From Disney to Dream Life: Author and Illustrator Claire Keane Brings Family Magic to Her First Picture Book

by Iva-Marie Palmer

I have sons. Two wonderful sons. And though there’s a chance with the second, who’s only 5-months-old, I’ve so far had no indication that Boy Number One is ever going to sit through a princess movie with me. All things pink and purple hold little appeal for him.

And yet … when I opened Claire Keane’s beautiful first book, Once Upon a Cloud, the pages swirling with pink and purple and some kind of magic, Clark, my 4-year-old, came and snuggled up next to me. We read the book several times, following a little girl who must dream up the right gift for her mom.

Maybe Clark, who’s wont to pick a flower for me each morning as he leaves for school, identified with the heroine. Or maybe he just couldn’t help but be captivated by Keane’s gorgeous work. After all, she has a gift, one inherited and honed.

Keane, a former Disney development artist who worked on the film “Tangled,” comes from a family tradition of art and storytelling. Her father, Glen Keane, was a Disney animator for 38 years, designing iconic characters like the Beast and Aladdin. Her grandfather, Bill Keane, created the long-running and much-beloved comic strip, Family Circus.

I had the chance to ask her about the book, the relationships between mothers and daughters, and how she makes her work-life balance work.

You started this book while working on “Tangled.” What triggered the idea?

I was asked to design Rapunzel’s murals for the movie “Tangled” and I found it fitting that the murals around Rapunzel’s bed represent her dreams. So I painted Rapunzel asleep in bed floating through a night sky. It made me wonder where she was going and who she would meet in the sky. I knew I was on to something, but I didn’t know what exactly since I figured the likelihood of the idea of Rapunzel floating into space would probably not make it into the storyline of “Tangled.” That’s when I started developing the idea as my own for Once Upon a Cloud.

Do you get inspiration from your dreams, or was it just something you wanted to play with for the book?

I have found that much of my inspiration comes to me in that state in between sleep and wakefulness. It’s a magical moment [when your] thoughts are lucid and free flowing without the demands of the day weighing them down. Somehow, our day-to-day life takes hold and ironically starts hiding many of the answers that we actively seek.

It was this moment of calm that I wanted to illustrate in Once Upon a Cloud. It’s only when Celeste lays down in bed and lets her mind go that the wind comes in and carries her off to the sky, where she finds the answer she’s been searching for all day.

Was this your first time really writing alongside your art, or had you done that before?

Pretty much. It was such a wonderful experience diving into the story. My editor at the time, Nancy Conescu, was absolutely wonderful. She helped me find my good ideas, which were buried under lots of bad ones!

Coming from Disney, did you have any lessons in storytelling that you used while writing?

In animation, there is great importance placed on the clarity of the image on-screen. This clarity helps deliver the idea and emotion of the scene. Walt Disney himself and his legendary animators (called the Nine Old Men) passed down this principle and it has become critical for each step of the animation process.

This goal of visual clarity has greatly informed how I work. For Once Upon a Cloud, I wanted the images to tell the story with as few words as possible.

Disney plays a part in your family legacy, as does capturing the ways of children (as with Family Circus): Were there lessons handed down from your father or grandfather that helped you?

Yes! Observation has been key to the success of my father and grandfather’s work. My granddad took inspiration from my dad and his brothers and sisters to create Family Circus. And my dad found inspiration in my mom, my brother, and me to create [his] characters for Disney. For instance, he found the inspiration for Tarzan’s fluid, unique way of moving through the trees because he’d been drawing my brother and his friends skateboarding.

In Once Upon a Cloud, I had a hard time finding the sincerity in the last illustration where Celeste gives her mom the bouquet. It kept feeling a little overly sentimental and cheesy. Then I remembered that my dad always told me the best way to find the sincerity in what you are illustrating is to observe the life around you and draw from the truth that you find there. So I was watching my daughter, who was five at the time, and noticed how I could not sit on the ground for more than a few seconds before she’d be climbing on my back. When she would give me something, she would always take the most complex path to do it — she wouldn’t just hand me something. It suddenly seemed natural to me that Celeste would be jumping on her mom’s back to give her the bouquet.

The next book I am working on is directly about my kids and so I will [keep] my family’s tradition of stealing from our kids alive and well!

In your book, the mother is being celebrated and honored. It’s not always that way in Disney films. What did you want to say about the mother-daughter relationship?

The mother-daughter relationship is a very big, important one in a girl’s life — it can easily become the main plot in a story that is about something else completely. I never set out to create a story about a mother and daughter, but while developing the story about Celeste searching for the perfect gift, I quickly realized that love is the ultimate perfect gift. What better way to describe the idea of love than through the simple loving acts that children receive every day from their parents?

Each of the characters that Celeste meets in the sky share with her a moment that represents the way parents show their children love. Kids want our time and attention, so when Celeste meets the Stars they shower her with attention [by] playing dress-up, the way her mother might. And when she meets the Moon, he spends time talking and reading to her the way her mother might do before bed. And finally when she meets the Sun, she’s comforted by her warmth and nourishment, the way she has undoubtedly been by her mother since the day she was born.

Many of the wonderful things we experience with our mothers are often taken for granted and I wanted to pinpoint those moments in Once Upon a Cloud and give Celeste a chance to reciprocate that love in the bouquet she would eventually choose as her mother’s gift.

You have two children. We always talk about finding balance between work and children, but in your field, how does having children help or inspire you?

I have found that I have, ironically, become much more productive since having my two children. I think it may have to do with the focused energy that having less time has put on me. Anything that is taking me away from time spent with my kids needs to be serving a real creative and soulful purpose in my life. This leads me to more enriching endeavors and shines a laser-focused light on what I need to get done in order to get back to my family at the end of the day.

And now you can tell us about the balance. When do you find time to work? How do you make time?

Well, I have tried to [work and mother] at the same time, but I found that both my work and the quality of time spent with my kids was suffering as a result. So now I have a full-time nanny who my kids adore. Without her I would get nothing done! She adds a regularity and structure to my life that keeps me focused on what needs to get done. However, there is always this constant, tug-of-war feeling. I was complaining about it to my dad one day, and he reassured me by explaining that the tug is exactly the nature of balance — it’s when we aren’t feeling the tug and pull that something has gone slack and knocks you off balance. I’m learning to appreciate the taut line of rope between work and family.

Your family legacy seems to have influenced you as you pursued artistic endeavors. What words of advice do you have for parents of artistic children?

I was very much influenced by watching my dad and granddad work at their craft with love and dedication. I watched my dad draw and animate. He would start a drawing or a scene, struggle at it, start over and work at it until it was great. That taught me at a very young age that it’s okay to mess up. It’s part of the process. So I messed up a lot!

I believe that simply having a parent that is passionate about his/her work and shares that passion with his/her children is a real asset to a child’s growth into becoming an independent person who will go on to pursue his/her dreams, whatever they may be. Artistic careers take a lot of personal introspection. I think that giving your children the opportunity to get lost inside their own world is key to helping them find themselves and what they love. What more could we wish for than to see our children do what they love and be happy?


Claire Keane is known for her work as a visual development artist at Walt Disney Animation Studios. She lives in Los Angeles, California, with her husband and kids. Once Upon a Cloud is her debut picture book.