I write and illustrate picture books because I've never outgrown a deep childhood urge to enter a magical world. As a child growing up in Los Angeles, I wished that my huge city could be more like the places in the books that I loved -- places where forests grew and seasons changed, where animals talked and anything was possible. I envied those characters who slid down rabbit holes, or visited with Charlotte and Wilbur, or flew with Peter Pan, or floated with Mary Poppins, or journeyed to Oz.
Elisa with beloved dog "Bella"
Painting with one of my big sisters.
Since I couldn't actually visit these wonderful worlds (except, of course, by reading), I made small imaginary worlds of my own, using the materials at hand. My favorite project was an intricate dollhouse in my closet, glimpses of which you can see in the photos below. The house was filled characters and settings which I fashioned from paper, cloth, clay, nutshells, sea shells, bread dough, even dried apples. (I had a few "bought" toys, too.) I'd lose myself for hours making up stories about these little people. I loved to make them treasures from scraps of this and that: a paper doily would become a lace tablecloth; half a walnut shell would be a baby's cozy cradle; a postage stamp would make a lovely portrait on the wall. Around the dollhouse I painted a mural, a fanciful landscape of forests, fields, mountains, blue skies - the world that I wished I could live in.
I no longer play in a dollhouse, but I'm still making miniature worlds inside my books -- inventing characters and giving them stories and settings. And I'm still using scraps to create these worlds. My creative childhood play was the most important preparation for my adult work.
Although I love creating imaginary worlds, I also enjoy drawing real places. Three of the books I've illustrated take place in big U.S. cities. ABUELA, by Arthur Dorros, is set in New York. CITY BY THE BAY, by Tricia Brown, is "a magical journey around San Francisco." And CITY OF ANGELS, by Julie Jaskol and Brian Lewis, explores my home city of L.A. The life, energy, texture and wealth of detail in cities inspire my collages.
Here are some scenes from my childhood dollhouse. I recently learned that I was creating "paracosms", a word that describes the intensely imagined and ongoing, re-visited miniature worlds some children create.
Now I make miniature worlds in picture
books instead of in a dollhouse. To see a bit more of my studio, please click here.
How I longed to churn fresh butter, like Laura and Mary in the LITTLE HOUSE books. Not having access to a butter churn, I fashioned my own tiny ones from wine corks (wholesome churn material) and cinnamon sticks. One of my paper dolls, a precursor to THE PAPER PRINCESS, can be seen industriously rolling dough on the right.
But back to books! Below is a picture of a tapestry, based on a mixed media picture I made, that hangs in the Berkeley Public Main Library's Children's Story Room. Librarian Elizabeth Overmyer invited me to work on it, and Georgia Neidorf generously funded the project, using a trust fund in memory of her young son, Max Delaware Neidorf-Weidenfeld. The kites are drawn to look like open books.
Clay provisions -- sausages, hams, squashes, apples, pumpkins, a sack of flour -- and strings of real miniature onions fill the cellar, in prepration for the harsh winter to come...
I was honored to discover that the Berkeley Public Library had made a library card featuring an image from the tapestry.
In May of 2018 I gave a TEDx Talk called "The Power of the Playful."Click here to view.
Click here to see a larger view of the tapestry.
Frequently asked questions:
How do you make your books?
Before I make finished illustrations, I make what is called a book "dummy", which is really a rough draft of the book. I plan out the book in pencil and paste in the words. I send the book dummy off to my editor, who looks it over with the art director. Once we agree that everything is okay, I go on to make the finished pictures.
What are your illustrations made with?
I use all sorts of art supplies to make my pictures: watercolor, colored pencils, ink, even crayon. I also use a lot of collage- bits and pieces of paper or material which I glue on to my pictures to give them texture and pattern.
Why do so many characters fly in your pictures and stories?
I have always wanted to fly -- really fly, like Peter Pan, not just travel in an airplane. Making my picturebook characters fly is the second best thing. (My brilliant editor at Dutton Children's Books thought I'd be a good illustrator for the story ABUELA, by Arthur Dorros, because she knew I loved to draw angels and flying people.) Many of my own stories, such as THE PAPER PRINCESS and SUN BREAD, also feature figures that fly.
Did you go to art school?
No, I went to the University of California at Berkeley where I studied literature. I also studied at Berkeley's Graduate School of Education and received a teaching credential. After teaching for several years and reading lots and lots of books to children, I realized that I wanted to make my own books.
Book illustration seemed a natural choice for me: although I had never studied art formally, I had always loved making things with my hands. I was lucky to have had both a mother and a grandmother who were artists. My mother made etchings and prints out of bits of metal and ink, and my grandmother made statues out of clay. Both of these artistic women encouraged my creativity. They often took me and my sisters and brother to museums, and gave us art supplies for birthday and holiday gifts.
My mother loved Watts Towers
and so do I. Here I am at about six, enjoying Simon Rodia's visionary creation (which I would later illustrate in the book CITY OF ANGELS.)
My grandmother, Eva Art, was a sculptor, and, like my mom, a great inspiration to me. Read my piece about her work by clicking on this link to the
Paper Tigers blog.
Etching of me and my sister made by my mother.
Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, one of AMP's founding members, with "Primer" banner.
Among many other works, my mother created this iconic image in 1965. Called "Primer," it has been exhibited and reproduced around the world, and was recently featured at the Museum of Modern Art's "Century of the Child" exhibit. The original etching was submitted to a show of miniature works, and measures less than two inches square. Later my mother donated the image to Another Mother For Peace for use as their logo. My mother said that "In such a tiny space I had to make a very big statement." And she did!
You can read more about my books by going to the following links:
Points of View: "Creating Miniature Worlds in Picture Books", published in Book Links Magazine.
My interview with Julie Danielson at her dazzling blog "Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast."
Read about where some of my ideas come from at author Tara Lazar's web site, "Writing for Kids (While Raising Them)"
To hear me discuss illustrations for the books ISLA and ABUELA click on these links to the terrific "Teaching Books" web site :
I had the honor of being featured as a U.C.Berkeley "Spotlight Alum" : please click here to read the piece.
In addition to making tiny dollhouse worlds, for many years I painted and batiked tiny scenes on eggs. The picture on the left shows me at sixteen with some of these creations. I think that my tendency to put a lot of detail into a small area comes from all those years of painting on such a tiny surface.
Please see the Portfolio page to view more eggs and other folk art.
Scenes from the California Association for Bilingual Education conference, where I was named the 2016 "CABE Artist" and had the honor of seeing my Golden Gate Bridge illustration used as the organization's featured image.
Left to right: Jan Corea, CEO, California Association for Bilingual Education, San Francisco Supervisor Jane Kim, and Karling Aguilera Fort, the President of the CABE Board of Directors