Illustrator Interview- Nina Laden

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NinaLadenJuly13highres[JD] Warning- Those with studio-envy should not read on!

Nina is someone I feel I have connected to on so many levels, and we haven’t even met yet. I do believe in one facebook exchange, I offered to be her tour guide if she ever visits Southern France and she offered to take me kayaking around her island! My first encounter with Nina Laden’s work was as a school librarian and one of her earlier humorous picture books, WHEN PIGASSO MET MOOTISSE. Living as I did in SE France in spitting distance from some of the favorite haunts of both Matisse and Picasso, this book jumped off the library shelves into my arms. I reviewed it here.

Illustrator or author/illustrator, and if both, do words or pictures come first?

[NL] Author and Illustrator: (great question!) For me, it is always “story” that comes first, but often that story begins with a character and I’ll have a picture in my mind of “who” that character is. With my new book, “Once Upon A Memory” it began with one line. I found an eagle feather on a beach walk, and I wondered, “Does a feather remember it once was a bird?” That one line set me off on a journey which became the book. It was all words, but it was also all concepts, too.

[JM] What’s your nationality and which and how have certain cultures/regions influenced your work?

[NL] I am American- born, raised in New York City, but I now live in Seattle, and on Lummi Island in Washington State. My ancestry is Russian, Polish and Austria-Hungarian. (Basically I’m Prussian.) I speak French and love French culture and I also speak some Spanish and love Mexico. I’m more influenced by artists (my parents were both fine artists) and I have an extensive art background- but I also love so many cultures and regions because of my deep love of food! Honestly, everything influences me. I am always learning and I am hungry to experience new things whether it is through reading, the arts, food, or travel- which I don’t have as much time to do as I wish.

[JM] Tell us a little of your beginnings and journey as an artist.

[NL] My parents were both abstract expressionist artists. My mother, who was my biggest mentor, was a painter, but she worked in all mediums. She also wrote poetry. My father is a sculptor and a retired twice-Oscar-nominated special effects make-up artist. I started drawing from the moment I could hold a crayon, and I literally started making books when I was two years old: I would fold paper and tell my mom the story. She would write it down and I’d illustrate it. Art (and books) were always part of my life.

[JM] Have there been any pivotal events/situations in your life that have impacted your creativity?

[NL] Fasten your seatbelt. I may have been lucky to have such creative parents, but they were also both mentally ill. Both of my parents have/had bipolar disorder. My father left my mother, my brother, and me when I was eleven. He ran off with my brother’s first grade teacher, who disliked me immensely. (Long story there.) My mother didn’t even know how to drive. We had a very difficult life living at poverty level. My mom didn’t have any health insurance (we didn’t either) and she died of cancer just after I graduated from college. I’ve been working since I was eleven so that I would have my own money. My mom wanted me to be a fine artist, but I saw how that was for her, and I vowed to be creative, support myself and have health insurance.

There have also been other experiences that have made me look deeper into my own creativity and how it has “saved my life:” I was very lucky to not have bipolar disorder, but in 1997 I went into major clinical depression, while I was painting my book, “When Pigasso Met Mootisse.” My chiropractor, Dr. John Beasley diagnosed the depression and got me help. (He saved me in so many ways.) I learned a lot about myself, my work- and about mental illness through that process and I’m so proud to have successfully treated it so that I can continue to be creative.

There is more, but I don’t want to write my memoir here!

[JM] Do you have a preferred medium to work in?

[NL] I love art materials. I like the book to tell me “how it wants to be illustrated.” I’ve loved using pastels, gouache, scratchboard, mixed-media collage, and Holbein Acryla gouache. I also love pen and ink and watercolors, pencils, litho crayons, linoleum cutting… the only thing I don’t like is digital art. It doesn’t have a “soul,” to me. Hands on is best. (I know some folks are amazing at it, I’m just an “old dog.”)

[JM] What does your workspace look like? 

[NL] I use a bedroom in my city home as an office, and I have a shed in that backyard which is my studio. (My home is a 1903 pioneer home.) (I’ll attach some photos) I built the studio of my dreams at our island home, but I still have not been able to move into it due to deadlines and family crises. I hope to be working there soon.


Old Studio, Ballard






Studio - Interior

Studio – Interior

Soon-to-be new Studio

Soon-to-be new Studio

















[JM] I think the whole food-porn thing on FB is a little overdone (pun intended), however, I am a huge fan of your gathering, growing and cooking pics. Is this an integral part of your creativity?

[NL] Food porn? Hah. Food art! Yes, food: growing it, cooking it, preserving it, sharing it is part of my grounding. In my very unstable childhood my mom could not cook. Food was a nightmare for me. I learned a lot watching my Russian grandmother who never let anything go to waste. I needed good food and I realized very young that I was going to have to learn how to create it in order to survive. I have this “making everything from scratch” DNA, which also seems to include being a “gatherer/forager.” I’ve been that way since I can remember. I try desperately to keep myself healthy because my parents are/were not. I’m actually planning on using food as the thread to tie together a graphic memoir I plan on creating.

[JM] I love the idea of a food-thread memoir. I have very similar passion for great food and a growing/gathering, and I see where this comes from in my childhood, too.

Can you share a piece or two with us, maybe of a WIP, and the process of creating them?

[NL] This is a tough question. I always have many, many works in progress. My next book, “Once Upon A Memory” publishes December 3rd, 2013 with Little, Brown & Company. (I have an adult novel that I have not sold yet, called “JACKED.” I have a first draft of a Middle Grade novel, and I have dozens of picture books, and a few board books in various stages of development.) It will be the easiest to talk about my upcoming book.

Does a feather remember it once was a bird?                                                      Does a book remember it once was a word?                                                          Does a chair remember it once was a tree?                                                              Does a garden remember it once was a pea?


Does an author/illustrator remember the journey she took to get a book published? Oh, yes, she does!

I was mostly known for writing and illustrating funny, multi-layered and whimsical children’s books like “The Night I Followed the Dog,” “When Pigasso Met Mootisse” and “Roberto the Insect Architect.” (And my million-selling board book, “Peek-A Who?”) But I didn’t have any picture books come out after 2005 due to some very horrible family situations that kept me from doing what I loved. I wrote through that time, though, including a 300+ page novel, and I wrote the poem that became “Once Upon A Memory.”

The original title of the poem was “Does A Feather Remember?” I walk on the beach to ground myself- it is like a walking meditation, and the day that I started this poem, I had to run back to my house to write it down before I forgot it. After working through the poem, I thought it would be a board book, so I started sketching and created a board book dummy, which I sent to my editor at Chronicle Books (my home for twenty years now) to see what she would say. It didn’t work for her. So I put it aside and kept going about my business.

In the meantime, and time was mean at that stage, as I dealt with horrendous things like family members addicted to drugs (they are clean now), a husband with failing health (he is good now), a very psychotic mentally ill parent (who is out of my life now), and I had to find a new literary agent. I talked to other authors about their agent. My beloved agent, Barbara Kouts, had retired at age 79 and I needed someone who could be that great connector- and someone who was smart, caring, creative and internet savvy. I found Laura Rennert and I sent her a very funny query email that said, “well established children’s book author and illustrator seeking new agent.”

I started putting the pieces of my life back together, and I attended an SCBWI spring conference in Washington, my home state, and there I met editor Connie Hsu from Little, Brown, and it just so happened that we had the same birthday. Kismet? (JM I have always loved this word and believed in this concept!)

Now I’ll make this long story short: Laura became my agent; Connie was intrigued by “Does A Feather Remember?” but she said, “this isn’t a board book, it is a picture book.” With Connie’s wonderful editorial insight we sculpted the poem into the shape that it needed to be. That took twelve drafts over a period of months. (We still had not sold the book yet, by the way.) While this was going on, I had been creating sample illustrations in a variety of styles and I submitted them to Connie and Little, Brown. One by one they were rejected for not being “quite right” for the text. Finally I realized that I had to let go of doing the illustrations, and then Connie acquired the text and we found the illustrator, Renata Liwska. I was involved in that process all the way through, and actually found it to be very enjoyable. Renata brought a warm and sweet sensibility to this book that it truly needed. I am so very excited by this collaboration.

The title of the book was also something that I had to let go of. I was told that “Does A Feather Remember?” would confuse readers, so I came up with a list of other possible titles and “Once Upon A Memory” was the winner.

Creating a book is a team effort and when you have a great team, the end result is something you all are proud of. I am very proud of this book and can’t wait for it to come out!

[JM] Many of my blog readers are trying to break into this challenging industry. Please could you share a couple of tips with us?

[NL] My tips for being a children’s book author and/or illustrator are:

  • Keep a journal and never tear any pages out. (write, draw, paste, create in that journal)
  • Read books.
  • Feed your imagination any way you can.
  • Join the SCBWI.
  • Limit media (I don’t watch TV.) and get out into the world itself as much as possible.
  • Eat good food.

[JM] Which artists/authors have been a great inspiration for you?

[NL] I must say that this list is too long to even start typing.

My inspirations are many and varied and constantly being updated.

I will say that my mom had always been my strongest champion. She passed away in January of 1986 six days after my 24th birthday. I call her my “Avant-Guardian Angel.”

Five Fun Ones to Finish?

[JM] What word best sums you up?

[NL] “Eclectic.”  (my psychiatrist says, “Polymath.”)

[JM] If you could live anywhere for a season, where would you go?

[NL] My imagination. But I love Paris. I’ve never been to so many places, though… the South of France is high on my list.

[JM] What’s your go-to snack or drink to keep the creative juices flowing?

[NL] One very strong cup of coffee in the morning. I don’t snack. At all.

[JM] Cats or dogs? 

[NL] Both. But right now seventeen year old Cali lets us live with her.



[JM] Aw, Cali looks awesome for 17! If you could spend a day with one children’s book illustrator, dead or alive, with whom would that be?

[NL] I do love a lot of illustrators, but “story” is what drives me. For dead, I’d pick Roald Dahl. For alive, I’d choose Neil Gaiman.

[JM] Where can we find/follow you and your work?

My website is:

My blog is:

On Facebook I am:

[JM] Nina, thank you so much for sharing some of your bumpy, magnificent journey with us. I appreciate your openness and I am even more excited about picking up my copy of ONCE UPON A MEMORY (terrific title) next month now I know how this was birthed. I do hope you get into that beautiful studio soon. Wishing you continued success in all your pursuits.

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21 Responses to Illustrator Interview- Nina Laden

  1. Kim Pfennigwerth says:

    Truly enjoyed learning what a brave and creative person Nina is – and I’ll be adding Once Upon A Memory to my book shelf! Thank you Joanna and Nina. I have studio envy and I cannot draw a crooked line 🙂

  2. You were right, should have kept my eyes closed! But being island-raised and currently landlocked, I am more envious of the walks on the beach and the smell and softness of salt air. Sigh. At least this interview has trnsported me for a moment. Also enamored by the harvest photos I can almost taste! And in awe of Nina’s strength and resilience. Looking very much forward to Once Upon a Memory.

  3. Wow what a story! Thanks for sharing this, Joanna. Very inspiring!

  4. What a fascinating interview and brilliant work. Thank you so much for sharing this. I think “Once upon a memory” looks like a classic that will forever transcend time.

  5. Jo Marshall says:

    So nice to know another fascinating, creative neighbor, Nina! ‘Once Upon a Memory’ is such a simple idea yet profound in its concept. It’s expressed beautifully in its art as well. Thanks, Joanna, for sharing this wonderful artist and lovely person with us.

  6. Sandy Perlic says:

    Sounds like a lovely book, with an even lovelier person as the genius behind it! Thanks for the inspiring post.

  7. Sylvia Liu says:

    Hi Nina – you have always been an inspiration to me ever since I took a weekend course at the Corcoran in DC with you about a dozen years ago. Thank you for sharing your story, and I am looking forward to the new book. Thanks, Joanna, for the excellent interview.

    • Nina says:

      Thanks Sylvia! I loved teaching those classes at the Corcoran. Administration changed and the opportunity went away… so glad to hear that you are still inspired.

  8. Darshana says:

    Loved this interview. Thanks!

  9. Nina says:

    Thank you all for the lovely comments! I can’t wait for this book to be “born” as well. If you are in the Seattle area, we are having a launch party on December 3rd at 7pm at the wonderful independent children’s book store, Secret Garden in my Ballard neighborhood. (The store is on Market Street.) Everyone is invited! I’ve heard rumors that illustrator Renata Liwska will be flying in from Calgary, AB with her husband to join us.

  10. I gasped audibly at the line “Does a feather remember it once was a bird?” Wow, what an incredible thought.

    I so appreciate Nina’s openness about her experiences, both familial and personal, with mental illness. The more people who openly acknowledge, and show how they are coping, the more accepting society will become.

    Thank you so much for this interview, both of you! (And Cali is gorgeous!)

  11. AWESOME studio! Your life story (You SHOULD write a memoir!) really had the ups and downs. I’m glad all is good right now. 🙂

  12. Beth Rayner says:

    Great post by two of my favorite, inspiring, must meet some day, Facebook friends! I do have studio envy but I have a feeling that Nina never sits down except to work on something creative and beautiful so I’m sure it will be filled in no time. Thanks, ladies!

  13. What an enjoyable interview. I can’t wait to read Once Upon a Memory. Thanks for sharing the delightful glimpse of text and the beautiful cover!

  14. Rhythm says:

    Wow! That’s quite an incredible road that Ms Laden has been down. The Night I Followed the Dog is one of my favorite books! I’ll be looking forward to Once Upon a Memory and thinking about walks on the beach. Thanks for sharing this interview! Great job!

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