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'Buffalo Fluffalo' has had enuffalo in this kids' bookalo

Illustrations © 2024 by Erin Kraan

One day comedy writer Bess Kalb was reading a book to her son about national parks that her husband had brought home.

"To indoctrinate him into becoming a camping person," Kalb explains. "So far it hasn't worked, which is great."

But there was a buffalo on one page. And she read the word "buffalo." She remembers her son looked at her with a little twinkle in his eye because "buffalo" — of course — is an extremely silly-sounding word. So, she pushed it.

"I said 'Yeah it's a "buffalo fluffalo,' and he cracked up."

Like any comedy writer worth her salt, Bess Kalb — who was a writer for Jimmy Kimmel's late night show, and has since gone on to write and produce her own comedy special — knows how to read a room. She wrote Buffalo Fluffalo, her first children's book, that very night.

It's about a buffalo who believes he has to bluffalo and puffalo himself into appearing big and tough to his neighbors. He rebuffalos every neighbor who tries to offer him friendship. Until a huge rain cloud comes and dumps a ton of water over Mr. Buffalo and all his fluffalo goes puffalo.

"When it's revealed that he's just a little pipsqueak — a word that makes my oldest child laugh a lot — his friends and community tell him he doesn't have to act tough," says Kalb. "And they love him anyway."

<em>Buffalo Fluffalo</em>
/ Illustrations © 2024 by Erin Kraan
Illustrations © 2024 by Erin Kraan
Buffalo Fluffalo

For this book, Bess Kalb knew she needed an illustrator who got that yes, here was a story about toxic masculinity, but that it was also a funny book about toxic masculinity.

"I wanted to give my child a book that helped him understand kindness and empathy," says Kalb, "with a laugh."

And the joke hinges on the reveal page — when the reader and all the other characters see just how wee Buffalo really is.

"That joke needs to land and it can only land with a picture," says Kalb. Erin Kraan understood the assignment.

She made all of the characters in Buffalo Fluffalo out of woodcut prints. The process starts with a well-sanded flat piece of wood. "I take my sketch and I'll take... a solvent and I'll transfer the sketch onto the wood," Kraan explains. "From there I take all of these different kinds of chisels and carve the lines of the character in the wood." Buffalo's fur, for example, is made of lots of little swirls and whorls that Kraan carved by hand.

Once she's done, think of the woodcut like a big stamp. Kraan takes a roller of ink and rolls black ink onto the wood, and then onto thick paper. She colors everything in digitally. Buffalo Fluffalo was also Kraan's first time mixing woodcut and paint in her art.

"I really wanted the clouds, the environment in this book to have a character of their own," Kraan explains, "because nature is what humbles Buffalo in this book." So she used an acrylic wash and hand-painted every cloud to give each page a unique look — soft and fluffy before storm, dark and bold as the sky is opening up over Buffalo's head.

"Then, with one final thundery, blundery blupp, the humpiest, heaviest cloud opened up, And down came the rain with a splash and a spluffalo, right on the head of old Buffalo Fluffalo," Kalb writes. You can just just barely make out Buffalo's eyes on the page — the rest of his body has disappeared in the downpour — but he looks mad, indignant.

Then, on the reveal page, the skies have cleared and there Buffalo is in all his scrawny glory — wet and scraggly, looking more shell-shocked than huffy, as if he forgot to wear clothes to school.

"It's so beautiful and dramatic," Kalb adds. "But there's also comedy and silliness without it being gross-out or over the top."

/ Illustrations © 2024 by Erin Kraan
Illustrations © 2024 by Erin Kraan

Kraan says coming up with the final look was a team effort. How to make Buffalo small and pathetic but also cute and funny?

"I think I did, like, 30-plus character designs of Buffalo," says Kraan. Kalb would send notes in the vein of "Smaller! More puff! Push the comedy!" which she acknowledges were probably hard for Kraan to follow. Early in the process, Buffalo was a bit older, to really lean into the toxic masculinity theme. But eventually Kraan drew a younger, sweeter Buffalo, to better match the story. "Because the text was so sweet and charming," she explains.

"Like any insane mother, we worked and worked until he looks exactly like my son," laughs Kalb. "I'm just a dance mom."

Including that face Buffalo makes when he's trying to be tough which, actually, all kids make that face.

"I was just at a reading," Bess Kalb says, "one of the kids was like, 'I act like this all the time... and this is the face I make.' And then it started this chain reaction of kids showing me their meanest face."

It's almost like that mean face is a mask, Erin Kraan observes. "You know when you see a kid dress up for Halloween? They have this new confidence about themselves," she explains, "and then you take that off... you feel more vulnerable."

Kalb hopes that Buffalo Fluffalo can be a mirror for kids, and a character that they can relate to. "I wanted to give my kids a book that showed them that they can take that mask off," she says. Because only when you take the mask off can you be a happy little buffalo snuggling with your friends. "And now I'm just thinking about them parading around in a shark and lobster costume at Halloween."

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/ Illustrations © 2024 by Erin Kraan
Illustrations © 2024 by Erin Kraan

Samantha Balaban is a producer at Weekend Edition.