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 traveling 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
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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/
All illustrations and photos courtesy of Elisa Kleven. All rights reserved.
One copy of THE PAPER PRINCESS will be given to a random commenter, courtesy of Virginia and Elisa!
Thank you, Virginia, for an interesting interview. I was not familiar with Elisa’s work. It is lovely.
“I’ll finish myself!”—so intriguing! I also love the description of the paper doll’s voice, “as thin and new as she was.” Combined with the vivid, lush imagery, the author-illustrator shows that rare ability to recall one’s childhood perceptions, making her books a treat for all ages.
Very inspirational, thank you! I have been attempting a story that is addressing the loss of my best friend, and it is very helpful to see your story and illustrations. Thanks for sharing. Best wishes!
Patricia, thank you. Good luck with the story of your best friend and sorry you lost her. Your work is lovely, and I’m glad THE PAPER PRINCESS will have a home with you.
This is a lovely interview, capturing the beauty and longing of Elisa’s work. I am off to reacquaint myself with all of her books!
Thank you for sharing this interview Virginia and Elisa. Virginia told me about the Paper Princess and I am looking forward to reading it. Thanks for the words of inspiration!
A wonderful interview! I look forward to reading Elisa’s books.
Virginia and Elisa, I really enjoyed reading this interview. It put tears in my eyes to see the beautiful way Elisa and her grandmother both honored their families in their artwork. Thank you for sharing so sensitively! I’m looking forward to introducing my daughters to your books, Elisa!
Thanks, Lindsay, for your kind comment and for your help with the comment glitch I created, too!
I agree that “War is not healthy for children and other living things.”
Thank you for sharing your work.
Virginia-thank you for sharing Elisa with us. I will be sure to share the Paper Princess along with the others with my niece.
Wow. Thanks so much for this post! I’m not familiar with The Paper Princess, but I can’t wait to read it. Knowing the “back story” of the symbolism makes it an even richer story. How wonderful to be able to make sense of losses through stories. I remember seeing her mother’s etching printed on posters! That saying was certainly symbolic of an era. And finally, dog lover that I am, I have to say she has beautiful dogs!! 🙂
This is a beautiful interview. I love knowing more abut Elisa’s life, and how the layers are there in THE PAPER PRINCESS, though the book is well-loved and received before knowing this information. Making the tough elements symbolic is a smart point.
I also love the photograph of Eva with her sculptures. What an extraordinary family of women!
Inspirational – will have my daughter, the budding writer, take a look at this.
Wow! As a member of “Another Mother for Peace,” I wore that medallion on a chain around my neck for years. I still have it. How amazing to read the story of the woman who created it! Thank you for that, and for the tender introduction to Elisa, her mother, her grandmother, and their very personal, transcendent work.
What a fascinating and compelling story! Thanks for the great interview!
This is such a great interview, Virginia. You asked the right questions and Elisa had really insightful answers. Well done!
I loved the interview. Elisa recently became my Aunt-in-law and I was pleasantly surprised to learn about her family history and artistry. I do not expect to win a copy of a book since that would be a conflict of interest. I did want to say that I am writing a book myself and to hear Elisa and the interviewer give their insight about the creative process really gave me hope and strength. Thank you!
Yvonne, thanks for your comment! I didn’t know you were writing a book.Good luck — and feel free to inquire about anything. I would be happy to give you any book you like (just give the word before I see you at the next family wedding
Thanks for such an insightful interview, Virginia. Our Charlie Rose of SCBWI! Just by pure serendipity I was reading Glasswings this weekend. Taking the advice of other great writers, read, read, read your genre. What a great book Glasswings is as well, that tells of journey of a glass winged butterfly that takes a journey of discovery and in the process tells a tale of diversity in the most subtle way.
My favorite line is “She fluttered down to strange new world, a city of concrete and corners.”
Thanks Elisa for your work, illustrations and your illuminating answers.
Thank you again, Virginia, for reaching out to me. I appreciate your gentleness, insights, and great editing when I got off track (! ) And thanks to all of you who commented. You truly helped this interview –another collaboration, like all stories — become more “finished.” Good luck to you all (commenters and non-commenters alike) in your various creative endeavors, be they large or small, loud or hushed.
What a wonderful interview! Elisa happens to be my favorite children’s book author and illustrator! Her stories are so full of color and life, and layered with so much meaning for me. A deep caring for people, animals, and the planet we inhabit. I enjoyed reading this so much.
Amy you are always so appreciative. Thanks, fellow flyer!
Thank you everyone for your kind words! Thank you, Elisa, for being so open and honest. I am just so thrilled to talk to people about your lovely work. I also want to thank Lindsay Bandy for giving me this opportunity and putting all the pieces together! In a few days, I’ll send a note regarding the winner of the drawing. Then “The Paper Princess” will be on her way! Thank you again!
How wonderful to come from such a creative family. Thank you I enjoyed the interview.
Thank you, Elisa and Virginia, for a great interview! I can’t wait to read The Paper Princess now! Elisa, it is fascinating to read about the three generations of women artists in your family! Your ability to transform your life into art is amazing.
What a wonderful Interview. As you know Elisa, we met the first time more than 30 years ago. When you stayed with my “Danish farm family”. Nice to know more details about you and your art. The article about your grand mother was also fantastic. I did not know or forgot that she was also an artist.
That’s my “WONDERFUL” Danish Farm Family, Niels! Being welcomed by you and your mom, dad and brothers was and remains one of the great gifts of my life. I’m proud to call you brother and family. Tak for alt!
I’m glad you enjoyed seeing my grandmother’s work — you’ve probably seen her sculptures in my home but I guess I didn’t tell you much about them. And some of them are in my studio, keeping me company while I work.
For anyone who might read this and know THE PAPER PRINCESS, my Danish Mother Eli, Niels’ mom, is represented by the kind and protective Blue Jay in the story, who takes the paper princess to her nest, and helps her find her way back home
Great interview! Thanks so much for sharing. We all need a little inspiration now and then. This interview did that on many levels.
YAAAAAAAAAYYYY—Just got news I’ve won a copy of THE PAPER PRINCESS!!! Thank you, Virginia, for introducing me to Elisa’s wonderful work. Elisa, I can’t wait to savor your lavish imagery and find out how the paper doll finishes herself!
Your PAPER PRINCESS will be flying home to you today, Anni. Enjoy!
Thanks for sharing the link. Very inspirational article. Also, I love the art work. After what my family has been through this year, it gives me hope. Thank you. Angela