Book Links: June/July 2001 (v. 10, no. 4)
by Elisa Kleven
When I visit schools, children sometimes ask me, "Isn't it hard to make your pictures so detailed and tiny?"
"No," I say, "It's fun. It's hard for me to make big, bold pictures. I've always loved to make miniature worlds--just like you probably do--and that's what my picture books are." And then, in so many words, and in pictures, I talk about why.
Growing up in Los Angeles, the youngest of four kids, I often felt overwhelmed by the enormity of my world. My family, loving but tall, seemed to tower above me. The gargantuan, freeway-clogged city sprawled in every direction, bordered on one side by dry, looming mountains, and on the other by the vast ocean. I longed for cozier, quieter places and found them in the library.
In the books I loved, the world was made manageable. Laura Ingalls Wilder's Big Woods were big indeed--"As far as a man could go to the north in a day, or a week, or a whole month . . ."--but in her and Garth Williams' Little House world, they were just the right size. They fit into my hands. They could be carried along in the car or snuggled with under the covers at night. Charlotte's Web contained the universe--birth, death, friendship, love--but the perfect, perfectly accessible story and pictures were also, miraculously, scaled for a child.
In books the world was magical. Animals could talk. A house could whirl away to Oz; Peter Pan could teach kids to fly. Fairy tale worlds had scary elements, but I longed for their infinite possibilities. Even the real places in my favorite books--England, Wisconsin, New England--were enviably exotic to an L.A. child, with their seasons and snow, fields and farm animals. The cities, too, were inviting. In Leo Politi's picture books, L.A. neighborhoods became tender wonderlands of people, pets, and parades. In Stuart Little, Manhattan was rendered with so much delicacy, imagination, and humor that even the garbage dump was enchanted.
I relished these book worlds so intensely that I wanted to stay inside them, even when I wasn't reading. So, like all children, I coped with reality's limitations by making small fantasy worlds of my own. I named my bike Ginger and made believe it was a horse. I pretended I was flying whenever I swam. I poured Karo syrup over ice cubes and imagined it was Laura Ingalls' snowy maple candy. And in a desperate desire to discover a gingerbread house, I taped Oreos and Fritos all over our station wagon and played that I had found one. (My mom wasn't amused.) Most satisfying of all, on the shelves of my closet, I created a huge and intricate dollhouse. The house was filled animals and dolls, many of which I made from clay, paper, nutshells (wrinkled walnuts made good heads for old people), cloth, wire, what have you. I'd lose myself for hours making up stories about these characters. And I loved to make them treasures from scraps of this and that: a paper doily would become a lacy rug; a postage stamp would become a portrait on the wall. Around the dollhouse I painted a mural, a landscape of forests, lakes, fields, blue skies--the world that I wanted to live in. Outside my closet was L.A. in the 60s, with its freeways and shopping malls, riots and smog, but inside I was making my own timeless, peaceable kingdom. When I got to be about 12, I started to worry about my passion for playing. On the outside I was a "normal" enough junior-high-school kid, but at home, in guilty secret, I still loved making up stories about handmade paper dolls and clay creatures. Wasn't I growing up right?
Now I realize that all that playing was great preparation for my adult work. I no longer have a dollhouse, but I'm still creating miniature, imaginary worlds inside my picture books. What is a drawn, painted, make-believe person but a kind of paper doll? What do authors and illustrators do but invent small characters and build stories and environments around them? Why do I write and illustrate fantasy stories, if not for some tenacious childhood urge to create my own miniature, magical world within the big, everyday one? As I make my collage illustrations, I often feel very much like the child who recycled materials for her toys. But now, instead of turning a doily into a doll's rug, I'll snip it to bits and turn it into a snowstorm. Instead of transforming an old shirt into dollclothes, I'll use it to make purse for Abuela, or a pair of pants for a Latin American dancer.
Like my collages, my stories are also about the power of creativity to change old into new and familiar into fantastical, thereby transforming the everyday world. In The Lion and the Little Red Bird, a lion turns his tail into a paintbrush, the walls of his cave into a sunlit painted landscape--the sight of which causes the red bird to sing her happiest song. In The Paper Princess, a child's handmade paper doll becomes full of possibilities. As it travels through the world, it is by turns a cherished creation, a tiny person, a crumpled wad of litter, material for a bird's nest, a birthday card, and a beloved princess again--whose reunion with the girl inspires more paper creations. In The Puddle Pail, Ernst, the dreamy crocodile, sees ordinary rain puddles as sparkling, collectible treasures. "You can't collect puddles!" scoffs Ernst's pragmatic older brother, Sol. But when Ernst uses his watery puddle collection to make a collection of beautiful paintings, even Sol can't help but say, "OOOH!"
In my books, creativity not only enriches the world aesthetically; it provides comfort as well. Imagination helps my characters cope with their real-world frustrations and strengthen the bonds between them. Clara in Hooray, a Piñata! assuages her longing for a dog by pretending that her dog piñata is real. Her sympathetic friend, Samson, helps Clara safeguard her fantasy--and provides her with another piñata for breaking. In A Monster in the House, a girl vents her annoyance with her screaming, slobbery baby brother by spinning a tall tale about him as a fantastically grotesque, if lovable, beast. As the girl's new neighbor listens with horrified fascination, the girl both unburdens herself and discovers a friend. And in my newest book, Sun Bread, a baker brightens a bleak winter by shaping bread dough into a warm, glowing, life-giving sun. When the baker offers up the bread to her winter-weary neighbors, spirits soar, and even the real sun decides to come out and join the feast.
Transcendence and transformation of the everyday world are apparent in my illustrations of real places as well. In Abuela (Dutton, 1991) by Arthur Dorros, a little girl and her fun-loving grandma enjoy an imaginary flight over New York City. Like the story, the pictures are playful; there is a childlike look to Abuela, as there is to my other "city" books: City by the Bay: A Magical Journey around San Fransisco (Chronicle, 1993) by Tricia Brown, and City of Angels: In and around Los Angeles (Dutton, 1999) by Julie Jaskol and Brian Lewis. The cities look jewellike--"prettier than the real places" is a comment I often get. As much as cities now thrill and inspire me visually, and try as I do to make things look "real" (working from the dozens of reference photos I take), even megalopolises like L.A. come out looking "quaint" in my collages. My urge to make small-scale scenes, to build up intricate layers of materials, and to use bright toylike colors has stayed with me since earliest childhood. (The fact that I never studied art formally but am self-taught is a factor as well.) There is something deeply comforting about creating and ordering one's own small world. Imaginary worlds provide not only refuge from the real-world, but also, as has often been noted, a sense of control and mastery. Children can, in their imaginations, be ruler of all their toys, or "king of all the wild things." An artist may feel overwhelmed by the chaos around her, but, in the words of Kurt Vonnegut, she "can reduce to perfect order this piece of paper, this square of canvas, this block of stone."
Miniature worlds, whether in dollhouses or in books, are not only comforting, they are pure fun as well. Cups made from thimbles or clocks made from watches, like the animal shapes we see in clouds, provide the pleasure of visual puns. They invite the mind to perform a kind of alchemy, making artists and magicians of us all. Much of the success of Joan Steiner's ingenious Look-Alikes books comes from this kind of pleasure: we see a cowbell, but we also see a tower, or a corduroy shirt that is also a plowed field. How Are You Peeling? by Saxton Freymann and Joost Elffers also provides this kind of enjoyment, with its lumpy fruits and vegetables that double as expressive creatures. And one of my favorite childhood books, Mary Norton's The Borrowers abounds with descriptions of clever transformations of big, real world objects into the tiny characters' own small treasures.
Art and imagination are always, at heart, about transformation, alchemy. A painter brushes paint onto canvas or paper and turns it into a living form. A child looks at a pile of clothes in the dark and sees a monster. Picasso made his sculpture Bull's Head by attaching a bicycle seat to the handle bars. A child makes a dragon from a twisted piece of wood, or a castle from a cardboard box.
It is this child's instinct to play, this Borrowers urge to take bits and pieces of the real world and piece them together to form new, little worlds, that fuels my creative work. Though I love the world and am happy in it, it still often feels too chaotic, too unenchanted, and too big. I make myself at home in it by making picture books. I hope that my books will comfort and inspire children, and that in them they will recognize their own powerful gifts of imagination.
Hooray, a Piñata! 1996. 32p. Penguin/Dutton, $16.99 (0-525-45605-8). Preschool-Gr. 2.
The Lion and the Little Red Bird. 1992. 32p. Penguin/Dutton, $15.99 (0-525-44898-5); Puffin, paper, $5.99 (0-14-055809-8). Preschool-Gr. 2.
A Monster in the House. 1998 32p. Penguin/Dutton, $15.99 (0-525-45973-1). Preschool-Gr. 2.
The Paper Princess. 1994. 32p. Penguin/Dutton, $15.99 (0-525-45231-1); Puffin, paper, $5.99 (0-14-056424-1). K-Gr. 2.
The Puddle Pail. 1997 32p. Penguin/Dutton, $15.99 (0-525-45803-4). Preschool-Gr. 2.
Sun Bread. 2001. 32p. Penguin/Dutton, $16.99 (0-525-46674-6). Preschool-Gr. 2.
A former teacher, weaver, and toymaker, Elisa Kleven now works full-time on her picture books. She lives with her husband, two children, and pets in the San Francisco Bay Area.