Review: A Crowded Farmhouse Folktale

A Crowded Farmhouse Folktale by Karen Rostoker-Gruber, illustrated by Kristina Swarner

Category: Picture Books
Reviewer: Karin Fisher-Golton

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.

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Reviewer Karin Fisher-Golton is a freelance children’s book editor and the author of the board book My Amazing Day: A Celebration of Wonder and Gratitude; retellings of folktales for a reading program; and poems in several anthologies. She is a member of the Board of Advisors for Multicultural Children’s Book Day. Read more about her work at