Friday, April 26, 2024

Q&A with Audrey Barbakoff



Audrey Barbakoff is the author of the new children's picture book The Schlemiel Kids Save the Moon. It's based on the tradional Chelm folktales. Also a librarian, educator, and entrepreneur, she lives on an island in Puget Sound.



Q: What inspired you to write The Schlemiel Kids Save the Moon?

A: Growing up, I loved the silliness of Chelm stories. I wanted to share them with my kids, so I went back and re-read some of them.


I realized that my young boys might have trouble connecting to the humor, because the characters were mostly adults and the setting was long ago and far away. That made me wonder about what life might be like for kids in today’s Chelm.


Then I thought – what if only the adults are fools, and the kids were actually very clever? And what if they were collaborating behind the scenes to make things work out right for everyone? That’s how Sam and Sarah came to be.


And then I just had to see what they would do when faced with modern-day versions of some of Chelm’s classic conundrums – starting with the adults mistaking the moon’s reflection for the real thing.


Q: What do you think Rotem Teplow’s illustrations add to the story?


A: Aren’t they gorgeous? Rotem’s illustrations really bring the story to life. The art gives the reader a window into life in modern-day Chelm – a diverse and growing place where the same old silliness meets cell phones, speedboats, and construction cranes. I didn’t have to belabor this in the text because it’s right there on the page.


Rotem also included so many little details that amp up the humor, like the faces that the moon makes. Plus, the art simply makes the book beautiful! It’s a true pleasure to page through.


Q: What did you see as the right balance between your own story and the original Chelm folktale on which it was based?


A: There are many versions of Chelm folktales involving the moon’s reflection – that’s what happens with oral tradition stories that are told and retold over generations. So I wasn’t too concerned about hewing exactly to one specific frame.

It was more important to me to keep the spirit of Chelm and its topsy-turvy humor. I identified some common elements of this story and Chelm stories generally as touch points: adults mistaking the moon’s reflection for the real thing, a series of increasingly silly antics, a not-so-wise elder, and a happy ending.


You know how in Wicked (the Gregory Maguire novel and adapted smash hit musical), you get a whole story-behind-the-story? The basic outline of The Wizard of Oz doesn’t change, but you see it in a whole different way because now you know what really happened when Dorothy wasn’t around.


That’s what I was going for in my story. The façade or structure is more or less true to the original tales. But now you, dear reader, are in on the real story behind the story – that things in Chelm don’t just unfold by accident. There are a couple of very clever children who are secretly making it all work out for the best.


Q: What do you hope kids take away from the book?


A: I love the idea that books are windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors (a concept articulated by Rudine Sims Bishop).


I want Jewish kids to have mirrors – to see their identity as something fun and enjoyable. I want kids from other backgrounds to have windows into the diversity and richness of the Jewish experience – it’s not all about the Holocaust and Hannukah!


And I want all kids to be able to step through the door into Sam and Sarah’s shoes to enjoy a fun story filled with innovation, teamwork, and laughter.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I just came back from the Public Library Association conference, which was incredibly inspiring! So I have a few new ideas in the very early stages. Keep an eye out for future adventures from Sam and Sarah, of course, but also hopefully a few new directions!


Whatever you see from me in the future, there are a few common themes you can expect. I have absolutely adored weaving Yiddish into my work. It helps preserve and share the flavor of my family and cultural stories. I also can’t resist a bit of humor and wordplay. So get ready for more tongue-in-cheek, Yiddish-inflected stories from me!


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I’m a former children’s librarian, so I love leading story times! I’m available for virtual or in-person author events and programs for schools, libraries, congregations, JCCs, and more. My programs include reading, storytelling, singing, dancing, play, and even a moon-themed craft. Reach out to me at


For educators who might want to use the book independently in their classroom, or homeschool parents looking for activities, there’s also an educator’s guide you can download for free.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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