A Crowded Farmhouse Folktale

By Karen Rostoker-Gruber
Illustrated by Kristina Swarner
Published by Albert Whitman & Co.

Farmer Earl has had enough! His home is too crowded! So, he visits the wise woman in town for help. She tells him to bring all his ducks in the house. And then all his horses. And all his goats too! How will there be more room with all these animals? This updated folktale uses humor to explore what it takes to gain a new perspective.

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A Crowded Farmhouse Folktale Reviews

A Crowded Farmhouse Folktale holds its space beautifully in a somewhat crowded field of picture book retellings of the Yiddish folktale known as “It Could Always Be Worse” or “The Overcrowded House.” The tale has been retold many times for good reason. The message that happiness derives from perception is timeless, and one that we humans seem to need to be reminded of again and again. In the tale, the lesson is taught in humorous fashion by a wise person—typically a rabbi, but in this telling a wise woman—asking the inhabitants of the crowded house to bring in more people and/or animals, so that when they return to the usual number of inhabitants, the house seems comparatively roomy.

Author Karen Rostoker-Gruber sets this picture book version on a farm—an engaging setting for her young audience. She uses repetition and rhyme, with fun and satisfying variations, as Farmer Earl adds each animal to his “itty-bitty house.” Lyrical writing along with lively dialog make this a delightful read aloud. Kristina Swarner’s illustrations are a folksy perfect fit for the setting and full of details for readers to discover, such as a horse with a toothbrush, reflected in a mirror. This is the type of picture book kids will want to read again and again, and adults will be happy to oblige.

Masterful writing and illustration make A Crowded Farmhouse Folktale a contender for many awards. However, it is probably not a contender for a Sydney Taylor Award based on its lack of depiction of Jewish culture or religious content: the names, characters, and illustrations set the story in a farm setting that is not particularly Jewish. The original tale itself is the only clear link to Jewish culture.

~ Karin Fisher-Golton, The Sydney Taylor Shmooze

It’s impos­si­ble to read too many ver­sions of the ven­er­a­ble Jew­ish folk­tale often titled, It Could Always Be Worse. You might be famil­iar with the quirky, charm­ing tale of a fam­i­ly liv­ing in a house too small, who calls on the wise old rab­bi for advice; he directs them to bring all their ani­mals into the house so when the ani­mals return to the farm­yard, the house feels spa­cious and roomy. There are count­less ver­sions of the sto­ry, set in count­less loca­tions, but the tale is so appeal­ing and filled with such intrin­sic wis­dom and charm that one hopes the vari­a­tions go on and on.

This new ver­sion by Karen Ros­tok­er-Gru­ber is a wel­come addi­tion to the genre. This retelling is set in a coun­try farm­house, and the usu­al advice-giv­ing wise man is refresh­ing­ly replaced by an equal­ly wise woman; it has lilt­ing rhymes and beg­ging-to-be-read-aloud rhythms, accom­pa­nied by col­or illus­tra­tions filled with vital­i­ty and ener­gy. It’s an intrin­si­cal­ly humor­ous sto­ry, but here the text and illus­tra­tions are filled with addi­tion­al com­ic touch­es. The ​“too many chil­dren to count,” the rhyming descrip­tions of farm ani­mal may­hem, and the depic­tion of the suf­fer­ing but ami­able fam­i­ly, all make smiles turn into hearty laughs as the sto­ry pro­ceeds. The ani­mals sport whim­si­cal facial expres­sions and the chil­dren look suit­ably befud­dled and good-natured in their crowd­ed, ​“itty-bit­ty” home. The illus­tra­tion of one lit­tle boy is rem­i­nis­cent of Sendak’s naughty boys. Each ani­mal nes­tles into the house in a com­ic posi­tion: a horse in the tub, a duck in the toi­let, a lamb unplug­ging the toast­er. This is all wor­thy of more than a chuck­le; only a hearty guf­faw will do. The story’s peace­ful res­o­lu­tion seems to emit an almost audi­ble sigh of relief as the ​“huge­ly-huge” fam­i­ly looks for­ward to their hap­pi­ly-ever-after. This sto­ry is high­ly rec­om­mend­ed for those wish­ing for a rol­lick­ing good time and a dose of addi­tion­al humor into an age-old tale of wisdom.

~ Michal Hoschan­der Malen, The Jewish Book Council

… a traditional Yiddish folktale retold in bouncy rhyme by author Karen Rostoker-Gruber, with playful illustrations by Kristina Swarner. …Young readers will be eager to find out how the flapping, chomping, and bleating farm animals will help! A fun read aloud for anyone in need of room to sit, room to pace, room to rest, and extra space.

The Jewish Standard, page 15, October 2020

Usually, with my reviews, I outline three quick reasons to read. But there are so many for this book. First of all, it is a great Mentor text in writing picture books. Karen makes wonderful use of poetic devices — rhythm, alliteration, consonance, assonance. She employs three beats. She featured a main character who has a child-like problem (many current or former children will experience or remember their bedroom or house being too small and not appreciating it). The character undergoes a noticeable change from beginning to end, as do those around him. It also shows a respect for and and inclination toward listening to his elders (wise woman), despite being able to clearly see the result game, just knowing that this mentor knows best and wants best for him. That’s a subtle little lesson for little ones about parenting.

But the part I love the most, apart from it being a Jewish folktale, is the truth that it speaks. Everything looks differently if we change the perspective. Knowing that is a great tool in coping in this life and one that’s important to give to children.

As to the art — it’s fun and folksy, just like it should be.

So well done! I honestly think that this book has takeaway value for everyone, young and old, alike!

~ Lynne Marie’s Blog, “My Word Playground”

Based on an old Yiddish folktale, Karen Rostoker-Gerber’s story is a hilarious reminder of the importance of perspective in life. Repeated words and phrases build on each other and invite kids to join in the fun as the animals wreck havoc throughout the tiny farmhouse. Farmer Earl’s reliance on the wise woman’s suggestions sets up suspenseful scenes with delightfully funny outcomes that readers will eagerly anticipate. When the animals are all back outside and Farmer Earl realizes the house is big enough for them all, kids will appreciate the cleverness of the wise woman and may look at their own difficult situations in a new way.

Kristina Swarner’s vivid and textured folk-art style illustrations perfectly reflect the plot and humor of the story. As a rooster wakens the family and multiple faces and pets can be seen in each of the farmhouse windows, readers are enticed to count, from page to page, just how many people live in this “itty-bitty” home. Lively images of the house filling up with animals will have kids laughing out loud and wanting to take stock of all the mayhem they’re causing. Astute readers may notice that while Farmer Earl considers his house too small, his children play happily in the space they have, revealing that contentment is the secret to a happy home.

An excellent choice for a rousing story time with a philosophical message, A Crowded Farmhouse Folktale would be a welcome addition to home, school, and library bookshelves.

~Kathryn Carroll