Elisa Kleven is an award-winning author and illustrator of over 30 books for children. Her picture books include one of my all-time favorites THE PAPER PRINCESS (Dutton, 1994). The story is beautifully paired with Elisa’s mixed-media collage illustrations that create a world filled with light, joy, and an abundance of details for readers to discover.
In the story, a little girl makes a paper doll. But before she can finish, the paper princess is picked up by the wind and sent on an unexpected journey. What has kept the book fresh in my mind after two decades are three words that the paper princess boldly calls out to her maker.
WHOOSH! The wind sent the princess flying.
“Wait!” The girl chased after her. “I didn’t finish you!”
“I’ll finish myself!” the princess called in a voice as thin and new as she was.
“I’ll finish myself!” How brave!
Virginia: Elisa, I want to thank you for bringing the paper princess to life! Can you tell me about the origins of the story?
Elisa: The story began in my own childhood. Growing up in Los Angeles, I spent hours drawing and cutting out paper dolls, and making up stories about them. Sometimes, on windy days, one of my paper characters would blow away. As it disappeared in the sky, I wondered how it would fare in the world, who it would meet, where it might end up, and whether it would ever find its way back to me.
The story also captures the feeling I have as an author-illustrator. Like the girl who creates the paper princess, I put a lot of love and details into my books. One day, when they are “finished," I send them off into the world. Each time a reader opens a book, my work is finished anew, like the paper princess. The book becomes enriched by the act of being read, and readers are collaborating with me as they bring their own experiences and interpretation to the story.
Virginia: Your mother, Lorraine Art Schneider, was also an artist who packed big ideas into small packages. Can you tell us how her life and work has inspired you?
Elisa: My mother was an etcher and a print maker. Her prints were embossed, which means that she added textures and materials to the plate (the surface on which the prints are printed). She would collect all sorts of found materials -- scraps of metal, broken bits of machinery -- and form new shapes from them. I grew up watching an artist turn throwaway objects into magical, lively new works. As a collage artist, I also collect bits and pieces of scraps -- softer, more delicate materials than my mother used, to be sure. However, the process of creating a new assemblage is similar.
In the early sixties, my mother created a small etching, the "War is not healthy for children and other living things" sunflower image, which was later adopted by the group Another Mother for Peace as their logo. The original etching was smaller than two by two inches. My mom packed a lot into that small space. I also work on a very small scale, often filling every inch of my paper with details (though I have yet to create a powerful anti-war slogan).
My mother was diagnosed with cancer when I was eleven, and died a few weeks after my fourteenth birthday, but her potent image went on to have a very public life.
Virginia: How has writing stories about loss helped you grieve, or understand your mother’s life in a new way?
Elisa: I'm not sure if it has helped me understand my mother's life in a new way, but I suppose it has helped me grieve. My stories are a way of making sense of certain losses, and they have given me the opportunity to give sad, real life events a happy ending. For instance, after I wrote THE PAPER PRINCESS, I realized that I was talking about my own young life. Like the paper doll, I had to go out into the world without my artist "maker" before I was quite finished, and far from ready.After my mother passed away, I did a lot of travelling at an early age. I stayed with a wonderful Danish farm family and studied at crafts schools on the East Coast. By letting the paper doll return to the girl "who made her" at the end of the story, I fulfilled a deep wish of my own, in symbolic language. The paper doll reunites with her maker at the end, and the maker gets to enjoy the princess, who has become wiser and more complete. Another loss I reconciled with in the story was the death of my brother, who I was able to bring back as the character of the girl’s "brother in the meadow." "My grandmother, Eva Art, was a sculptor, and, like my mom, a great inspiration to me. During the Holocaust, she lost her parents and seven brothers. Years later she was able to re-create her long lost friends and relatives, forming their likenesses out of clay. They emerged just as she remembered them, hugging their children, reading their books, patiently knitting their socks. She was able to turn loss and nothingness into tender beauty and life.
Virginia: For authors, who are trying to write stories about events in their childhood that were profoundly important, do you have any advice?
Elisa: Just write about the events, if you can. If they loom too large or are too overwhelming, try to put them in symbolic language. For instance, turn a real life bully into some kind of ridiculous monster. Looking at my losses was like staring at the sun, but over time they worked their way through my mind and into my hands in the form of a fairy tale(s) and pictures.
Virginia: Any advice for the not-yet-published author or illustrator?
Elisa: Read a lot. Try to write and draw each day. Stay open to all kinds of experience. Don't think of anything as too trivial to serve as the inspiration for a story. My book THE PUDDLE PAIL was inspired by the sight of a striped fence reflected in a rain puddle. The idea for THE LION AND THE LITTLE RED BIRD came to me as I observed a real lion's tail, and noticed how similar it looked to a paint brush.
Virginia: Thank you so much, Elisa, for sharing your stories and your heart with us. You inspire me to tackle the important stories in my life—to allow my writing to be honest and vulnerable.
As authors and illustrators, we are all on a mysterious and treacherous journey, and, while we have our communities of support, we also face these challenges alone. I hope when life and/or writing is difficult we can summon the paper princess’s courageous spirit and continue to grow.
Just a few of Elisa Kleven’s amazing picture books:
THE APPLE DOLL, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2007
GLASSWINGS, A BUTTERFLY STORY, Dial 2013
THE LION AND THE LITTLE RED BIRD, Puffin 1996
THE PAPER PRINCESS, Puffin, 1998
THE PUDDLE PAIL, Tricycle Press, 2007
SUN BREAD, Puffin, 2004
For more information about the author, you can visit her website at http://www.elisakleven.com/
For more information about Lorraine Art Schneider, visit http://anothermother.org/
For more information about Eva Art, visit http://www.papertigers.org/wordpress/authors-remember-their-grandparents-my-grandma-eva-and-what-she-found-in-clay-by-elisa-kleven/