Davis group hears from award-winning writer, her editor

May 2, 1999
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@ dcn.davis.ca.us

A children's book author/illustrator and a children's book editor came to the Davis Art Center last month, courtesy of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, to explain how they do what they do and encourage others to do the same.

The author/illustrator was Elisa Kleven and the editor was Donna Brooks of Dutton Children's Books in New York.

Kleven is the author of several award-winning books including "Abuela," "The Paper Princess," "Hooray, A Pinata," "The Puddle Pail," and, most recently, "Monster in the House."

She specializes in mixed media collages, combining watercolor, ink, colored pencil and scraps of cloth and paper.

"I never attended art school, but learned a lot from my mother and grandmother, both of whom were artists," she said.

"When I was a kid I thought books dropped out of a machine, shiny and perfect," she added. So she handed around examples of her raw work, which she called dummy books, before they reached the "shiny and perfect" stage.

"This is the hardest part for me," she said, explaining that she writes the story first in the dummy book, then puts in the illustrations and tries to decide where the type goes and where the art goes.

"It's pretty intuitive and spontaneous at the beginning," she said. "My work grows out of my childhood activities when I made paper dolls and doll houses. I loved taking things and transforming them ... like taking stamps and turning them into portraits for the doll house, taking corks and turning them into butter churns. Today, I make a little miniature world in each book."

Kleven used to be a grade-school teacher but now she stays home and works on projects in her studio.

"Children ask me how I write and prepare books. I say the best preparation is childhood. I grew up in Los Angeles and envied the characters in the books I loved. I wished I could visit those enchanted worlds. They existed so vividly in the books I read ... so I recreated my own."

And then Kleven uttered the words that instantly transformed her into a kindred spirit: "I always remember the transition to dinnertime and how harsh it was."

That one sentence separates the book fanatic from the average reader. If you can identify with that sentiment, then you can join the club, too. Remember? You're 9 or 10 years old and you've come home from school, grabbed your favorite book of the moment, and escaped to your room. You're on your bed or under your bed or in the closet reading so intently that the outside world has ceased to exist. Suddenly, your sister or brother or mother or father is pounding on your door: "Dinner!" You read on, gulping down just a few more paragraphs or pages, waiting until just the right place to pull yourself away. "Dinner! And I'm not calling you again!" You sigh, close the book, trudge off to dinner. The return to reality is harsh, indeed.

In her latest very clever book, "Monster in the House," a young girl tells her friend about the monster that has taken over her home. Her parents completely put up with its noise, moods and disgusting eating habits. It slowly dawns on the reader that the "monster" is the new baby in the family.

"All my books are about imagination's power to transform," she said.

Kleven spoke at the conference with her editor, Donna Brooks.

Brooks told the audience how she judges the merit of any particular children's book. First, she asks herself: Would I give the book as a gift? And then she reads the book out loud at her desk to an imaginary child. She says it's very important to read the book aloud.

"Simplicity in a children's book is hard to achieve," she warns. When she opens a manuscript submission there are certain immediate things she looks for.

"I want to feel that I'm in the hands of someone who knows what they're doing," she said. "Someone who can write, someone who can use words with economy. You can tell pretty quickly by the way they structure the dialog, the action. The story should be easy to take in; it doesn't have to be sophisticated."

"I look for great characters and wonderful plots," she added. "I don't look for poetic language. Don't try to be poetic." Be economical, she instructs. Be rigorous. And never give up. Remember, editors vary dramatically in their interests, she said.

"What am I looking for? A good story," she concluded.

To inquire about ordering any of the above mentioned books from an independent bookstore,
Bogey's Books [ Click Here ]

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