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Child’s Play: The Art of Simms Taback

Transitioning from the vibrant New York arts scene to laid-back Ventura, illustrator Simms Taback brings a splash of unique color to the local palette.

By Ivor Davis Photos by Travis McCormick

 

ere’s a Quick Quiz: Name six best selling children’s book author/illustrators. You might come up with Maurice Sendak, Dr. Seuss, or Shel Silverstein. But you’d likely be stretched to list a half dozen. And I bet you didn’t know that one of the best is living right here in Ventura.

Simms Taback (pronounced Tay-back) has illustrated and written some 40 best selling kid’s books, including such award winners as Joseph Had a Little Overcoat, There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly, and Kibitzers and Fools. He and his writer wife, Gail, live with little fanfare in Ventura after moving here from New York State two years ago. He toils quietly out of his modest home studio to get his latest book ready and prepare for a book tour while he maps out future volumes. His latest, I Miss You Every Day, a book about being separated from the ones you love, is the perfect tome for a grandparent to buy for an absent grandchild—and it has already received advance rave reviews. “Anyone who has ever yearned for an absent loved one will treasure this beautifully simple picture book,” declared the reviewer for the School Library Journal. “Taback’s trademark wavy outlines and simple shapes are as endearing as ever.”

Taback’s work has twice been named to the Best Illustrated Books list for the New York Times, and he is among the most respected children’s book authors in the country. A winner of over 100 art awards, his books have earned two of the most prestigious—the Caldecotts, which are the children’s publishing industry’s equivalent of the Oscar. The first, in l998, was for There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly, and then two years later came another for Joseph Had a Little Overcoat, based on an earlier version of the story, which he turned into a book with all new illustrations.

Ventura children’s author Jody Fickes Shapiro, who for 27 years helped hone the reading habits of two generations of Ventura children with her popular Adventures for Kids bookstore, is a big fan of Taback. “His books are unorthodox, using all sorts of marvelous novelties like cutouts, collages, flaps, and die cuts. And kids love them,” she says. “Simms intrigues young readers because he allows them to have a sense of discovery with all the little details that fascinate them.”

Taback’s works are like print versions of The Simpsons in that they have a wide cross-over appeal, attracting adults as well as young people, Shapiro notes. “His books also have a definite adult humor going to another level, with lots of surprises for grown-ups as well.”

Taback’s long time editor and publisher Regina Hayes, from Viking Children’s Books, has worked with him for more than a decade and appreciates his unique style: “His art is deceptively simple, and while it comes across as naïve, it’s extremely sophisticated. He labors over those books and is so painstaking about his work. He also hides a lot of sly humorous references in his illustrations, which is what appeals to such a wide crossover age range.”

The silver haired, bearded Taback, 75, takes all the accolades with great humility. He says he is always working on new books and ideas for books—even if, like the work of many great novelists, they often take years to come to fruition.

His latest was originally inspired by a Woody Guthrie song. “I am a fan of his music, and I felt I could make a book out of his song ‘Mail Myself to You,’” he explains. But the Guthrie estate didn’t go along with the idea. “They didn’t want me changing his lyrics,” says Taback. “So I put it aside for about ten years.”

When he returned to the theme of being away from loved ones, he penned his own words and produced the new book. While the words are important, most fans of Taback say what attracts them to the books are his eye-catching illustrations.

That’s not surprising since he began his career, at the age of 24, as a graphic designer at the New York Times and Columbia Records. He had grown up in a working class Bronx neighborhood that was a fruitful breeding ground for many talented artists, among them, the directors Stanley Kubrick and Gary Marshall, the writer E.L. Doctorow, and the actor Walter Matthau.

“The neighborhood was made up mostly of socially aware Eastern European Jews who built their own cooperative housing project,” Taback explains. “It was like Utopia for me, complete with a community center, science and sports clubs, art classes, and its own library.”

Taback attended what he describes as “a progressive secular Jewish summer camp,” and it was the experiences he had there that enabled him to draw one of his most popular books, Joseph Had A Little Overcoat.

His road to writing best selling kid’s books was quite a circuitous one: After two years in the Army during the Korean War, he started as a freelance illustrator and was then hired by an ad agency that did campaigns for drug companies. He followed that with an editorial spot on Sesame Street Magazine. Then there was a stint designing his own line of greeting cards, followed by the design and illustration of the first McDonald’s Happy Meal box in l977. He had already begun writing and illustrating children’s books, and published his first in l964—Jabberwocky and Other Frabjous Nonsense, which included poems by Lewis Carroll, the creator of Alice in Wonderland.

Never one to stick with the tried and tested, his additional works included riddle books, cookbooks, nonfiction, and “easy readers,”—simple text books for beginning readers. Many were cited as Children’s Books of the Year by the American Institute of Graphic Art.

“Growing up, I don’t recall any particular picture books that inspired me,” he says, “but I enjoyed reading Dr. Seuss to my own children. And, of course, Sendak’s 1964 classic, Where the Wild Things Are.” His move to California was prompted by a desire to be near his three children (two daughters and a son) and his five grandchildren (aged four to 22), most of whom live within driving distance of Ventura. Moving from the vibrant East Coast literary scene to laid-back Ventura required quite an adjustment, but he and his wife have gradually come to appreciate their new hometown as they begin to make new friends.

“Ventura is beautiful, with an inspiring climate,” he says. “New York is the center of publishing, art, and museums—and I miss that, as well as hanging out with fellow artists.”

But when it comes down to the bottom line, he agrees that artists are essentially loners and need to be by themselves. “People have a romantic idea of how artists work. But it can be solitary. I walk a few steps every day to my studio and try to achieve something new each day.”

“My background in design has greatly influenced how I create a picture book,” he says. “Controlling every element of a book—the layout, typography, lettering, and how the story unfolds—is important.”

He likes the fact that librarians have told him they have used a magnifying glass, particularly on his “Overcoat” book, to pick up the funny asides, jokes, and personal references he slips into his illustrations.

In this era when we frequently bemoan the way television and the Internet hasten the decline of reading for our younger generation, Taback notes: “I’m not against television, but there is still something wonderful about a book. You can take it along wherever you go. Books have gorgeous jackets—but when you get down to it, I feel that picture books are basically about teaching kids to read.” 

10-01-07

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