Zibby Owens: I’m excited to be here with Sheryl Haft who’s the author Goodnight Bubbala, also Baby Boo, I Love You, I Love You, Blankie, and the upcoming Mazie’s Amazing Machines. A former product designer, she’s the founder and educator of Kids Engineer!, an elementary after-school program that teaches engineering principles through design and invention building. The program, originally founded at three all-girls’ schools in New York City, now runs in the Jackson Hole school system. Sheryl currently resides in Wyoming and New York.

Thanks, Sheryl. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Sheryl Haft: Thank you for having me. I’m so thrilled.

Zibby: Goodnight Bubbala, discuss. How did you come up with the idea to write this book?

Sheryl: Goodnight Moon was written in 1947. It’s such a calm and beautiful book with the quiet old lady whispering “Hush.” I couldn’t help but what wonder what that story would look like today. In particular, what would it look like with my family, my big, not-so-quiet Jewish family? That’s when I realized I wanted to write a book where they would come bursting into this bedtime with singing and dancing with their Yiddish words and then of course with something to eat, a nash.

Zibby: You have to. My son wanted to have a sleepover the other night. He’s like, “Now we have to get all of our midnight snacks.” I was like, “I don’t think so. It’s eight o’clock.” You have written other children’s books too. How did you start doing that to begin with?

Sheryl: I had worked for Warner Bros in product design and licensing. I actually wound up heading up the children’s book licensing division, creating books based on Batman and Bugs Bunny. I became oriented towards children’s books early on in my career. It wasn’t until I had children of my own that I started writing stories, similar to how people write poetry. I just loved it as a creative outlet, creating stories. It took me probably about eight years until I finally got I Love You, Blankie published.

Zibby: What was that like? Did you do multiple iterations of the book? Did you just keep sending it out to more publishers?

Sheryl: That book got so close a few times. It was such a visual book that I finally decided to hire an artist to do a spread and to do the cover. Although publishers traditionally don’t like you to do that — they generally pair the illustrator with the writer — somehow, I think that helped this particular editor see what I meant about the book. Like Harold and the Purple Crayon, it’s very much about a child using his blankie and sailing the seas, flying to the moon, and parachuting down into bed. Once she saw that, she realized that she wanted to publish it. That was at Little Brown.

Zibby: Did you do any of the illustrations ahead of time for this book, for Goodnight Bubbala?

Sheryl: Because I was trained as a designer, I always write in a sketchbook. I draw my ideas with no intentions of that representing the art. I’m a very visual writer. Yes, I basically drew out Goodnight Bubbala with my crazy little Jewish stick-figure family.

Zibby: How did your family respond to this book? Were they thrilled?

Sheryl: Honestly, my family is so touched by this book. My family was very touched by the Holocaust. We had family members that are still in Europe and actually are still part of the diaspora. Because of World War II, I had family that wound up in Israel, in Australia, and in Germany. This book has touched them all. It feels a little bit like we’ve regathered our family together and connected it back to our history.

Zibby: Where did your family come from originally? Did you start in Germany, all of you?

Sheryl: No. My family was originally from Poland and from Russia.

Zibby: Can you talk about this? Is this okay to talk about?

Sheryl: Oh, yeah.

Zibby: Were parts of your family in the camps?

Sheryl: My father’s father came here because he was pursuing a career in acting and dancing. In the late 1930s when the war broke out, he had a newsstand on the Upper West Side. Even though he didn’t make a lot of money, whatever he could he sent over to the ghettos in Warsaw. That’s where my family members were. Three of those children survived. They were actually in Auschwitz. The three family members survived and came out of the camps as teenagers. Now we reconnected. We didn’t actually know that until 1969 when we got a phone call. My father got a phone call from a man who had become wealthy, a builder in Germany. He called and said, “I’m your cousin.” We reconnected. It’s a very, very meaningful part of our family to connect back to Yiddish language and to the Jewish roots. Somewhere in this book, they’re in there.

Zibby: Wow. It’s like a book of healing too in a way, connecting and healing.

Sheryl: It is. I’ve read this book to an eighty-six-year-old woman. It made me realize that picture books could be so meaningful for seniors. She teared up. She said, “This book reminds me of my family, of my own grandmother.” It’s been such a surprise to see how it evokes nostalgia and emotion for people.

Zibby: This is also an excellent new marketing outlet for picture books. That’s fantastic.

Sheryl: I know, right? I feel like I really want to go to assisted living to connect with the elderly.

Zibby: It would also be nice for them to write books for each other, like give everybody more of a purpose. At that stage of life, sometimes there’s not — if there was a whole imprint for elderly, I don’t know.

Sheryl: You’re so right. We all love the preschool books that our kids write and dictate. They’re so charming. I think you’re right. There’s something there.

Zibby: And they have time to read. So many books are marketed at the busiest people during the busiest stages. Then people forget. What do they want to read? Although, I have to say my grandmother is ninety-six. She reads all the best sellers. She would love this book. Next time I see her, I’m bringing it to her, God willing.

Sheryl: Please do.

Zibby: The Yiddish language, let’s talk a little more about that. You have so many of these words that I know I grew up with and I say without thinking. Yet people are like, “What? Mishegas? What are you talking about? What?” You have them all in the book, or so many of them. Are you worried? Do you worry about Yiddish becoming completely obsolete? It’s something that has to be passed down in families, basically. You can’t go to a Yiddish class, I don’t think. What do you think about it?

Sheryl: You’re right. I happen to have gone to Camp Kinder Ring which was sponsored by the Workmen’s Circle when I was growing up. Even in their version of color war, we had Maccabean games. I remember trying to teach half the camp the song in Yiddish. I learned it from an early age. My grandmother would take my face in her hands and say, “Shayna punim.” I always associated it with something expressive and warm. Of course, around New Yorkers you hear people saying, “What a schlep,” and “Don’t kvetch.” The language is so vibrant and so expressive. As a children’s book writer, so many children’s books have not more than five hundred words. Goodnight Bubbala only had 141. The power that Yiddish words pack, it’s such a special language. I think that many young families, maybe they’re not interested in being religious, but there seems to be a retro-interest in culture. This idea of learning some of these words and being able to pass them down to your kids, I think is very timely.

Zibby: I think so too.

Sheryl: The Fiddler on the Roof on Broadway in Yiddish, the fact that that sold out. Then shows like Shtisel. Then there’s a YouTube video that’s sort of viral called YidLife Crisis.

Zibby: That’s so funny. Oh, my gosh. My daughter is, of course like most tweens, obsessed with YouTube at the moment. Maybe I could at least point her in the right direction. I also love that you included the Me and My Mishpacha Family Journal on your website and all these other resources. What made you think of that? I printed that for my kids to complete.

Sheryl: Thanks for doing that.

Zibby: I have it downstairs.

Sheryl: I learned in my last two books that people love to be able to close the book and then have an activity. Of course, we had this recipe which is wonderful.

Zibby: Yes, I meant to talk about that too.

Sheryl: For teachers and parents that don’t have the time to cook, I was very interested in having ways to extend the lessons and to have fun with the book. My niece is an early education teacher. She talked about the materials that she wishes that she had for books. The two activities, one is for when you’re reading the book, the I Spy Game. Kids seem to love finding something that’s red, finding the mouse, which is a fun treat. Then after the book, the Me and My Mishpacha Journal gives kids a chance for kids of any heritage to reflect on their family, to share their family’s favorite activities, their favorite foods, and to honor the idea that everybody has families with its special idiosyncrasies.

Zibby: That’s for sure. Ina Garten wrote a latke recipe that you include in the book. How did that happen? Is she a friend of yours? How did that happen?

Sheryl: Ida and I became friendly a couple years ago. We met socially. I had talked to her about my Kids Engineer! program. In particular at that time, I was making solar-powered ovens out of shoeboxes. I had just been making s’mores that week. Because Ina is of course a wonderful cook but also part scientist, she was so interested in the work that I was doing with Kids Engineer! We started talking and spending more time together. Over breakfast one morning, I was reading her a few lines of the book. I was telling her about it. I think I read “Two little bubbies schlepping their hubbies, and one dozen bagels and pot of kneidels.” She burst out laughing. She thought the book was brilliant and important. She said right then and there, “I’m going to make you a latke recipe.” She did.

Zibby: It was not even an existing latke recipe? She just crafted it for you, and you got to put it in. That’s awesome.

Sheryl: I learned through that that Ina is part scientist. Even though she’d made latkes before, she made this particular one twelve different ways, in a cast-iron pan, in a Teflon pan. She had thought about doing it in a waffle iron. She got it right.

Zibby: Wow. Then she threw you that wonderful launch party that you were so nice to invite me to. Was that amazing? People were like, “What was the food like there?”

Sheryl: She and her husband have become good friends of my husband and mine. They are so generous and wonderful. They had offered to do that party. I think she had a lot of fun deciding which foods to serve and did a lot of research finding the best black and white cookies around the city.

Zibby: She picked Greenberg’s, right? which I would agree with.

Sheryl: Yeah, they were amazing. Then also making well over two hundred of her own rugelach, and then of course the latkes. She’s amazing.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Wait, tell me more about Kids Engineer! and how you started that.

Sheryl: I was a design major. I was always interested in building inventions and inventing things. I came across a curriculum called Engineering is Elementary, which comes out of the Museum of Science in Boston. I thought, what a wonderful after-school program that would make. I got trained in Boston in that program and then brought it to three different all-girls’ schools in the city and for many years had an after-school program called Kids Engineer! Now because I’m not full time in New York, I still do the workshops in Jackson Hole in the elementary schools.

Zibby: Did you just bring this curriculum to the schools? Did you actually teach the classes?

Sheryl: I first brought it to the science departments. They were really excited about it. They said, “This is what kids need to be doing, more prototyping, trial and error, experimentation.” The science department was super excited about me doing that as an after-school program. I taught all the class. I still do.

Zibby: Oh, you teach them all yourself? That’s so great.

Sheryl: Yeah. I had another teacher that trained at Brearley. With all humility, it was so popular. We had to double-up and had two of the same classes. Kids loved it. Parents loved their daughters learning about engineering.

Zibby: What if I want my daughter to do that? Is it gone? How does somebody get it now? Will you come back?

Sheryl: No. The curriculum is actually very accessible. Engineering is Elementary, it’s a binder that you can order from the Museum of Science. You can do some of that stuff at home. They have a lot of workshops and curriculums that you could download. I would take a look at, I think it’s

Zibby: How did you end up spending part of your time in Jackson Hole now?

Sheryl: My husband and I were ready for an adventure. At the same time our last daughter was leaving for college, we were jealous. We thought, what’s our adventure going to be? I was able to bring Kids Engineering! to Jackson Hole and also continue my writing. He started to have a lot of work on the West Coast. It made sense for us to plant a flag there. We both always loved the outdoors and the mountains. It’s been very invigorating, especially when there’s five hundred inches of snow in the winter.

Zibby: I can’t even imagine. Do you have plans for more children’s books?

Sheryl: I do. This is a dream come true, being able to both write for children and then also to share my books. I’m about to embark on a book tour. This Saturday, I go to Houston at a lot of the family festivals. I really make my events interactive. I’m always there with a musician. I’ve had two songs created for the book. We not only read the book together, but we dance and sing along. I teach the kids a lot of the words. It’s such a joy to see the book from beginning all the way through its presentation. My next book’s actually a book that I sold in 2015 to Nancy Paulsen. It’s just taken a while to get the right illustrator and the right illustrations. It’s called Mazie’s Amazing Machines. It’s a little girl engineer. I have to say, the artwork has been worth the wait because Jeremy Holmes is amazing. We look forward to having a brand-new character on the scene and having a character that can help teach kids about engineering principles.

Zibby: Very cool. Are you writing anything new, aside from all of that stuff? That’s not enough for me. Keep going. Did you like any of my ideas?

Sheryl: I loved your ideas, yes.

Zibby: Here are some of my titles, The Little Yenta That Could, Are You My Mammala?, If You Give a Shiksa a Schnecken. That’s all I could come up with.

Sheryl: It’s funny because in writing Goodnight Bubbala, I looked a lot at The Joys of Yiddish, Leo Rosten’s book. If you read through that book, you see ninety percent of Yiddish words are negative. There are ten different ways to call somebody a simpleton. What a shmendrik. What a schlemiel. I did have in mind, the dark side of a book. Instead of Where the Wild Things Are, Where the Mashuganas Are or some kind of crazy book.

Zibby: That’s a good one.

Sheryl: I’m always writing. I have about three different manuscripts that I’m working on right now and a couple characters that I’d love to bring out into the world.

Zibby: That’s exciting. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Sheryl: SCBWI has been a mainstay, not just for me, but for all the writers that I know. It’s the Society of Book Illustrators and — SCB, Society of Book —

Zibby: — Something.

Sheryl: Society of Book Writers and Illustrators. They have chapters all over the country. They have two really fabulous conferences, one here in New York generally in January or February, and then one in LA in August. Being a part of SCBWI has been empowering. They have wonderful professional series in New York where you get to hear from editors, writers, and illustrators. Conferences are very inspiring. The second thing I would really advocate for is getting involved with Highlights Foundation. I’ve gone to workshops there at their campus in Pennsylvania. You get your own little writers’ cabin and wonderful food in the barn and a chance to often meet editors, work with other writers, and really work on your craft.

Zibby: Is that like Yaddo for children’s books? Yaddo the artist colony where you go, is it like that? Is it a retreat?

Sheryl: Yes, it’s a retreat. You can go to one of the regularly scheduled workshops. You can even go and rent a cabin out for a couple days on your own. It’s really affordable.

Zibby: It’s called Highlights?

Sheryl: It’s the Highlights Foundation like from Highlights magazine. It’s a really, really special place. Actually, that’s where I met Nancy Paulsen. She wound up buying my engineer girl book and also my previous book, Baby Boo, I Love You.

Zibby: Do you have a favorite Yiddish word to end this conversation?

Sheryl: I love oy and oy vey. It’s so flexible. It can be used to show empathy. If you tell me you had a hard day, I can say, “Oy, I’m so sorry.” It could be used as a happy form of expression. If you tell me your son just got into college, I can say, “Oy, congratulations.” It’s so versatile. I’d have to go with oy and oy vey.

Zibby: I would pick mensch, I think. I use that word a lot.

Sheryl: You beat me. Mensch is better than all of them.

Zibby: My husband is a producer. He’s been working on this movie getting made called The Mensch.

Sheryl: What? The last line of my book is “Goodnight kisses. Goodnight stars above. Goodnight Bubbala, my mensch, my love.” It is this wish that when you’re putting your child to sleep that you’re hopeful that they will be a mensch.

Zibby: That’s so nice. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Sheryl: Thank you, Zibby. It’s such a pleasure and an honor.

Zibby: Thanks.