Bibliographic Information (best version for telling):

Gilman, Phoebe. Something from Nothing. New York: Scholastic, 1992 


Ethnic Origin:  



 Running Time:        

 7 minutes 


Power Center(s):

Joseph’s anguish at losing his blanket, button, etc…


The mutual love and admiration between Joseph and his grandfather each time the grandfather puts his heart into making a new item and Joseph loves it with all his heart.


Joseph’s opposing anticipation and relief each time an item is lost and recreated.








1. Joseph happy with his blanket, coat, scarf, handkerchief, button.


2. Joseph’s grandfather looking the item up and down, turning the material over and over in his hands and turning it into another item.


3. Joseph’s mother asking him to THROW it out!




4. Joseph at school turning the journey into a story.



Joseph’s grandfather makes him “a wonderful blanket” when he is a baby. As Joseph grows older, the blanket gets old and worn. After Joseph’s mother asks him to throw it out, Joseph asks his grandfather to fix it. He turns it into a coat. The pattern of the item growing older, the mother asking Joseph to throw it out, and the grandfather changing it into something else continues through a scarf, a handkerchief, and a button. When Joseph loses the button, he “makes something from nothing” turning all of the events into the story just told.


 Rhymes/Special Phrases/"Flavor":

“It is time to THROW it out!”

“Kaput” (The button is gone. It’s finished, lost, kaput.)

“You can’t make something from nothing, you know.”


Audience (why is this story appropriate for the audience? developmental characteristics?):



The recognizable pattern of the cloth changing into ever smaller items and the repetition of the boy’s items getting worn out and his grandfather’s magical sewing will be appealing to preschoolers as they are comforted by pattern and repetition. According to Piaget, children at this age are preoperational, a stage in which repetition is very important.


According to Charlotte Huck’s analysis of child development as it relates to literature, children of ages 3-5 have a “short attention span” and have a budding “interest in how things work.” This story is short and to the point and provides a very cursory introduction to the creation of clothing from material, an aspect that might fulfill preschooler’s curiosity about how things work.


Further, many preschoolers will be able to identify with being asked to give up something they’ve always liked (ie. a “blankie,” pacifier, or thumb sucking) for which they’re now considered too old. This aspect of the tale matches up with the life experience of many preschoolers.


Bibliographic information on other versions/variants:

MacDonald, Margaret Read. “The Tailor’s Jacket.” In Earth Care: World Folktales to Talk About. North Haven, Conn.: Linnet Books, 1999.


Sanfield, Steve. Bit by Bit. New York: Philomel, 1995.


Taback, Simms. Joseph Had a Little Overcoat. New York: Viking, 1999.


Brief comparison of all versions/variants in terms of language, rhythm, "tellability," "flavor," content, etc.  Stress the differences in style rather than those of content.


Each version has a slightly different approach to this folktale. I chose Gilman’s Something from Nothing for its focus on a child rather than adult Joseph, its presentation of the grandfather as the tailor, rather than Joseph himself, and the repetition of his mother’s demands to throw his possessions out. Aside from young children’s ability to better relate to a character of their age, tailors are not extremely recognizable members of the community today. This version brings the emphasis back to a world and a character to which they might better relate.


Bit by Bit takes the emphasis off the main character by including an outside narrator who begins the tale with “I am a storyteller, which means that I tell stories…” and ends with him creating the tale read. This inclusion of an outside narrator takes the magic out of the main character (in this tale he’s named Zundel) as he doesn’t ultimately turn his button into anything, an outside storyteller does. The insertion of a narrator into the action of the story itself also creates a more staged feeling and undermines the subtlety that makes storytelling so effective. The description of the cloth, and its red, gold, blue and green threads is a strong point of this tale as it allows for a beautiful mental image if elaborated on. “He wore it in the morning and he wore it at night. He wore it and wore it and wore it and wore it until bit by bit he w-o-r-e it out” creates a sing-songy rhythm and repetition.


Joseph Had a Little Overcoat is a beautiful, unique, Caldecott-winning, picture book.  Taback adapts the folktale into a series of rich images where the text itself is sparse and reliant on the illustrations to convey its full meaning. Thus, while Taback has created a wonderful book for reading, much must be elaborated on and added to create a version for telling. “Joseph had a little [vest]. It got old and worn” serves to provide rhythm and repetition, yet to feel the “flavor” of this version of the tale, one must see his illustrations. Thus while in Something from Nothing words like “kaput” are used in the text to evoke the tale’s Jewish origins, Taback’s version relies on images of a menorah, a photograph of the rabbi, or a newspaper written in Yiddish among others to convey the tale’s ethnic identity. In this way, Taback has created a tale very oriented toward a dual audience. One very young audience for the simple text and cut out illustrations and another much older audience (adults) to pick up on the cultural allusions and jokes. There is much going on, yet little that can be translated directly to a performance.


MacDonald’s The Tailor’s Jacket  is very short (as she states in her introduction). It consists almost entirely of repeating lines. Thus while it is rhythmic, it has little “spice” or flavor and little indication of its ethnic origins to add flavor. It definitely feels more like an extended rhyme than a story and was thus not as well rounded as the version I’ve chosen.