One of Elisa Kleven’s fans writes: “Thank you for teaching us to have good imaginations. . .Where do you get the imagination?”
Kleven is one of the lucky artists whose imagination comes from within herself. “I’ve had a lifelong urge to make magical worlds out of found objects. The desire to play and imagine and act out stories has always been a part of me. I never quite outgrew it. I translated my play from the world of toys to the worlds I make inside my books.” Scraps of paper, swatches of fabric, ribbons, lace, and yarn have all found their way into Kleven’s deliciously colorful and cluttered art work.
After one of Kleven’s school visits, teachers report an outbreak of collages in the classroom. “My style and my materials are naturally accessible to kids. They’re very childlike and very tactile. I think kids feel like they can do it themselves.”
Although all of Kleven’s book are “her children,” The Paper Princess touches her the most deeply. “I feel like the little girl who makes the paper princess. When I make a book, I have to let it go.” Kleven feels that the paper doll flying away and taking on a life of its own is a metaphor for her books. Just as the world finished the paper doll, “the world finishes my books by reading them.”
Kleven’s characters come alive as she works. “There must be a spirit I’m connected to, otherwise I get bored.” She likes the Paper Princess for her bold, fearless nature and her ability to overcome her limitations; Ernst (The Puddle Pail) is a dreamy, inward character who makes his wish come true in the face of criticism; and the Lion (The Lion and the Little Red Bird) has the power to communicate through art that goes beyond language.
According to Kleven, “ideas come from all over.” There’s a Monster in the House grew out of her daughter’s love and exasperation with her new baby brother. Hooray, A Pinata!started as an experience at a child’s birthday party. Kleven shies away from stories calculated to fit into a curriculum or for their merchandising appeal. “My books aren’t trendy. I write from the heart.” Consequently, the artwork for her stories comes from her home life or her own imagination. Occasionally, research is required for a book. For The City by the Bay, the City of Angels, and Abuela, Kleven journeyed to San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York, respectively and “shot rolls of film.” For the Latin American song books by Jos¾-Luis Orozco, Kleven paid special attention to the costumes and scenery to create culturally accurate illustrations.
Writing from the heart works for Kleven. Her books have won numerous awards and have been anthologized in textbooks. Abuela was featured on two PBS television programs:Reading Rainbow and Storytime. The Lion and the Little Red Bird and The Paper Princesswere chosen as Storytime selections.
Kleven lives in Albany, California with her husband, two children, and an aging dog and cat. She studied literature at the University of California, Berkeley and taught fourth grade and art. But then she discovered book making and realized it was the career for her. “It’s part of my nature. I would be unhappy if I couldn’t use my imagination. I’m lucky to have a niche to keep the child in me alive. I get a deep satisfaction and joy when children respond. The kids are my true critics.”