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Remembering Simms Taback

by Harriet.

It’s hard to be a mensch. It’s not easy to be modest. Nor it is easy to be generous in appreciating the work of others. Simms Taback was all three.

I was introduced to Simms in the early l980s when he was hired to draw several hundred pieces of spot art to be used in the teacher’s guides of Scholastic’s Early Childhood Program. With those drawings, we began a twenty-five-year relationship.

At the time, Simms was working as a freelance designer and illustrator. He produced drawings for ad agencies and for children’s educational publications. As his interest in producing ad campaigns for large corporations was waning, it was not difficult to convince him to spend some of his time doing books for very young children.

In our first venture together, we produced four spiral-bound board books with split pages (WHERE’S MY HOUSE?, WHERE’S MY FRIEND?, WHERE’S MY BABY?, and WHERE’S MY DINNER?) Simms liked the interactivity of this format: when the child turned the half-page, the animal’s expression changed. Watching a toddler trying to figure out how a sad pig turned into a smiling one provided each of us with a continuing interest in novelty formats that really worked for kids.

The "where" board books are still in print in a revised format—a tribute to Simms’s artwork, which does not go out of style and still looks as fresh and original after two decades. I am continually amazed when I revisit a book we did forever ago—the pictures totally withstand the test of time. 

Since those first four books, Simms and I have collaborated on at least a dozen more. There have been a few picture books (WHEN I FIRST CAME TO THIS LAND, TWO LITTLE WITCHES, THERE WAS AN OLD LADY WHO SWALLOWED A FLY, JASON'S BUS RIDE), but mostly we focused our attention on interactive novelty books for babies, toddlers, and preschoolers. He believed, as I do, that even the youngest child deserves good art, and he did not give them anything less than he would produce for an older child—or for that matter a grown-up.

You could not rush Simms to produce faster. He followed a process and took no shortcuts. First, a storyboard. Then, a quite small sketch dummy. Next, a full-size sketch dummy. Finally, some color samples.

Reynold Ruffins, an artist who shared studio space with Simms for almost thirty years, describes what he observed: 

“Simms would make many, many exploratory drawings using a lead pencil. Then trying the same subject in crayon, or the ballpoint pen, then pen and ink. Or a Number 6 brush with watercolor and two-ply, kid-finish Strathmore. Perhaps a Number 10 brush over the ballpoint on colored paper with the pastel smudge…” 

You get it! As much as I tried to convince him that all those hours meant he was surely working below the minimum wage, you could not rush Simms. The process itself produced many significant pieces of art. The sketch dummies are treasures. Young illustrators, please take note! 

Early on, Simms complained to me about fax machines and the negative impact they had on his way of working: 

“Before there were faxes,” he said, “I put a sketch in the mail and had a week to reflect on what I had done before an art director got back to me with comments and revisions. Now the art director requests that I send the sketch by fax, and the next day he faxes back suggestions and asks me to go directly to finish!” 

Over and over again, Simms was told by friends and colleagues: you need to learn to use the computer. You could complete a book in less time. Maybe one year, instead of two, or three, or more!

Simms tried to master technology. He purchased a Mac. He hired a tutor. He learned about e-mail. He invested in a website. But in the end, he could not, and would not, use the computer to produce artwork. I suspect it was for reasons similar to his hostility to fax machines—a book needs time to simmer, to cook slowly. Simms was a crock-pot kind of guy. I can’t picture him cooking up a dinner in the microwave. 

Simms could draw as well as anyone I know and developed a style that is sui generis. His animals are special. He drew them from memory and the end results are uniquely his. One reviewer called them “animals with human expressions.” For me, they have “soul.” 

Simms and I recently had a conversation about the color of a pig. A designer colored the pig green. Simms did not approve.

I said, “You make a blue sheep…so why not a green pig?” 

Simms was adamant. “I never colored a sheep blue!”

A few hours later, he called back. “What a memory you have!” he said apologetically. “However, I checked my files and the sheep was NOT blue. It was PURPLE! I made a deliberate choice because the scene was at night, and the darkness cast a purple hue!” 

Though Simms’s preference was to draw animals and people, when faced with the task of drawing machines, he did so. He pulled out his reference books, of which he had many, and went to work. I dug out my copy of ROADBUILDERS and was struck by the personality of the trucks. And he achieved this without embellishing the diggers and the cement mixers with facial features and cute smiles.

Machines were fine, but not bicycles! Or tricycles! Simms made me agree that I would not ask him to draw another bike after a particularly difficult time with the chain and pedals on a two-wheeler.

Simms had a keen appreciation of intelligent formats for small children. He liked die-cuts. Foldouts. Lift-the-flaps. Split pages. One of his favorite Blue Apple titles was PEEK-A-BOO, WHO?

“The die-cut shape in the flap is a really smart use of a die-cut,” he said. “We should do more books with peek-a-boo flaps.” 

In an e-mail I just received from Kirsten Cappy of Raising Readers in Maine, an organization that selected the book for their gift program to new babies, she writes, “I am proud that so many families were introduced to Simms’s work through ANIMAL PLAY, WHO SAID MOO?, and PEEK-A-BOO, WHO?"

Usually, the cover of a book is designed by the publisher. Not so with a Simms title! He preferred his own hand lettering to a font chosen by a designer. He liked to use solid black. Lots of it. And mustard. And olive green, too. 

Many years ago, we submitted a lift-the-flap book to a publisher and were told that the sales director did not approve of Simms’s choice of background color. The director informed us that royal blue would sell better that mustard yellow. “I will NOT have someone from sales choose a color for me,” said Simms, who later compromised with turquoise but never again did a book with that house. 

At yet another large publisher, a young, fresh-out-of-school designer decided that Simms’s design for a picture book was wrong. Simms was outraged. “There is no right, or wrong, when it comes to book design!”

Simms was always breaking rules (unwritten rules, such as “no black covers for small children" and "no die-cuts for the institutional market"). Who would have believed that THERE WAS AN OLD LADY WHO SWALLOWED A FLY, with black backgrounds and multiple die-cuts, would sell more than one million copies. The man knew what he wanted. And he achieved it! 

When most picture books were painted in English, watercolor style and Simms and his colleagues from Push Pin Studio wanted flat color, he laboriously cut and burnished adhesive-backed colored paper (cello-tak) to achieve the desired results. When it became possible to achieve flat color easily with computers, Simms switched to collage, creating books that showed evidence of the human hand. He achieved this after long searches through bits and pieces he collected over many years, selecting just the right stamp, or clipping, or flower, then gluing them down, one small piece at a time, thereby creating artwork quite the opposite of what was being generated on the computer.

In the past several years, Simms made some compromises. He allowed a designer at Blue Apple to color up his artwork on the computer, but not before providing detailed instructions on the color palette to be used. But he made no compromises about the line—it was always hand-drawn.

Sometimes it was even redrawn. We thought we could use the linework for a new fold-out book we are publishing this spring, DINOSAURS. When Simms looked at it, he decided to redraw the animals. He did not like quality of his old line when it was enlarged.

About a month ago, we completed our last book together, LISTOMANIA. As per usual, and despite illness, Simms requested at least three rounds of revisions on the cover. Because of his persistence and prodding, the end result is striking. We look forward to the book’s publication in April 2012. 

And now back to the beginning of this post and to the hundreds of pieces of spot art used for the Early Childhood Program. LISTOMANIA uses that same artwork, resized and recolored, to enhance the text. Such reuse can only be done with the work of a genius. I will miss my good friend and collaborator, Simms Taback.

Harriet M. Ziefert
Publisher/Blue Apple Books