Albany author gives new twist to classic children’s tale
By Lou Fancher
Preferring happy endings and inspired by the diversity of a city she adores, children’s book author/illustrator Elisa Kleven rewrites history.
“The Horribly Hungry Gingerbread Boy: A San Francisco Story” (Heyday) is a retelling of the classic 1875 fairy tale that ends with the fast-running gingerbread man being eaten by a fox.
Set in the urban clamor of San Francisco — Kleven can see its cityscape from her home just north of Berkeley in Albany — the lively, rhyming variation has protagonist Shirley chasing the mildly rebellious cookie-kid as he eats his way through city landmarks that include Chinatown, the Mission, Fisherman’s Wharf and more. “I’ll drink your bay in one big gulp” or “I’ll chomp a gleaming golden bridge,” he exclaims, among other boasts.
With brightly colored collage-and-paint artwork that sparkles like a glass mosaic and springs energetically off the page with swirls of paint, curved or tilted horizons and characters drawn as if they not only run, but dance and fly, Kleven’s story ends with the gingerbread boy promising “not to eat the world.”
He and Shirley are friends forever and share sweet treats they’ve baked to “make amends” for the havoc they’ve wrought during their escapades. An author’s note, a Gingerbread People recipe and delightful “San Francisco Landmarks” notes add special features to the book.
Kleven’s over 30 award-winning books include “The Paper Princess”; “Sun Bread”; “Glasswings, A Butterfly’s Story”; and books she has illustrated for other authors: “Abuela,” by Arthur Dorros, Linda Glaser’s “Our Big Home,” Thacher Hurd’s “The Weaver,” and more.
Her work has been honored by the American Library Association, New York Times Best Illustrated Books and Reading Rainbow.
“I loved Ezra Keats’ art when I was young — the patterns in the clothing were mesmerizing,” says Kleven. “And Leo Lionni’s collage, the doilies he used for coral had color and texture that are beautiful and child-pleasing. You feel like fingers put it together and your fingers want to touch it. It’s tactile.”
Kleven studied literature at UC Berkeley and holds teaching credentials from Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education. It was while working as a teacher that she realized she wanted to create her own books. “I love to think up stories. When I walk my rescue dog, Bella, I get ideas. But I get them when I’m running errands too.”
Kleven writes on the backs of used computer paper in “tiny, terrible handwriting” before converting the final draft to digital format. Mornings are reserved for “raw writing” and editing; two afternoons a week she leads art lessons in her studio. More writing, illustrating, school visits — she averages two per month — and family time with her husband, Paul Kleven, and adult son and daughter and a menagerie of animals accumulate to a busy lifestyle.
Story ideas arrive in endless streams and often begin with an uplifting, positive image. A photo of a transparent butterfly became the book “Glasswings.”
A preference for characters with troubles, a problem or a flaw doesn’t mean Kleven likes sad or ambiguous endings. “I still have that little girl that I was: the one who wants something satisfying. You want the character to take you somewhere, work something out, end up happier than they were in the beginning.”
Perhaps her stories’ dark/light dichotomy and dense imagery — lively scenes packed with people, animals, plants and patterns — is an effort to achieve escape, even transcendence.
“My mother died of cancer when I was 14,” she says. “It was Los Angeles, the hospital — it was a hard death. I didn’t have an unhappy childhood but I was an anxious adolescent.”
But when she is making art, Kleven says her spirit “feels light and forgets sadness” and her soul, like her artwork, is without shadows. “My work is like my life: heavy and light at the same time.”
“Gingerbread Boy” was originally set all over the world, but with a California publisher and believing a compact city would seem more plausible to young readers, Kleven narrowed it to her favorite San Francisco locations that are visual and unique.
After first writing the story in prose, she discovered internal rhymes and converted it to verse. “I like snappy rhythms. It wasn’t hard to write them; it just flowed.”
Most satisfying was the opportunity to rejigger the ending. “I was the kind of kid who gave everything a spirit. I put a face on erasers, filled dollhouses with walnut shells made into beds, dried apples became dolls. If I saw a cookie, I imagined it had feelings. The original story is about loss, death. It was devastating to me. I wanted this to be fun, mischievous. He sees the beauty of San Francisco and wants to eat it up, who wouldn’t? It’s a wonderful city in a magical world.”