How do you measure a good children’s book? For me, it has to make my kids do two things: feel deeply, either with laughter or comfort, and ask me to read it again the moment I’m done.
Both things were true about Jewish author Bess Kalb’s first children’s book, “Buffalo Fluffalo,” which I had to read quite loudly to my little ones so they would hear it over their own constant rolling laughter. Part of that is thanks to illustrator Erin Kraan, who perfectly brings to life the cranky and extremely furry bovine who keeps rejecting offers of companionship (and excellent hats) from friendly animals. And it has to do with Kalb’s obvious understanding of what makes kids laugh: delightful rhymes, grumpy animals and anything that sounds like the word buffalo (my kids’ own favorite song used to be “Buffalo, Buffalo” by Hopalong Andrew for precisely this reason).
“Buffalo Fluffalo” is the author’s second book, after her bestselling memoir, an ode to her Jewish grandmother, “Nobody Will Tell You This But Me,” which, just like “Buffalo,” will make you feel deeply and wish you could read it over and over again. Released last month, “Buffalo Fluffalo” has already made the bestseller list, and a sequel is coming out next year. It’s a book about love and acceptance, one that gives kids permission to be vulnerable and soft, and reminds them that they’re all “hugly, snugly kissable” at the end (I did get to snuggle and smooch my own kids when we finished reading, which was a nice added bonus).
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
I have a very cheesy first question. Would you say it’s fair to describe “Buffalo, Fluffalo” as a book about turning from a kvetcher to a kveller?
I was trying to figure out what the hero’s journey arc would be, and it’s going from kvetcher to kveller. Every great novel is the story of kvetcher to kveller.
Every coming of age tale…
It’s going from schmuck to mensch. It’s going from kvetcher to kveller
“Buffalo Fluffalo” really reminded me of my cranky 5-year-old.
It’s inspired by my cranky 4-year-old, who was a cranky 2-year-old when I wrote this. So yes, by the kvetcher in all of us, especially in young children.
His “leave me alone!” vibe is very familiar.
Yes. We’ve all heard that one.
Can you tell me a little bit more about the inspiration behind “Fluffalo Buffalo?” Augh, sorry, I’m going to keep messing up the title of the book.
Oh my God, I mess it up in recorded interviews. For a while it was actually called “Huffalo Buffalo Fluffalo.” Thank God, the publisher was like, “Maybe you should not try to make people unable to say the title of your book!” which was great publicity.
So what inspired it? Having a child inspired it. I’m a comedy writer and I’m a mom. So it feels like my whole mission in life is to raise a good person and make him laugh, and this was a book that aimed to do that. When my kid was 18 months old, I was reading a book that had a picture of a buffalo in it, about national parks. I saw that he thought the word was funny — like there was something about the word buffalo that felt a little like a Snuffleupagus. It sounds like a made-up word. It’s sort of a Seussian word to begin with. So he inherently thought that was funny. I read the room! I said, yes, that’s a buffalo. That’s a buffalo fluffalo. And he started laughing. He was like a “buffalo fluffalo!” and he repeated it.
The story I wrote was a character who tried to act tough the way that I would see my kid try to act tough when he was sad or nervous or frustrated. It’s a classic tale of overcompensation. I have a child who’s in the 30th percentile for height — he’s my son. So I wanted to write a story that made him know you don’t have to act tough. It’s OK to be who you are. It’s OK to be vulnerable. Our community will love you and your friends will love you no matter your size, no matter how you act. Once you show them who you are, they will accept and love you.
You’re hugly and snugly no matter what!
Hugly and snugly! When I found out specifically that I was having a boy, people gave me books that were like, “Little Eleanor Roosevelt,” which are very well intentioned. They’re important, but I wanted a book that didn’t feel like an assignment, and wasn’t specifically for a parent to feel good. It’s for a kid to feel good. And I really just want to be on a kid’s wavelength and know what tickles their brain, and so this was written to get that messaging in — a little bit of sugar with the anti-toxic behavior medicine.
I will also say my test audience was my goddaughter, a little girl, and it was also to show her it’s OK to be who you are. No matter the gender of a child, this book really is to teach self-acceptance. My little boy inspired it, but it’s for all kids.
So now that your kids are older and you can read the book with them, do they like it? Are they impressed by their mom, the celebrated author?
Not even a little bit! When I tried to record a video — I don’t put their faces or names out there — but I tried to record a video of their voices when the publisher sent the first box of books straight off the press. I was like, “Guys, ‘Buffalo Fluffalo’ is here!” and both of them, as if on cue, were like, “No!!!!” It’s the funniest video. I’ll never share it because it’s the opposite of what should be out there.
But at this point, they’ve seen every proof. My kid was really the test audience for the page that has the comedic reveal that our brilliant illustrator Erin Kraan did. The surprise twist in “Buffalo Fluffalo” is that this giant puffy buffalo is rained on and it’s revealed that he’s actually tiny underneath all his fluff. So that picture my son has seen, you know, “A Clockwork Orange” amount of times.
He’s like, “Stop torturing me with this emaciated buffalo!”
I think kids know when their parents want them to like something. I’m sure you know that. So I had to act not as thirsty about it around the little one. By the way, I will say this: the little one does whatever the older one says. So his “no!” was more just copying my oldest kid. But he loves the book, and we love him.
And the other one, you can just take or leave.
With my oldest son, I really had to act disinterested in the book and put it in with the other books on his bookshelf. I even took the cover off. I was like, “Oh, what’s this?” casually one day, and he knew what I was doing. But he threw me a bone — he was like, “OK, we can read this.”
He is proud, though. I’ve read it at his school. I’ve done two events at his school. And he likes to sit right next to me for every reading. He’s very, he’s very proud.
So the message of toxic posturing and having empathy for other people feels especially timely in this moment.
I don’t think there’s a moment where it’s not timely. Growing up, I read books where empathy was tied to self-sacrifice in ways. Like “The Giving Tree,” I now read to my kid and I’m like, “Well, are we teaching that the lesson is reduce yourself down to a stump for someone else? No!”
I found myself editing a message into other books that I grew up with reading. “Where the Wild Things Are” is a beautiful book, but I’m like, you’re not the king of an island! And you can’t treat the people who are indigenous to that island…
Oh no, it’s a book about colonialism!
Totally, I’m like, this is a Christopher Columbus book.
Maurice Sendak, what’s up?!
I really felt like I wanted a book that I didn’t have to edit out. That’s where this came from.
I saw that your son, like mine, has taken to calling all Christian people or non-Jews “Christmas people.” It’s very adorable.
I have a very multicultural family. I’m Jewish, my kids are Jewish. I’m married to a non-Jew. My son goes to a Jewish preschool. I went to a Jewish preschool. And we love it. It is not a school that is exclusively Jewish, but it is predominant. My son, for instance, recently was a little mad at me that I didn’t properly acknowledge Tu Bishvat in our household. And I was like, you know, he’s quite religious.
Yes, that happened to me too.
I was like, “I’m very sorry.” And he was like, “Don’t be sorry to me, Mama. Be sorry to the trees.”
The notion of Christmas is something that for him is something that Dada’s family does. We have a tree where our tree topper is Ruth Bader Ginsburg and our ornaments are felt dreidels from Etsy, and so it’s a very, very confusing holiday tree. But we don’t practice Santa Claus in our household. And when he found out about it, my son is a very logical person, like most 4-year-olds. He is trying to figure out the world as he comes into consciousness and realizes there are connections between things and answers for everything. He was just completely stumped by the notion of Santa Claus. He was like, “Oh, did you know that Christmas people believe a man rides into your house on a deer and throws presents into the fireplace?” and he gestured to the nonfunctional fireplace in our apartment. We didn’t want to correct him.
Santa Claus is not a religious figure; it’s a commercial, fantastical figure, but we want it to be clear to him that there’s equally fantastical elements to his religion. We said, you know, Elijah is a mystical figure that we leave the door open for. Every religion, every culture, has an element of magic. And there’s nothing necessarily stranger about this one. Having said that, were we to correct and be like, actually, he flies in a sleigh that’s being pulled by flying reindeer, we knew that would just push him over the edge. My son was genuinely terrified of Santa for a while. We had to let him know that he won’t come to our house. He was worried about our tree. He was like, “Will he come because he sees this?”
I told my son he sees the mezuzah on our door.
That’s what we should tell our kids. The mezuzah protects us from Santa! That’s what I will say next Christmas. Thank you, Kveller, for the great parenting advice.
You’re welcome, that’s our job.
It will comfort him so much, he will kiss it!
You’ve gone viral for posting about your kids and antisemitism, about fearing for their safety when your kid’s preschool was tagged with a swastika. What was that experience like?
In my newsletter, The Grudge Report — which is a very Jewish name inspired by my Grandma Bobby, who is no longer with us but is still holding grudges through me against people — I was sort of doing a comedy newsletter that sometimes touched on politics about things like reproductive rights. But after October 7, I found myself only able to process the extreme grief I felt for friends and relatives in Israel through comedy and through honesty. I see them as part of the same thing. So I wrote some sort of funny bits that went viral.
But where comedy stops for me is when I’m scared for my kids — I would never write about their experience, but I could write about my experience as their mom. I realized what I was looking for was community in doing that. The responses that I heard made me feel both so sad and so seen, because they weren’t just my experience, they were everybody’s experiences who was living through similar fear and similar heartbreak. I was glad to put myself out there as a mirror so that people could see themselves in my writing. And for cathartic comic relief, what do Jews do best? In times of trauma and fear and sadness, we find a way to laugh through it.
That was actually my next question. Do you feel like there’s something kind of Jewish about finding humor in this moment?
Definitely. My grandparents were the funniest people I knew. My grandparents, Hank and Bobby, and my still-living grandparents, my Grandpa Morty and my Grandma Judy — they’re also funny, and they’ve all lived through horrors. They were alive during the Holocaust. They were alive when they were not able to hear from family, they were alive during the Great Depression. I learned a lot from older Jews. Those are the funniest people that I know. And I think if they could laugh through it, why can’t I? I definitely think there’s something particular to a religion of people who have just survived massacre after massacre, and live to tell the tale. So yeah, it’s a defense mechanism. It’s an anxiety, coping mechanism. It’s guilt. Maybe I just need better therapy. My therapist subscribes to my newsletter, and it’s great. Real time saver.
Yeah, you don’t need to update them.
Comedy is always therapy for me. I was a late night writer for many years. My assignments every day were writing jokes about the news, and the news was never good. I was writing during the Trump administration. You sort of develop a muscle of… you’re an intake machine for sadness, and what needs to come out is comedy.
Speaking about Bobby, who is the subject of your first book, do you ever think how she would have reacted to this moment? Or are you kind of glad she isn’t here to see it? I remember my husband’s grandfather died right before Trump was elected, and we were sort of like, Oh, thank God that he’s not here for this.
We have a lot of relatives in Israel. I think she’d be she’d be so worried. I think her heart would break for everyone. My grandmother was also somebody who, despite her grudges, had an enormous heart that could contain grief for death on both sides of the wall. I think my grandma’s heart would break for Gaza, and her heart would break for Israel. I think there would be no end to her devastation, but I also know that she would lean into traditions of Judaism the way that she always did in times of disbelief, and in times of feeling unmoored. She was somebody who loved Jewish rituals and felt connected to her mother through carrying on Jewish rituals — her mother who fled the pogroms. I don’t know what she would do, but I know what she taught me, and in the days after the 7th, I became more Jewish than I have been since my bat mitzvah. I was lighting candles every weekend and clinging to what I love about Judaism more than I have in years.
I think a lot of us have had that experience of relying on tradition. It’s a really hard moment.
For that reason, she’d be thrilled. She’d be like, “Bess is active in the temple, ach!”
I know that “Nobody Will Tell You This But Me” is being adapted into a movie. Is there anything you can tell us about it?
I can show you the screenplay. It’s on my desk! [Reader, it was indeed on her desk.] I’m so excited about the movie. I’m glad the writer strike is over so we can keep working. This is the next phase of the Jewish storytelling that I’m going to be doing. I feel like now more than ever, stories like my grandma’s and my great-grandma’s need to be acknowledged and seen as real, and to write a story about an older Jewish woman, I feel like there’s a responsibility there. And I also am just excited to share more of her with the world.
Do you have a dream cast in your head?
It’s Meryl or nothing. Meryl or Barbra or nothing. Or I walk! The entire film will be shot in Malibu in her house, if that’s what it takes.
By the way, we’re big fans of your sweaters here at Kveller.
Oh my God, thank you! One that got the most excitement in my DMs is my husband’s men’s J. Crew white cotton fisherman sweater.
It’s a really good one!
Some of them I steal from my mom. She’s got a lot of great sweaters and she lives on the Upper West Side. And so when I’m there and I disappear into her room for a little bit, that’s what I’m doing.
I’m not stealing, I’m shopping at my mom’s closet.
She doesn’t wear them! She used to wear them and now I wear them! I have two little kids so I like a washable cotton sweater. There’s not a lot of dry clean only going on in my life. They’re not precious garments, but I appreciate it. I think it’s important to show cozy representation.
Cozy Jewish mom.
Is that the new coastal grandma?
After mob wife.
Please tell Gen Alpha that the new aesthetic is cozy Jewish mom and then I will finally leave the house.