Children’s author Larissa Theule ’01 fell in love with picture books in a season of uncertainty. She moved to Chicago with a Calvin friend shortly after 9-11, but describes living in the city and looking for work in the aftermath of that national tragedy “a little scary.”
In 2004, seeking new opportunities, Theule returned to her parents’ home in Rochester, New York, where she started working with kids in a variety of capacities. During that time, Theule’s mother, “a wonderful storyteller, in her own right,” shared a curated collection of picture books with her daughter.
“My mom has a gift for understanding what makes a story beautiful. She found ones that were more obscure, often translations, and shared them with me. I grew to love the picture book format, the sweet and powerful dance between text and illustrations. But it didn’t register with me yet that I could write books of my own.”
Theule, who has lived in 11 different states and countries, met her husband, Philip, while in Rochester. After marrying, they moved to Boston and then China, during which time Theule earned master’s degrees in both education and creative writing. Today, she resides in California with her husband and two children. She is the author of seven published children’s books, with three more scheduled for release next year.
Theule’s Calvin story begins with her parents—teachers and missionaries—who met and married at the university. Attending Calvin, she says, “felt like a natural segue.” However, going to school stateside, after growing up overseas, came with challenges. She says she met wonderful people at Calvin, who helped her through that rocky season.
“I found real homes in the English and theater departments. James Vanden Bosch taught me to love literature, but I also admired his general magnanimity and openness to the unconventional. I wanted to live like that, too.” She also remembers the way theater professor Michael Page “encouraged me to weave life and art in a way that works for who I am—an ongoing journey.” During late-night shifts as a campus switchboard operator, Theule discovered her artistic north star, Madeleine L’Engle, the beloved author of A Wrinkle in Time. “If you worked the night shift, nobody called. So, I read a lot, and I read Walking on Water for the first time in that switchboard room.”
She still revisits L’Engle’s memoir about faith and writing at least once a year and believes, as L’Engle did, that “children are far more capable readers than they’re given credit for, as they’re open to life and new ideas in ways grown-ups have forgotten.”
Theule’s work has received wide acclaim, including her picture book Kafka and the Doll, which was recognized on Booklist’s 2021 Top Ten Historical Fiction for Youth. It tells the true story of an unlikely friendship between a young girl and twentieth-century German writer, Franz Kafka. “It’s really a story about grief,” says Theule, whose books exemplify her belief that stories help children process and appreciate complexity. Her newly released picture book Mouseboat also explores grief through a child’s eyes, with lyrical language and poignant illustrations. Other books celebrate nature, friendship, determination, and invention.
Theule describes her body of work as “love underscored.” Her stories speak to readers of all ages and call them to remember that “we belong to one another in this life, and we should take care of each other.”
Meeting her young readers during school visits is a definite perk to being a writer. “I really like talking with kids. I like their easy joy,” she says. School visits also allow kids to learn about being an author. “Kids realize, ‘Oh, that’s a job! Maybe I could write books one day.’ And I hope they do!” Whether she’s crafting stories about caring for others, paying attention to the world, or being brave, Larissa Theule says she feels “grateful.”
“It’s an honor to be a part of growing a child’s love for the world.”