Michal Babay is the author of the new children's picture book The Incredible Shrinking Lunchroom, which is based on a Yiddish folktale. She also has written the picture book I'm a Gluten-Sniffing Service Dog. A longtime teacher, she lives in California.
Q: Why did you decide to retell this Yiddish folktale,
and why did you set it in a school cafeteria?
A: When I first became serious about writing, I had three young kids of my own and I was teaching second grade. Classrooms, lunchrooms, lunchboxes, school projects, and picture books took up all of my brain space.
PJ Library sent us books every month, and one month we received the classic Yiddish folktale It Could Always Be Worse, written and illustrated by Margot Zemach. I’d heard this story from my parents while growing up, and my children had fallen in love with it too.
I related so much to this book that it felt like the perfect story to retell in a modern setting. And since I was spending the majority of my days in an elementary school, it felt natural to set my version in a school!
My first drafts were actually in a classroom, modeled very closely after my own teeny tiny classroom. But... one of the most important things to have in a picture book is movement, and there simply wasn’t enough movement happening when the story occurred in a classroom.
So I switched the setting to a school cafeteria and was able to bring in more characters and create much more movement on each spread.
Q: What do you think the late Paula Cohen's illustrations add to the story?
A: I think Paula’s illustrations make the whole book sing with joy and humor. Her art brought my words to life in ways I’d never been able to conceptualize. I’m definitely not an artist (my family still discusses my Pictionary illustration of a cow on roller skates - which was SUPPOSED to be a cat in a tree. Oy!), so people who can really draw astound me.
Paula’s ability to change a plainly typed sentence into a gorgeously hilarious illustration feels like magic to me.
I’m so grateful she decided to illustrate this story! Readers are going to love all the little details that Paula sprinkled throughout our book. And the expressions on everyone’s faces... incredible! This is one of my favorite spreads in the book because there’s so much chaos, mayhem, and movement. And the frogs! Pure genius.
Paula Cohen reached out to me on social media after she agreed to illustrate the book and we became friends “behind the scenes.” Since authors and illustrators don’t usually have any contact, we felt so lucky to have connected and to be working together.
Paula kept telling me how much she loved the story and how excited she was to be illustrating it. Sometimes she’d send me samples of the page she was illustrating that day - including a drawing of her son that she’d included in the group of students!
It was truly a labor of love for Paula, and I’m heartbroken
that she isn’t here to celebrate with us. Her illustrations are filled with
heart, humor, and joy of Yiddishkeit, make The Incredible Shrinking Lunchroom
something very special.
Q: The Kirkus Review of the book says, “This book succeeds as an updated, equally humorous parable that conveys the realities of today’s schools and educators while emphasizing the moral to put life in perspective and be grateful for what one has.” What do you think of that description, and what do you hope kids take away from the story?
A: This description perfectly captures my intention for this book! I hope kids remember how important it is to keep a positive perspective in life, no matter how difficult things may feel at the moment. It’s important to take action, just like the students at Parley Elementary who write letters to Ms. Mensch.
It is also important to be appreciative of what we have in life. I hope kids walk away feeling empowered, positive, and grateful.
Q: How does your background in teaching influence your writing?
A: My whole professional life has been spent working with 7-8 year olds, so these are the voices I hear in my mind when I’m writing. It helps that my sense of humor is that of an 8 year old!
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I have another book coming out with Charlesbridge in 2023 called On Friday Afternoon. In this story, Leelee and her dog, Pickles, are a little tornado of well-intentioned chaos as her family prepares for Shabbat. It’s a book that celebrates Jewish joy and traditions.
I’m also working on a number of other manuscripts, including one that’s out on submission right now. Here’s hoping...
--Interview with Deborah Kalb