Seattle's Child

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Author profile: Nina Laden

Author Nina Laden holds her most recent book The Trainbow. It hits bookshelves Aug. 16.

Author Profile: The Day I Followed Nina Laden

Beloved children's book author and illustrator is inspired by life and nature on Lummi Island.

Nina Laden has a little house on a little island. 

Looking at her house from the outside (after taking a 7-minute ride on a quaint ferry from the mainland just north of Bellingham to little Lummi Island) you might think it’s nothing exotic or special. Just an ordinary little house on an ordinary little island . . .

That is, until you step inside this art- and nature-filled cocoon and into conversation with Laden, the award-winning author of more than two dozen children’s picture and board books. Laden is a gale force of creative energy, a vivacity found not only in her writing and illustrations, but in her planting, foraging, cooking, kayaking and the other passions of her life. Beloved by children (and parents) around the world, Laden’s books include “The Night I Followed the Dog,” “Peek-a-Who,” “When Pigasso Met Mootisse,” “Roberto the Insect Architect,” “Once Upon a Memory,” “Dear Little One,” and  “Yellow Kayak.” 

Book 27: “The Trainbow”

On August 16, Laden’s 27th children’s book, an accordion-style board book called “The Trainbow” will hit bookstore shelves. 

In small and sometimes larger ways, Laden says her works are reflections of her own art-centered but chaotic childhood as well as, in recent years, the island world she now inhabits. 

A world of imagination

A world of eclectic art, hand-tooled furnishings and homegrown food greet you at the door to Laden’s cottage where the author is as eager to talk about gardening and mushroom hunting as she is about story. Clay moonshine jugs, a sculpture made of porcelain arm molds once used for making rubber gloves, and her mother’s abstract paintings all speak to the artist’s whimsy, as does the absence of any of her own illustrations from the living space she shares with her husband, Booth. A wall of windows brings the Puget Sound and island greenery into the house. While they’ve had their Lummi house for 20 years, the couple finally moved here permanently from Seattle five years ago.

In Laden’s detached studio, the shelves are packed with polished stones, sticks and wormwood, beachcombing finds and items foraged from the nearby woods. The walls hold pieces of her father’s art, her own work and that of many talented friends and parents. Small toys and memorabilia from her own childhood are lodged in corners and cases.  The bookshelves and cubbies are packed with books, drawers are stuffed with transcripts and drawings, drafting tables stand at the ready and arocking chair sits waiting for Laden’s many, many ideas.

Nina Laden

A sea of inspiration in Nina Laden’s studio.

Every idea is a good one

In fact, no idea is thrown away. If a potential story or book idea is rejected by a publisher, it simply gets stored in the bottom drawer of Laden’s antique flat files to be revisited or re-thought.

“You never know where the seed of that great idea is going to be,” says Laden. “My mom taught me this. She told me never to erase. She told me to turn it into something else, it’ll make you a better artist to figure out what to turn something into. I believe in that.”

Laden, who describes herself as a precocious child, started telling stories when she was two. At age 5 she wrote and illustrated her first book titled “Circles Have Reasons to be Happy.” She keeps a copy to remind herself of the joy of holding that first solid creation. All through childhood the stories flowed through her. She remembers sitting and speaking stories into her family’s reel-to-reel tape deck. By age 9, an assignment from her teacher turned into a colorful book that sealed her fate: 

A work she knew she had to do

“I knew right then that I wanted to be a children’s book author and illustrator,” she says. Looking back, Laden now recognizes that without ever having been taught the classic storytelling structure of the Hero’s Journey that her 9-year-old book included all the elements of this common narrative archetype.

Where did they come from? I don’t know, I think I just channeled it,” Laden says. “I grew up just feeling like I always was a storyteller and books were in me and I had to do the whole book – I had to design it, draw it, write it, do the title.”

Storytelling from experience

Laden’s own childhood was rife with chaos. Her parents were both artists and both suffered from bipolar disorder. Her experience – and her ability to cope with chaos through imagination – lives at the heart of all of her work. The Humphrey Bogart-like dog character in her first published book, “The Night I Following My Dog,” was inspired by watching the film “Casablanca”countless times during her formative years with her mother. After sitting on the shelf for four years, the story of how Laden connected with her first book publicist and into print with Chronicle Books is a story as magical as the movie she watched so many times in childhood.

With the publication of “The Trainbow,” Laden offers another piece of child self to her youngest readers. The rainbow-colored train was inspired by a piece of art drawn by Laden at age 6. 

The Trainbow Laden drew around age 6.

What’s next for Nina Laden?

Laden is currently working on a graphic novel for young adults that pulls from her own experiences growing up with mental illness in the family. And she has written and illustrated a book about one of her favorite topics, foraging for mushrooms. She hopes that book will make its way into the world soon.

Thoughtful, wise, generous, Laden had a lot to say about overcoming challenges, following the muse of imagination and embracing one’s child self. Here are excerpts from that conversation:

SC: Were you a reader when you were young?

Laden: Always. I loved picture books.Honestly, I just loved books, period. We lived around the corner from the New York Public Library in Queens, and I pretty much lived there. 

SC: What illustrated book was most inspiring to you as a child?

Laden: I still have some of my childhood books here. It’s hard to pick just one but if I had to I guess the one I most loved when I was really little was probably “Harold and the Purple Crayon,” because I loved going into my imagination and that’s what Harold did, went into his imagination. I loved “Where the Wild Things Are,” which, of course, is a classic. I’ve been into comics since I was a kid. Then later in my career, I was so inspired by “The Polar Express.” I remember saying to myself ‘This is a perfect picture book.’ 

SC: Your stories often touch on resilience and overcoming challenges. How does this reflect your own experience?

Laden: I used to say that words and pictures saved me. These were my ways of coping with all of the problems that I was going through in childhood that I didn’t understand. There was just a lot of chaos and I used my imagination to escape from that. It’s interesting to me that my favorite books were about characters that ran away. One was “Madeline and the Gypsies.” And another was “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.” I wanted to be Claudia. They had to do with escaping, being independent and then coming back. Even “Harold” has a little of that – he goes into his imagination and creates his own world.”

SC: When you talk to kids about your stories and storytelling, what do you most want them to hear?

Laden: First, I want kids to realize that they can escape into a book. And I want them to realize that making worlds between two covers is a way to have control over a story and, in a way, over the uncontrollable things in their lives. I was visiting a school in Oregon and a little girl came up to me in the hall randomly and told me ‘Every time you open a book, a little magic falls out.’ I believe that and I’m glad that she recognized it. 

What I really focus on when I talk to kids in schools is that you can do this, make these worlds, and journaling is the way to start. I had sketchbooks as a kid and I tell the kids I meet that they should always write everything down and keep it. I tell them that they should never tear pages out. You never know where that seed for a great idea will come from.

SC: Where did the idea of holding onto all your ideas – even the ones you first think are a failure – came from?

Laden: I remember walking up to my mom saying, ‘I screwed this drawing up.’ I didn’t use those words. But I felt I messed up my idea. She told me ‘No, you didn’t. Just turn it into something else. Just keep creating.’ I always loved that mistakes didn’t matter. I didn’t get hung up – and I still don’t – on having to be perfect. 

SC: Is that something you think gets in the way of kids expressing themselves in art?

Laden: Yes, it is something I see in a lot of kids. They’re hung up on it having to be perfect. Most of the time that impulse doesn’t come from the parents. It’s inside a child. I’ve had teachers tell me ‘You know that’s just a part of some of us, this fear that we are not going to make it look like we imagined it to look.’

I think they have to learn to let go, that it’s okay to just play with an idea. Who cares if it’s goofy? Who cares if it’s not like real life.?I would laugh at my own drawings when I was growing up: ‘Oh, look, I gave you two left hands!’ Letting go is a learning curve. We’re just learning all the time.

SC: Your books are full of wonderful word play and funny insights. Where do those come from?

Laden: As I grew older, I loved sophisticated books. My mother did this to me on purpose – starting me reading Edward Lear when I was a just kid. I loved his nonsense. 

She also got me to read James Thurber. I never forgot his type of sophisticated humor, even though I don’t know that I got it entirely. Both of my parents had bipolar disorder and wordplay is one of its hallmarks. My father was someone who turned everything into wordplay. Growing up I quickly figured out ‘Oh, that’s a double entendre’ and ‘Aha! That’s a triple entendre.’ I grew up understanding wordplay naturally because it was what was in my home. 

Years and years later, I finally realized that this was a sign of my father’s mental disorder and that I was using it as a defense mechanism in dating to keep people away from me.

 I used wordplay naturally when I wrote my earlier books [“Roberto the Insect Architect” has a lot of wordplay]  but then I started pulling away from doing it because I saw that was pulling me out of true conversation.

SC: How do you so easily speak right to the heart of kids and to such a wide range of ages and stages?

Laden: I just think like a child – for better or worse. I know for me what works and I love to put myself in that space, always experimenting. I’m curious, always trying new art materials. Anything I can find on the beach or wherever can be an art supply. This probably came from growing up with artist parents. Everything’s inspirational. Every sense is important, actually.

SC: Have picture books changed much since you first published “The Night I Followed My Dog” in 1998?

Laden: Picture books have changed so much since I began working in children’s books. Back then they were actually stories, story books. “The Night I Followed the Dog” has about 900 words — it’s a story. And in “Romeow and Drooliet” I wrote almost 1,500 words. Now when it comes to picture books publishers want maybe 200. That doesn’t tell stories. Today kids are being pushed into chapter books faster and I believe this change is why there is such a love of graphic novels in the middle grades – because kids were pushed out of picture books. You read graphic novels because you love pictures.

SC: How does nature and especially your home on Lummi Island inspire your work?

Laden: This studio is my little island within the island and that has made me feel like I can be at home and create whatever I want. And that has made me feel free. All the things I need are here. This place has gotten me through the pandemic in a huge way, it’s my refuge. The beach and the huge network of trails that are near here are my walking meditation. My best ideas come when I’m walking. I actually wrote “Once Upon a Memory” on the beach here. “If I had a Little Dream ” was written while I was making blackberry jam, and I wrote it on post notes next to the stove. 

Nature is so important to me. I free myself and get lost in my head while looking for agates or in the woods looking for mushrooms. And then the ideas come. Being in nature gives you clarity in a way that nothing else does.

Read more on Seattle’s Child:

“27 wonderful children’s books and outings to go with them”

About the Author

Cheryl Murfin

Cheryl Murfin is managing editor at Seattle's Child. She is also a certified doula, lactation educator for NestingInstinctsSeattle.com and a certified AWA writing workshop facilitator at Compasswriters.com.