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.