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(How) Can we read? An interview with Elisa Kleven
"Read lots of books to your kids."
(How) Can we read? is a once-monthly issue full of practical, actionable ideas for raising readers and building a culture of books and literacy in your home.
When I first sat down to make a list of authors and illustrators I wanted to reach out to for this newsletter, Elisa Kleven was near the top — I’ve long admired her breathtaking, jam-packed, kaleidoscopic multimedia work (and the creative stories she tells to go along with it), my children and I love reading her books, I’ve pored over her website more than a handful of times.
So when I asked — and what’s more, when she said yes — I couldn’t have been more thrilled. (I ran through the house shouting for my daughters, yelling “The author of Sun Bread is going to be in my newsletter! The author of Sun Bread is going to be in my newsletter!”)
We’re big fans.
Kleven is the author and/or illustrator of over thirty books, many of which have received various honors, some of which have even been adapted for professional ballet and theater productions. She studied literature at the University of California at Berkeley, and earned a teaching credential at Berkeley's Graduate School of Education before spending several years teaching and reading lots of books to children. A self-taught artist, Kleven uses a wide variety of media and supplies to make her illustrations: watercolor, colored pencils, ink, and crayon, adding collaged bits of paper and material with glue to give her pictures texture and pattern and a dynamic feeling of things happening on nearly every inch of the page.
Kleven’s books are full of interesting details and have dream-like qualities, and many of the characters in her books fly. About this, Kleven writes on her website:
I have always wanted to fly — really fly, like Peter Pan, not just travel in an airplane. Making my picturebook characters fly is the second-best thing. (My brilliant editor at Dutton Children’s Books thought I’d be a good illustrator for the story Abuela, by Arthur Dorros, because she knew I loved to draw angels and flying people.) Many of my own stories, such as The Paper Princess and Sun Bread, also feature figures that fly.
It’s not hard for me to figure out what I love about her books, and what appeals to my children — her stories and images take you out of real life, for even just a few minutes, and transport you, often with wings, up and out into the world.
Here are the handful of books authored and/or illustrated by Kleven that I’ve reviewed in the past, if you’re unfamiliar with her work or need a reminder:
Abuela by Arthur Dorros
Snowsong Whistling by Karen E. Lotz
De Colores and Other Latin-American Folk Songs for Children, selected, arranged, and translated by José-Luis Orozco
One Little Chicken by Elka Weber
You can also get a feel for her work via her Instagram.
Now let’s hear from Kleven herself.
How long have you been writing and illustrating for children? What called you to this work?
My first picture book was published in 1988. But I have been creating small, make-believe worlds in art and storytelling for as long as I can remember. As a child, I played with all sorts of objects, most of them handmade. I constantly drew characters on paper, or made them out of clay, scraps of cloth, and found objects. I named every doll or animal character I made and gave it a spirit and a story of its own.
So I think what called me to writing and illustrating picture books was my own stubborn, childlike imagination. Even though I became a normal adult in most ways, my love for creating make-believe worlds never left me. My early handmade toys and dolls were precursors to the characters that populate my picture books.
Your books are full of imagination, not to mention wonderful, riotously colored illustrations made from a wide variety of media — how do you fuel your own imagination?
Looking at the changing sky; seeing my family and my animals; reading a good poem, story, or essay; and, of course, viewing art, from children’s book illustrations to great graffiti to pieces in museums, all make me want to make things of my own! Being around children, which I often am, also gives me energy and hope. And nature is my favorite source of inspiration. I hope all of these good things will prevail over the violence, power-hunger, and greed which threaten the world.
You come from a matrilineal line of artists, and you write on your website about the role creating miniature worlds — namely your dollhouse — played in your formation as a person as well as a writer and illustrator. Did books and reading have a part in your childhood or your development?
Yes, I adored books. My favorites were Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales, The Wizard of Oz, Francis Hodgson Burnett’s books, the Little House books, Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, Isaac Bashevis Singer’s folk tales…so many books inspired and comforted me, and felt like real friends.
I often used to pretend that I was a character right inside of my favorite books. For instance, when I was riding in the backseat of our family car, I’d make believe that I was young Laura Ingalls, traveling in her covered wagon.
And even though I loved my dog just for who she was, I’d sometimes pretend she was my pet pig, like Wilbur was to Fern. My sense of reality and fiction was very fluid!
Do you have any advice for parents, educators — basically any grownup who has kids in their life — about reading?
Read lots of books to your kids. That may sound obvious, but it’s the best way to start fostering a love of literature. When my own kids were young, I remember bringing piles of picture books home from the library every few weeks and letting them find their own favorites. When they wanted longer books, I read them chapter books. And then they started reading on their own. I suppose I was/am fortunate to have kids who loved reading as much as my husband and I do!
What are a few titles, recent or otherwise, that have stood out to you as being so excellent you wish they were on the shelf in every home and classroom?
I love too many to name, but Holes [by Louis Sacher] and The One and Only Ivan [by Katherine Applegate] are favorites. As for picture books, I love Ezra Jack Keats, Eric Carle, Leo Lionni, Barbara Cooney, Oge Mora, Ashley Wolff, Grace Lin...I could probably name a thousand others but these come immediately to mind.
What’s next for you? Are you working on anything new you can tell us about?
I’ve been working on all kinds of new stories, and even a few non-fiction ones (not published but in process)!
My most recent effort is a story about the three artists in my family — my maternal grandmother, my mother, and myself as a child. The story and pictures explore how we were all very different kinds of artists, but how each of our creative expressions were powerful in their own way.
Thank you so much to Elisa for taking the time to answer my questions — and for pouring so much of herself into the gorgeous books she writes and illustrates for children.
If you want to hear more about how Elisa’s childhood spent happily creating handmade, miniature worlds led to her adult work, don’t miss her TED Talk, The Power of the Playful:
What if we stopped thinking that in order to grow up successfully, we must jettison our playful imaginations? Imagine the world we might have if we wove make-believe all through it, throughout our lives…
Tomorrow’s children will also need our children’s well-nourished imaginations. They’ll need the life-changing books that our children will write. The art that will delight and inspire them. They’ll need grownups with open-hearted, empathetic, childlike imaginations to safeguard their world, make it bluer, greener, full of new rainbows both painted and real, shining against the darkness. What a future that might be, and nothing short of magic.
Thanks for reading,
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