A baker who brightens a bleak winter by baking a big golden sun bread, a lion whose tail changes color, and a beautiful apple that becomes a doll are just a few of the characters in the little worlds Cal alumna, Elisa Schneider Kleven BA’81, writes about in her picture books. A children’s book author and illustrator of over thirty books, Elisa has received honors from the American Library Association, The New York Times, The Junior Library Guild, School Library Journal, Bank Street College, The American Booksellers Association, and the American Institute of Graphic Arts. For her 35th Reunion this year, Elisa looks back on how UC Berkeley had created another little world for her, inspiring creativity and the mind.
As a child growing up in Los Angeles, Elisa often wished her big, sprawling city were more like the magical places in the stories she loved. She longed to be able to slide down rabbit holes, visit with Charlotte and Wilbur, or fly with Peter Pan. She found solace in creating small imaginary worlds with her hands using materials she found; making scenes and characters fashioned from paper, cloth, clay, nutshells, bread dough, and even dried apples. One of her settings was an intricate doll house which she filled with characters and lively scenes. Half a walnut shell would be a baby’s cradle; a postage stamp would serve as a hanging portrait; a wine cork became a butter churn. Her mother, an artist recognized for her iconic image “Primer,” encouraged young Elisa’s imagination by giving her the space and materials to be creative. In middle school, Elisa worried that her love for creating imaginary worlds might make others perceive her as childish. However, Elisa stayed true to herself and continued to pursue her creative passions.
When Elisa began her freshman year at UC Berkeley at the age of 17, she again felt lost. The unfamiliar landscape, living in a dorm for the first time, and the huge lecture halls filled with people, seemed chaotic. “Berkeley is not the most cozy school,” she says, “but you have to seek warm, cozy, inspiring places.” Majoring in English, Elisa remembers her professors like Janet Adelman, Carol Christ, Carolyn Porter, and Stephen Booth. Not only was she amazed by their brilliance and diamond-sharp minds, but they opened up many new worlds to her through great literature. They also showed great generosity, encouragement, and kindness to her. She was mentored by renowned Shakespearean scholar, Professor Stephen Booth, and was touched by his honesty and willingness to open his heart. At one point, Elisa began to think that perhaps Berkeley was too big a place for her; that perhaps she would be better off at a smaller liberal arts college. She recalls sharing this with Professor Booth who told her, “Feeling lost is good. Feeling lost helps prepare you for facing the universe at midnight.” “He was right,” Elisa says, “and I stayed at Berkeley.”
As a student at Cal, Elisa continued to make art, though she did not study it academically. She wove tapestries and batiked and painted miniature scenes on Ukranian-style eggs; a process that was calming for her after hours of studying. An exhibit of her work called, Folk Art, at Doe Library showcased her hand-made merry-go-rounds and was even reviewed in the Daily Californian. She found further inspiration through her love of little children; working in pre-schools, teaching art in after-school programs, and even caring for some of her professors’ children. She was in awe of their keen imagination and fresh perception of the world. “Like Picasso said, he wanted to unlearn everything and draw like a child. When you listen carefully to children, they say such fresh things that they often sound like poets,” she says. With her love of literature, kids, and art, Elisa graduated from UC Berkeley with a bachelor’s degree in English, and a Master’s in Education with the intention of teaching high school English.
After working as a high-school teacher and teaching pre-school and fourth grade, Elisa still makes little worlds– inventing characters and giving them stories and settings. She still uses materials like scrap paper and various other kinds of mixed media to make her worlds come to life. A tapestry she created hangs in the Berkeley Public Main Library’s Children’s Story Room. In it, the city of Berkeley with the Campanile in the background, comes to life with bold, vivid colors and children flying, bicycling, parading, reading, and playing outside. When Elisa began reaching out to publishers, she was turned away and told that her work was too “psychedelic” and “folksy”. They were interested in illustrations that were more conventional. “Rough diamonds are better than smooth beads,” she recalled Professor Stephen Booth telling her, and she pressed on. Elisa now has over thirty books published, including the Paper Princess series, The Puddle Pail and The Lion and the Little Red Bird as well as many others. Her first book, Ernst, has been translated into Korean, Japanese, and Chinese. Of this story the LA Times states, “Kleven imagines an entire universe filled with sparkling pictures and sweet affection. This small and beautiful book neatly reconciles the child’s wishes with dreams fulfilled.”
Elisa largely stays in touch with UC Berkeley through her daughter, who, like herself, majored in English and received her MA in Education this past year. She attended her daughter’s commencement ceremony last spring and is thrilled to see the best and brightest committing themselves to education. She also considers Berkeley to be her spiritual home as well as her physical home. Her freshman year roommate is one of her dearest friends and she also met her husband at Cal, who shares her love of literature. She also has many fond memories of reading poetry on a rainy day in the Doe Library’s Reading Room.
Although she may not be in touch with her professors now, Elisa remembers that as a sensitive and somewhat shy person, they gave her encouragement. To this day, their words echo in her mind and make her feel confident – a precious gift in itself. “Even though I felt lost,” she explains, “they helped me prepare for facing the universe at midnight and were very kind along the way.”
For more information about Elisa’s work and upcoming publications, check out her website. Elisa’s newest book, The Horribly Hungry Gingerbread Boy: A San Francisco Story is out now and available at bookstores and Amazon.com.