Behind the Book: The Schlemiel Kids Save the Moon

I grew up hearing my rabbi and Sunday school teachers tell stories. Some of my favorites were silly folktales of the ironically named “Wise Men” of Chelm, a town populated entirely by fools. When I had children, I wanted to share these Jewish and Yiddish stories and humor with them. But when I went back to original retellings, set in a far-off time and place, I realized my young sons would have a hard time connecting. So I thought, How would this story play out from the perspective of children in a modern-day Chelm?

To update the folktale, I stripped away the setting and thought about the core elements, themes, and characteristics of the story. Those would remain the bones of my new spin. I thought that any version of this story needed adults mistaking the moon’s watery reflection for the real thing, a series of increasingly ridiculous solutions, an appeal to a “wise” authority figure, and ultimately, an ending that works out happily despite itself. It needed silliness, and it needed Schlemiels.

Next, I took each of those essential points and started rebuilding it by asking myself what it might look like today. The body of water went from a well or a barrel—not exactly common sights in a modern metro—to a lake. Characters got new names and occupations (goodbye, blacksmith; hello, construction worker). The adults' silly antics and ideas included things never seen in the shtetl like motorboats, robots, and cell phones. The illustrator, Rotem Teplow, did an amazing job of bringing a modern Chelm to life with touches like high-rise buildings and tattoos. Most importantly, we both agreed that Chelm today wouldn’t be an isolated and homogenous village, but a diverse, growing city inclusive of Jews of all backgrounds.

The biggest change I made from the source material was filtering the story through the eyes of two very clever children, Sam and Sarah. This change in perspective, even more than the change in setting, was meant to give kids a way to see themselves in the story. Their presence opened up space for playing with fresh updates to the plot, humor, and language beyond the visible aspects of the new setting.

Folktales are not just traditional stories. We pass them down, retelling them again in each generation, because something in them is still meaningful today. Sometimes, a change of time or place can open the door for new children to find themselves in old stories. 


Meet the Author

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.

Meet the Illustrator

Rotem Teplow is an Israeli illustrator who lives with her husband and two sons in a small village in Israel, by the dead sea. She loves yoga, reading books, and illustrating beautiful scenery. She graduated from Shenkar College of Design and currently illustrates for newspapers and children books worldwide.