Two Picture Books Based on a Jewish Folktale

I’ve mentioned before that I’ve loved the picture book Something from Nothing since it was given to my little sister about twenty years ago. In it Canadian-American author/illustrator Phoebe Gilman retells a Jewish folktale, pairing it with lovely illustrations.

However, just recently I discovered another picture book based on the same folktale, “I Had a Little Overcoat” (“Hob Ikh Mir a Mantl”). So I decided that it was time for a little compare and contrast exercise.

Something from Nothing by Phoebe Gilman (Scholastic Canada, 1992)


Using text that is brief and rhythmic with many repeated phrases, Something from Nothing tells the story of a little boy named Joseph whose grandfather made him a blanket when he was a baby. “But as Joseph grew older, the wonderful blanket grew older too.” Every time his mother tells him that it is worn out, he takes it to his grandfather who makes it into something new. At last there is only enough material left to make a button. When the button is lost, Joseph’s mother tells him, “Even your grandfather can’t make something from nothing.” The next day Joseph goes to school and begins to write, discovering that “There’s just enough material here to make… a wonderful story.”

This story takes place in a shtetl in Eastern Europe. The soft illustrations depict life in a crowded house and busy village, including details like a Sabbath meal and a man selling bagels on the street. The text is set off from the pictures and below it runs a second series of illustrations, featuring a family of mice who make all their clothes and linens out of scraps from the blanket. There is enough detail showing Joseph as he grows older and the mice family at home, school, and even on a picnic that kids will spend much longer studying the pictures than it takes to read the book out loud.

My Grandfather’s Coat by Jim Aylesworth, illustrated by Barbara McClintock (Scholastic Press, 2014)


The storyline of My Grandfather’s Coat is the same as that of Something from Nothing, but the central figure is the narrator’s grandfather, rather than a young boy. The grandfather immigrates to America, where he becomes a tailor and falls in love. He makes a handsome coat for his wedding day. Over the years the coat wears out, but the grandfather is always able to make it into something new: a smart jacket, a snazzy vest, a stylish tie, and at last a toy for his great-grandson and his kittens. A mother mouse takes the final scrap and fluffs it into a nest to raise her babies. In the end nothing is left, “Nothing, that is, except for this story.”

The writing style of My Grandfather’s Coat is remarkably similar to Something from Nothing: simple and short with the same kind of rhythmic repetition. The story takes place over a span of four generations rather than a few years and it is interesting to observe the changing clothing and hair styles. In fact, I love everything about the illustrations of this book. They are crisper than the paintings in Something from Nothing, with less background busyness, yet full of charming details, like the grandfather skating, feeding chickens, and helping his granddaughter learn to ride a bike.

Added bonus: My Grandfather’s Coat has a cookie recipe on the back cover. I didn’t try it out, but I thought the suggestion to make coat-shaped cookies and nibble them down to the shape of a jacket, vest, and so on was a clever one.

In conclusion, I was impressed by My Grandfather’s Coat and rank it right beside Something from Nothing. Both books retell the folktale in simple language with illustrations that you won’t soon grow tired of. You should add them both to your personal library. (And I’m off to look up more books illustrated by Barbara McClintock!)

Have you ever been pleasantly surprised by a picture book? Please share!

Update: I’ve linked up with Modern Mrs. Darcy here. Check out what books other people have been reading lately.

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