Interview with Audrey Barbakoff, author of THE SCHLEMIEL KIDS SAVE THE MOON

In THE SCHLEMIEL KIDS SAVE THE MOON (The Collective Book Studio, 2024), illustrated by Rotem Teplow, Audrey Barbakoff puts a fresh spin on a traditional Chelm story. Filled with humor, the book follows siblings Sarah and Sam who face frustration as they attempt to help the adults in their community discover that the moon hasn’t actually disappeared. I look forward to learning more about Audrey’s process of researching and writing THE SCHLEMIEL KIDS SAVE THE MOON. Welcome, Audrey!

What inspired you to write a twist on a traditional Chelm folktale, especially featuring kids, siblings Sarah and Sam?

I wanted to share the Chelm stories I loved so much as a child with my young sons. But when I re-read them, I realized that they tended to focus on adult characters and concerns from long ago. I thought it might be easier for kids to connect to the stories if they came from a child’s
perspective in a setting closer to home.

That made me wonder what life would be like for kids in Chelm today. And I thought – what if only the adults were foolish? What if the kids were really, really clever? That made me laugh, and I thought it would make kids laugh, too. After all, what kid wouldn’t enjoy the idea of being smarter than all the grown-ups? When I realized that clever kid protagonists would add a whole new layer of humor, I had to write the book.

Audrey Barbakoff

Did you do a lot of reading/research about traditional Chelm stories before you wrote THE SCHLEMIEL KIDS SAVE THE MOON?

At first, I was inspired by stories that I remembered from my childhood. But I wanted to enrich the story with more detail rooted in the traditional material. I revisited as many of the Isaac Bashevis Singer versions as I could. They’re out of print, but I could often find used copies or digitized versions. Some of the character names in my book are little nods back to Singer, like Yitz (a nickname for Isaac) and Alma (Singer’s wife).

I also read a lot of articles about Jewish humor, including the origin of Chelm folktales and their role in Yiddish and Jewish culture. What I learned reinforced for me the importance of books that share Jewish joy and silliness. It’s not just because these kinds of stories are fun (although they are!) but because laughter is part of how Jews move through the world. There’s a Mel Brooks quote that really resonated with me. He opined that humor is the way Jews have developed to cope with a world that is often unkind to us. He said that, as a result, “the people who had the greatest reason to weep, learned more than anyone else how to laugh.” Jewish humor is Jewish resistance, survival, and thriving against all odds.

What were your thoughts when you saw the artwork by Rotem Teplow?

I just adore Rotem’s art. It was amazing to see how she brought the characters and the story to life. When I imagined the Sam, Sarah, and a modern-day Chelm, I only had a couple of broad ideas of what they would look like. I envisioned a growing, urbanizing Chelm that attracted inhabitants from a wide variety of Jewish backgrounds and traditions. I wanted Sam and Sarah to be from an interracial family, and also for this not to be an anomaly, but rather a reflection of the rich diversity of the town and the Jewish people. Rotem turned those general ideas into a vibrant, detailed world that jumps off the page.

Rotem also wove in so many little touches that I would never have imagined. It’s a book about the moon, but one of the characters has a sun tattooed on his arm. (Can you find it?) Another character is recording the whole incident on his cell phone. You can sometimes see new buildings under construction in the background. Little details like these add so much to the humor and meaning to the story. The illustrations make it magical!

What do you hope young readers take away from THE SCHLEMIEL KIDS SAVE THE MOON?

I hope they laugh! So many Jewish books for kids focus on the Holocaust or antisemitism, or they’re meant to educate about holiday traditions. These books are wonderful and needed! But I want kids to also have books rooted in Jewish identity that are simply for fun. Jewish kids deserve to laugh, to see their culture as something to celebrate and enjoy. And non-Jewish kids should have opportunities to see the richness and diversity of the Jewish experience.

Thank you, Audrey!

Audrey Barbakoff is a librarian, educator, and entrepreneur. She holds a doctor of education and a master of library and information science. As a Jewish mother, she is passionate about sharing the vibrancy of Jewish humor, languages, and stories with the next generation. Audrey lives with her husband, two children, and chickens on an island in Puget Sound. Though she has written several professional development books for librarians, this is her debut picture book.

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