A lineage of Berkeley women: Elisa Kleven on ‘the power of the playful’

Elisa Kleven/Courtesy

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As a young girl, Elisa Kleven spent hours on end with her self-made dollhouse and dolls, or “old-fashioned girls,” as she liked to call them. She continued to nurture her creativity at UC Berkeley, where she won numerous poetry and English awards as a student. Elisa Kleven is now the author and illustrator of dozens of children’s books. She’s also given a TEDx Talk called “The Power of the Playful,” very much speaking to the childlike spirit she’s never lost.

In light of celebrating 150 years of women at UC Berkeley, I had the honor of interviewing Elisa Kleven, class of 1981, to learn a bit of her story: the Berkeley, the “playful” and the family of UC Berkeley women she’s a part of. Her mother, Lorraine Schneider, class of 1944, was a fierce activist and created the iconic image of a flower with the words “War is not healthy for children and other living things” during the Vietnam War in 1965. And her daughter, Mia Kleven, class of 2013, is currently a third grade teacher at Bridges Academy in Oakland and a former coordinator for the children’s literacy nonprofit Reading Partners.

Elisa Kleven/Courtesy

Although in different decades and with different pursuits, Lorraine, Elisa and Mia all attended UC Berkeley as part of their intellectual journey. An enriching college career and a certain drive reach across each generation. The questions below that I’ve asked Elisa Kleven begin to illuminate how her passions, UC Berkeley, her mother and her daughter are a part of the life she has lived.

The Daily Californian: How would you describe your childhood self? What did you love to do most?

Elisa Kleven: I loved to make things. I was sensitive, loved animals and loved to read. I was very inspired by the books I read. I wanted to stay inside the books when I finished them. I would read a fairytale and want to be in (that) world. I wanted to keep playing in there. Like Mary Poppins. I would make my own kinds of wonderlands and neverlands. … (And) my dollhouse. I felt like I was an author, writing about my characters. Every day I’d go there and make a new adventure. They had names and personalities.

When I started to grow up I worried I was doing something baby-ish. But I’ve learned that some authors and illustrators did the same thing. Like E.B. White. … That’s the essence of fantasy, and children do it naturally. Authors and artists hold onto that their whole life. Whether you’re published or not, that childlike sense of wonder and playful(ness) doesn’t leave you. People who work with children are like that. I want to keep that alive in people. So many of the problems in the world are because of a failure of imagination and empathy. It’s natural for children, I think. They have imaginations and show empathy. They don’t see differences between themselves and creatures and toys.

DC: What was the most difficult and the most wonderful thing about your college experience at UC Berkeley?

EK: I remember feeling very overwhelmed and scared when I first got there. I was in these giant lecture classes. Luckily, I had a wonderful roommate. I felt a little freaked out by the hugeness, but that got better as I got to know people (and) I made connections with different professors. I remember feeling really lost. I got to know brilliant and wonderful individuals. That helped a lot. Berkeley does not coddle people. When I started in 1976, you had to be sort of a survivor and know how to find things and be resourceful. But if you’re willing to do that, it pays off wonderfully.

Elisa Kleven/Courtesy

DC: How was your experience at UC Berkeley similar to that of your mother and daughter?

EK: Unfortunately, my mother died when I was 14, but she always talked glowingly of (UC) Berkeley. I have a picture of her under Sather Gate in her saddle shoes during World War II. She loved it in Berkeley. She was in a co-op, the same one my daughter ended up in. I got the general feeling she adored Berkeley. I don’t remember specific stories in all honesty.

My daughter had an overlap with me but also her own. Like me, she loved literature classes; we both got teaching credentials at (UC) Berkeley. I got high school and she got elementary credentials from the Graduate School of Education. She too made her best friends at (UC) Berkeley. She has a very tight group. She did junior year in France. It expanded her world.

DC: What are your thoughts on UC Berkeley today? How is it similar and different from when you studied here?

EK: (It) still seems to have the same kind of energy. You feel energized on campus. It’s just an exciting place to be. I know that some of my professors are still there. Carol Christ was there as a professor. I used to do day care for her children. I’ve always loved kids. I worked at a preschool when I was still a student or would babysit for professors. Like Professor Janet Adelman. I used to regularly take care of her two little boys. You see the more human side of people, see (the professors) as mothers. Brilliant, accomplished women could be good moms and do the best for kids.

DC: How would you describe your mother? How would you describe your daughter?

EK: My mother was pretty unconventional. Her art was more jagged and bold. She did prints and etchings. They weren’t soft and whimsical like mine. She was very political. She did a very famous anti-war poster. She expressed political views through art more than I do. She was kind of fearless. Very energetic, very passionate. She was a great person. … Had a great eye. She would take discarded pieces of junk and make art.

Elisa Kleven/Courtesy

My daughter is also more assertive than I am, in a very nice way. Very forthright. Can focus really well and a really good writer. She’s very analytical. She has a penetrating look at the world and an amazing warm heart. A good combination. She chose to work at the more impoverished school because she felt they needed her. Very altruistic. Also very other-oriented. Close with her friends, and a very steadfast person. 

DC: “The Paper Princess” was a favorite book of my sister and I growing up. What was your inspiration for this story?

EK: This is kind of dark, but it grew out of my own feelings about being unfinished when my mother passed away. I didn’t realize the metaphor until after I wrote it, that it was a story of myself. The paper doll, the girl who’s an artist. She creates this doll, but it blows away before she’s finished. (It) came out of a lot of darkness. I think all fairytales are some aspect of the human condition. I was raised, I was created by an imaginative artist — though I wasn’t a prissy princess. I had to go off before I was completed and find my way in the world. The ending is wishful. I come home again. I wrote my own happy ending. I didn’t want to scare kids. … Children crave richness and depth. I wanted it to be rich and have some resonance. All my stories have happy endings.

DC: You gave a TEDx Talk called, “The Power of the Playful.” Can you tell me where this idea comes from and why you think it’s important?

EK: (It comes from) the power of imagination to change the world. I talked about my grandmother who was a sculptor. She and her sister escaped Ukraine, and her whole family was wiped out by Nazis. … With imagination, she made something beautiful out of the terrible grief. She brought people back when she resurrected them in art.

Picture Puffins/Courtesy

And then I talked about my mother and her tiny little “Primer.” (It) was only two inches and donated to a peace group. It became a big statement. It helped bring about the end of the Vietnam War. They used it in protests and marches. That too was an example of playful art able to make real change in the world.

(In the TEDx Talk) I also touched on when I had an experience with a child at the Children’s Hospital in Oakland who had leukemia. I think (“The Paper Princess”) resonated with her because there aren’t many characters who are bald. I met (with) her the whole last year of her life. I would visit her a couple times a week. We did art together. … She was conquering a bleak existence. Between chemo drips, she would be making art. A powerful spirit, beating back darkness. At the place where her ashes are kept, her parents asked if I could make her a paper princess. That’s the power of the playful right there, too. It can be powerful and comforting.

DC: To you, what does it mean to be a woman at UC Berkeley? Do you have anything to say to the women currently here?

EK: I wasn’t good at owning my accomplishments. We all should. I think (of) these things we’re slighted for having. (People say we’re) too emotional. If we were more emotional, and fought with our hearts, the world would be a lot better. Emotions don’t preclude having a good intellect and mind. Just like I felt ashamed of my imagination when I was in school. We should not be ashamed of our gifts, but own them proudly.

Contact Kathryn Kemp at [email protected].