Bess Kalb, BUFFALO FLUFFALO (Buffalo Stories)

Bess Kalb, BUFFALO FLUFFALO (Buffalo Stories)

Emmy-nominated comedy writer Bess Kalb joins Zibby to discuss BUFFALO FLUFFALO, a delightful picture book about a silly buffalo who tries to fluff his way into being bigger than he really is. Inspired by her experiences as a mother and wanting to create something that resonates with her son, Bess wrote the book to encourage self-acceptance and make children laugh (oh, and to dismantle toxic masculinity as well!). She also talks about the role of comedy in her life and the adaptation of her adult book, NOBODY WILL TELL YOU THIS BUT ME, into a film!


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Bess. Thanks for coming back on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books,” this time to discuss Buffalo Fluffalo.

Bess Kalb: Thank you so much, Zibby. Thank you for fitting me in. Thank you for having me. It is such a delight. Now I feel like I have released the book. I’m on your podcast, and so it’s real.

Zibby: This is it. Without this, is it even a book? I don’t know.

Bess: No, no, no. They say the publication date is the day that you come on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Zibby: So funny. You have eight million things going on. Why a children’s book? Why this children’s book? Where did you come up with Buffalo Fluffalo? Tell me the whole story. When did this even originate? All of it.

Bess: My job, if you ask my oldest son, is clown, is making him laugh. He’s not an easy laugh. I have a kid who you really have to work for the reaction. He’s not an easy audience, which is a nightmare as a comedy writer and a mother. When he was about eighteen months old, my husband got him a book to indoctrinate him about national parks to eventually take him camping. There was beautiful vistas. On one page, it was like, and here’s the buffalo. I was reading it to him trying to be in the agenda with him. I was like, “Here’s a buffalo.” He looked at me. It was a silly word, and I just sort of went with it. I said, “A buffalo fluffalo.” He lost his mind laughing. It just, for whatever reason, was a silly turn of phrase. The word buffalo feels made up. Buffalo fluffalo just took it over the edge. I was like, okay, I have hit a child’s funny bone that is not a very sensitive funny bone. Maybe there’s something to this.

I’m holding up the book now. There’s this sort of surly face that he’s making. That was based on a picture of my kid making that exact face. There’s nobody more serious than the two-year-old version of my child. When he was snarly and gnarly and gruff, he really felt it. As the mom of two boys now, I know how that feeling of, “I need to act tough. I need to act strong. I need to project this invulnerability,” I know how big that is. I wanted to write a book for him that, A, made him laugh, and B, made him realize he doesn’t have to act tough. It’s okay to be vulnerable. It’s okay to feel how you feel. You can be angry. You can be sad. You can feel upset. Know that when you treat people with kindness and when you let your guard down, the people who love you will love you anyway. It came from wanting to give my son something that hit all of his buttons, made him happy, and made him feel okay.

Zibby: And that he was enuffalo.

Bess: And that he was enuffalo. He really is. I know you have four kids of your own. You have a couple of sons. When I found out I was pregnant with a boy, so many people got me books that were like, Little Feminist or Eleanor Roosevelt: A Picture Biography. Great. Important. All of them. We have them. They’re on both of my kids’ shelves. There wasn’t something that was written specifically to resonate with him and to let him know that — this is not a book that is pedantic or has an agenda, but the secret agenda that is very pedantic is dismantling toxic masculinity from the inside. It’s really a way to say, I know how the world is telling you you need to act and you need to feel. Sometimes the most radical act of empathy is just being a good person and being kind to the people around you. I want to raise a good human. I wrote a book to help to do that.

Zibby: I’m surprised your publisher did not put the subtitle, Dismantling Toxic Masculinity, on the cover.

Bess: All of my child editors for this book — there was a lot of child labor that went into this book. All of my friends’ kids were editors and test subjects so many times. Most of my editors were little girls. I wrote this for — I have a very, very serious — I’m Jewish. We don’t really have goddaughters. She’s my best friend’s daughter. I’m Auntie Bess to her. I wrote it for my Jewish goddaughter to make her laugh and help her understand that being tough and acting tough is definitely not something that is just belonging to one gender. I certainly acted like this as a child. My son is, in many ways, more of a reflection of me than anybody else. I wrote it for her. I wrote it for the girls who helped edit it for comedy and for relatability and for coziness. I wrote it for all kids to hopefully reflect their feelings back to them in a way that felt real and relatable.

Zibby: I love it. Sometimes the funny is the best way in. You captive audience.

Bess: Totally, yes.

Zibby: Where do you think the whole “I want to make people laugh” comes from in and of itself? This pervades a lot of your work.

Bess: I forgot every time I talk to you, it’s therapy. I am the kid of two very serious people. My dad worked all the time in a very high-stakes situation and dealt with a lot of real sadness as part of his job. My dad ran the intensive care unit at Mount Sinai Hospital where there are thirteen beds who are all trying to die. Every day, he would come home with this look on his face, the thousand-yard stare. I now realize what it is. Every day, he would read books to me. He would lose himself in characters and voices. My dad is the funniest person I know. This book is partially dedicated to him. My dad is a fabulous doctor. He’s also an amazing nanny. I grew up, as his kid, seeing somebody who dealt with so much horror and sadness.

He would read me children’s books like The Stinky Cheese Man. There was a book, Hey Willy, See the Pyramids, by Maira Kalman. Books that were so funny and so great. He did voices for everybody. I remember thinking, oh, we can go into this comedy world where everything is fine and we’re having a great time and bond over children’s books. In my world, they were just books. It sort of set me up for this being my destiny where I would finally write one that he could read to my kids. We spoke about my last book. It was a book about grief, but it also leaned into comedy because I believe that dealing with serious subjects is something that — I find it’s most effective to deal with serious subjects when you balance the humor inherent to life, especially in the most traumatic moments, with the serious, without deflecting or covering up from what needs to be said, but I think the two go hand in hand all the time, whether it’s a children’s book or an adult book.

Zibby: Yes. Then I feel like people feel guilty about it, but you have to find the humor. Otherwise, how do you get through? I don’t know. There’s no offsetting. It’s just the darkness, like your podcast studio here.

Bess: I feel like I’m truly speaking to you from the back of a van. It really is the kind of thing that — there are so many books that I read my kids — I am a fan of children’s books. I get really into them. I look forward to story time every night with my kids. There are some that I’m like, this was written with an agenda or with a mission. This is a little bit hitting everybody over the head. Then some that I remember from my childhood that I’m like, oh, this is one is so lovely. It’s about giving. I’m like, well, this tree needed boundaries. I will be editing as I read. She was like, you have my permission to take my branches.

Zibby: This is what it’s like to be in a relationship with a narcissistic.

Bess: Totally, totally, who will not change.

Zibby: Thank you, tree, for teaching us these lessons.

Bess: Thank you, tree, for teaching us that. There’s wisdom and a lesson in even the ones that you feel like have not stood the test of time. Truly, I was trying to write one that got the message across but in a way that made kids excited to read it and made parents laugh.

Zibby: We all need laughter, especially in these dark times.

Bess: In these horrifying times.

Zibby: You’ve been so great about the things you’ve posted, which also have a mix of humor and horror regularly. I really appreciate, from the beginning, you’ve been just so regular in the way you craft your notes. It’s like little essays all the time, little vignettes. It’s amazing.

Bess: Thank you. I think there is something, especially in the past few months, for comedy where I’ve found that even in this horrible, dark time in the world, there are moments that, without minimizing suffering, there are ways to remember how connected we are through comedy. There is sort of a shared language and a shared understanding through comedy that I think brings us together. It can feel very healing as well for a comedy writer just to write it. I’m glad it’s resonated. Helpful for me.

Zibby: I saw that since we talked last time, your book is being adapted for film. That is so fun. Tell me all about it.

Bess: That is so exciting. That is what I am working on upstairs. Nobody Will Tell You This But Me is my adult book. There is a brilliant director, Elizabeth Chomko, attached to it, and a great production company, Sight Unseen Pictures. We survived the writers’ strike and now are back to bringing my Grandma Bobby to the screen, which is sort of where she’s always belonged.

Zibby: Are you adapting it yourself?

Bess: With Elizabeth.

Zibby: With Elizabeth, okay.

Bess: She’s a brilliant writer.

Zibby: I thought you said she was the director. Sorry, I thought you said director.

Bess: She’s both. Sorry. She’s the director and cowriter of it.

Zibby: Got it.

Bess: I’m going through and doing a dialogue pass right now, which is living with my grandma in my head again. Talking about writing cathartically, it really has been, in a way that the book was very crying at my desk and a labor of deep emotion and unearthing grief and being connected to my family, this feels so much lighter, even though it goes to exactly the same places of grief that the book goes. For whatever reason, hearing her voice being just in the dialogue makes it so much funnier. I think it’s a much funnier movie than the book was a funny book.

Zibby: Wow. It was a funny book, though.

Bess: I’m glad. I think maybe my experience is just different. I cried a lot writing the book, and I am laughing a lot writing the movie.

Zibby: Excellent. I’m trying to even think of which grandmother of mine would most want to have a movie about her. I feel like it might be a tie.

Bess: What grandmother doesn’t? I also am really thinking about my grandma’s mom, my great-grandmother, who was always at the movies. Where she lived in Brooklyn in the turn of the century, the coldest place you could go on a hot day was the movie theater. She would pay a nickel and sit there all day and see every movie. She became this cinephile basically out of a poverty need to be in the Freon air. She was always at the movies. She became obsessed with them. This really does feel like a fitting tribute to her. Now she’ll be on film.

Zibby: Is there another book in the children’s book thing? Are you going to rhyme two more things? Sheep — I can’t even think of anything funny. That’s literally the worst I could actually think of, especially because there are eight million books about sheep. Anyway, maybe some other —

Bess: — You’ve written children’s books. You are also a pioneer in this space. Princess Charming. You’ve done both.

Zibby: I would not call it a pioneer. I feel like you could just go down this whole rhyming animal thing.

Bess: I don’t know if I’m — I think I’m allowed. It hasn’t been announced yet.

Zibby: You heard it here first.

Bess: You heard it here first. Almost a year ago now, even before Buffalo Fluffalo came out, I sold the sequel. There is another Buffalo Fluffalo story. It doesn’t end at the end of this when he’s getting hugged and kissed. There is a book based on my second son that’s coming out. It’s another little person who enters Buffalo Fluffalo’s life. Again, written out of necessity to explain to my oldest child what was happening when I got pregnant again.

Zibby: I’m having this flash-forward of you getting your kids ready for college. You’re like, and here’s this about dealing with peer pressure and managing your finances, Buffalo Fluffalo.

Bess: Exactly. I’m like, what predatory loans are. Buffalo Fluffalo and going to health services. I am really writing these books because I cannot parent. I need to have a cartoon buffalo do it for me.

Zibby: Yes, good. Totally normal and healthy. Moving on. Tell me about your Amazon TV series that you’re working on too, all these different things. Tell me about that.

Bess: When I actually write on children’s applications or forms or anything, mother’s job, it’s just sort of like, um, I’m sure you don’t read this. It’s like, writer? It sounds made up. I like to write stories that I do in one burst of inspiration where it has to come out, and this is exactly what I should be writing. That’s taken a few different forms. There is the adult book. There is this. There was a comedy special on Amazon. Now there is other TV shows that I’m working on. They all sort of center around similar themes, which is a little serious with the comedy. There is a message. I feel very lucky to have worked in both TV and book writing. I hope to keep doing that and to never really wear one hat. It just depends on how the story is supposed to be told and who will commission me to write it. I think I feel most true to myself when I’m being an author. It’s something that I’ve spoken about before, but TV always feels like someone else’s world. The solitary act of sitting down and writing something and it exists just between you and your screen or your notebook, that, to me, feels like the purest form of writing, without studio notes.

Zibby: The price you pay for that is that you have to wait two years for it to come out.

Bess: Yeah, it’s glacial, but I love it. I love being a children’s book author now. I loved working with an illustrator. That was so great.

Zibby: I saw your illustrator is known for her woodworking, right?

Bess: She is. She’s brilliant. She’s so talented. She’s a woodblock artist. She carved these pictures. There’s a template. In my son’s room, I have the original etching of Buffalo Fluffalo, which was the first place that we see him, which is this. This angry buffalo is carved out of wood and then scanned into her computer, and so she’s able to modify him for all the other pages. Erin Kraan is a Canadian illustrator. I was lucky the publisher set me up with her. She’s captured both the silliness and the whimsy but also the real emotion on everybody’s faces. She also really just depicts the natural world in this very lush and this very picturesque, beautiful way. It feels like I want to frame lots of these pages just for the art and for the background work. She nailed it.

Zibby: I’m getting a vision of your sons’ rooms now. Buffalo Fluffalo wallpaper.

Bess: My poor kid. He’s like, this is my third favorite book behind three about trucks. I can’t win.

Zibby: Do you have a tour coming for the children’s book? Where are you going? What are you excited to do?

Bess: My whole tour was canceled for Nobody Will Tell You This But Me. My book was released March 17th, 2020. Everything collapsed. No tour. No anything. This is my first-ever book tour, and I’m reading to four- and five-year-olds. It has been delightful. I could not ask for better audiences. For now, I’m in New York. Then in February, I’m going to Connecticut, New Jersey. We’re probably going to Boston and DC and then hopefully, LA. I’m so excited about it. I think it’s the best live feedback I can get as a writer. It’s the best editorial staff I could have, are the children in the audience, because you see immediately what hits. You see when people start to zone out and fidget. You just become much more clued into what a readership wants out of you. Kids have, for better or for worse, no filter, and so, it’s a really amazing book tour audience to have.

Zibby: I felt like when I was doing some events for my children’s book, it was very humbling because they would just get up and walk away in the middle. I’m like, I can’t even get you to listen for five minutes?

Bess: I come from a comedy writing world, so I have dealt with so many meaner situations than that. At least this isn’t out of ego or something. This is just a pure, you know what, something’s over there that reminds me of my dog. I can deal with that. I’m shocked by the questions that I get. I don’t know if you had this. The unvarnished — I’m sure it’s what my son’s preschool teacher deals with all day. I did a Q&A recently at P.S. 183, which is an amazing school. I was really happy to go there. These kids were so smart. I had a little girl ask me, she was like, “Why is he angry?” I was like, “I think he feels like he has to act tough because he doesn’t want to show people his true feelings.” She was not satisfied. She was like, “But why was he acting mean when he was angry?” It got into this philosophical conversation that ended in me being like, “When he realizes he needs to be kind, he gets kindness in return. When you put kindness into the world, you get kindness back.” She was like, “But that’s not kind, to be kind just so people are kind to you.” I was like, “No, you’re totally right. It’s more about setting an intention. It should be genuine.” I’m getting grilled by these kids. It is so refreshing and great. I love it.

Zibby: You’re like, I’m just putting out some good karma, okay? Let me just put it out.

Bess: Yeah, I’m just putting out some good karma. Please. She was like, who was that lady who cried who came to our school? With these events, I try to have real conversations with the students or the kids who are at the bookstores. Sometimes when I ask a very open-ended question like, “Does anybody feel angry today?” everyone raises their hand. Then they go around the room, and they’re saying things that, really, as a mother, I feel very touched by. A little boy was like, “I feel angry when I feel like nobody’s listening to me.” I was like, “I totally relate to that. I feel angry when I feel like no one’s listening to me.” These are small people with huge emotions. I feel so lucky to be able to hear them, be able to take them seriously. I go back to my own kids, and I sort of carry the weight and the wisdom of all of the kids that I’ve been around on this book tour. I hope it makes me a better mom.

Zibby: Wow. I love that. It’s really awesome. I feel like you should just keep a notebook of the funny things that the other kids say on the tour.

Bess: Totally. The biggest tangent was — I think I just have to write a note when I go places. Don’t bring up pets. Everybody has a pet. Everyone has a twenty-minute story about their pet. There’s a hundred kids. We don’t have time.

Zibby: Pets have to wait outside. Thank you. Leave the pets alone.

Bess: Leave your pets at home.

Zibby: Bess, thank you so much for coming back on the show and for the book and all of it. So exciting. I’m just so rooting for you in everything that you’re doing. It’s really great.

Bess: Thank you, Zibby. I’m so grateful for you. You’ve been a champion of all of my books. This is one that’s so close to my heart. I really genuinely want to hand it out wherever I go. I’m glad that it’s getting into so many people’s hands. It makes me feel very validated as a mother of a Buffalo Fluffalo myself.

Zibby: As well it should.

Bess: Yes. Thank you, Zibby.

Zibby: Thank you.

Bess Kalb, BUFFALO FLUFFALO (Buffalo Stories)

BUFFALO FLUFFALO (Buffalo Stories) by Bess Kalb

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