Author-Illustrator Spotlight: Elisa Kleven

© Elisa Kleven

Dec. 9, 2016

Today we feature author-illustrator Elisa Kleven, as part of the blog tour for her new book, THE HORRIBLY HUNGRY GINGERBREAD BOY (Heyday).  Be sure to enter her giveaway for a copy! 

Please tell us about yourself and how you came to write and illustrate for children

I grew up in L.A., went to U.C. Berkeley at age seventeen, and have lived in the Bay Area for most of my life. As a teenager,  I lived on a farm in Denmark with my adopted Danish family, and on a kibbutz in Israel, and I have relatives in Norway and friends in Italy, England, France and Japan. Although I didn't study art formally, it has always been a part of my life:  My grandmother and mother were both artists, and   I've always  loved making things with my hands.

© Elisa Kleven

I used to create tiny characters out of clay, paper, and other scraps, build intricate miniature worlds for them to live in. When I grew up, I didn't stop making characters, stories and settings, but now, instead of living in dollhouse worlds,  they live between the covers of my books.

Congratulations on your latest book, THE HORRIBLY HUNGRY GINGERBREAD BOY. What inspired it?

As a child, I was fascinated by the original  Gingerbread Boy story.  I loved the pictures of the exuberant cookie child coming to life and running out into the world. However, the story's ending spooked and saddened me. I felt sorry for the trusting gingerbread boy, who was tricked by the hungry fox. And I felt badly for his maker, the little old woman who, wanting a child of her own, lovingly made one out of dough, only to lose him almost immediately.

So many years later, I gave the tale my own twist, and a happy ending. The gingerbread boy isn't eaten, but eats! (Everyone always wants to eat the gingerbread boy, but what does HE want to eat?) After much gluttony, defiance, and naughtiness, my gingerbread boy learns to trust and love. When Shirley, the little girl who made him, promises not to eat him, he promises not to eat everything else, and the two go home to bake cookies and enjoy fun and cozy times together.

© Elisa Kleven

I set my story in San Francisco, a city I never get tired of looking at and exploring, and a great "food town." Not only is the city home to much wonderful food and drink, but it also looks delicious, with its brightly painted Victorian houses (sometimes called "Gingerbread Houses"), and its luscious whipped-cream like fog. It was fun to set my gingerbread boy loose in the city and let him eat his fill!

As an author and an illustrator, which comes first, the words or the images?

Sometimes the images come first, and sometimes the words do. In the case of THE HORRIBLY HUNGRY GINGERBREAD BOY, the story came first. I think I've been carrying around the urge to leaven the story that struck me as so tragic since I was a small -- and perhaps hypersensitive-- kid! 

© Elisa Kleven

What is your illustration process? 

Using reference photos and imagination, I draw sketches and make a dummy book (a rough draft of the finished book.) 

reference photo from San Francisco's Chinatown © Elisa Kleven

Sketch © Elisa Kleven
© Elisa Kleven
Once the publisher's art director, designer and editor have a chance to review and approve my roughs, I move on to the finished art. I create my pictures by hand, using a combination of watercolor, ink, colored pencil, gouache, and collage materials -- everything from origami paper to scraps of newspaper to paper doilies.

Reference photo © Elisa Kleven

© Elisa Kleven
What projects are you working on now?

I'm working on a few new stories, including one about a variety of sea creatures.
What advice would you give to aspiring authors and illustrators?

Look at, study, and read a wide variety of picture books (and other books as well, including poetry.)  

Attend conferences and workshops.  

Join the SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators.) 

Believe in yourself.  

Question why you want to make a book for children.  

It's very hard work and it usually doesn't pay well, especially at the beginning, and sometimes never. Must you tell your story or stories and bring your visions to the world?  If so,"follow your bliss" and go for it!

© Elisa Kleven

What is one thing most people don't know about you?  

I have synesthesia, which means that I attach colors to letters, numbers and sounds. For example, I think of the letter "c" as being  a shiny, clear gold, and the number three as pink. 

© Elisa Kleven

Where can people find you online?

My web site is and I am on Facebook, too.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Elisa Kleven has illustrated 34 picture books, half of which she also wrote. Her joyful stories and intricate collage illustrations  have received many awards and honors. Her books THE PAPER PRINCESS, HOORAY, A PI√ĎATA, and THE LION AND THE LITTLE RED BIRD have been adapted for children's theater productions in the U.S. and Europe, and her illustrations from  ABUELA, by Arthur Dorros, are currently being featured in "Storyland,"  an exhibit  of seven classic picture books,  touring Children's Museums nationwide.

Elisa received her BA in literature  at the University of California at Berkeley, where also studied at Berkeley's Graduate School of Education. Elisa lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband, daughter, son, dog, and cats. To learn more about Elisa please visit her web site:

Be sure to visit the rest of the book tour:

12/7/16 : We Bloom Here/Margaret Bloom
12/8/16 : Wee Folk Studio/Salley Mavor


  1. I am just about to take my first trip to San Fran and want this book. Love how you turned this well-known tap eon it's head in such a fun way, Elisa. Congrats.

  2. Oh lovely! I always found the ending of the Gingerbread Boy so sad and unfair and I think my grandchildren will love this version (just hoping they haven't got it yet!)

  3. I love the illustrations! Such a fun book!

  4. Thank you so much for a wonderful interview and post, Sylvia. My hungry gingerbread boy and I are honored to appear on your blog!

  5. I can't wait to read this--I love the illustration of the gingerbread boy eating the street! I'm trying to read many picture books so when I try to write my idea, I have lots of inspiration in my head.

  6. What a lovely looking book! I can't wait to read it with my children.

  7. I've always loved the bright colors of your illustrations, Elisa. SNOWSONG WHISTLING is my favorite, and is very appropriate for a snowy weekend in the Midwest. Congratulations on THE HORRIBLY HUNGRY GINGERBREAD BOY!

  8. I can't wait to read your book! It looks amazizng!

  9. This looks so fun! Thank you for reimagining the gingerbread boy :)

  10. Wow it is interesting. I need to read it!