Times, before joining William Douglas McAdams, a leading healthcare advertising and marketing services company. He then went freelance, working for AmEx and Eastern Air Lines among others.

In 1963, he formed a successful design studio in partnership with Push Pin Studios co-founder Reynold Ruffins, and in the late 1980s launched a greeting card company. He later worked as an illustrator, writer, art director and graphic designer, while also teaching at the School of Visual Arts and Syracuse University.

Taback received a number of awards including the August Saint Gaudens Award for professional achievement in art in 2001, and he was inducted into the Alumni Hall of Fame at The Cooper Union College in 2009. He was a founding president of The Illustrators Guild, which later merged and became the New York Graphic Artists Guild.

His most recent children's book, published last June, was Postcards from Camp, recounting the hilarious correspondence between a reluctant first-time camper and his father.

In his free time, Taback enjoyed walking and was an avid movie-goer with his wife. He fulfilled his dream of visiting Israel and London before dying of pancreatic cancer.

Simms Taback, author and illustrator: born New York 13 February 1932; married (one son, two daughters); died Ventura, California 25 December 2011.