The Writers' Connection - E. C. Murray, Publisher          Wendy Hinman, Editor


       Nina Laden Interview
     Wendy Hinman


Nina Laden is the writer and illustrator of more than 21 children's books. She grew up in the New York city area, the daughter of two artists and received a BFA from Syracuse University’s College of Visual and Performing Arts. Some of her board books, like PEEK-A-WHO and PEEK-A-ZOO are iconic books that are found in most every toddler’s library.
Nina, Thanks so much for your willingness to interview with The Writers’ Connection. We are so happy to share your knowledge and experience with our readers.
I am astounded by your creativity in writing, drawing, jewelry-making, sculpture and even cooking. How do you think being the daughter of two artists has influenced you?
My parents let me create in many mediums when I was a child. Music was part of it, as was dance- and we went to galleries and museums in New York City, which was where I grew up until I was eleven. My parents were not only artists; they were also mentally ill- both were/are bipolar. When I was eleven my father ran off with my brother’s first grade teacher and left my brother, my mother, and me in a pre-revolutionary war farmhouse in New City, New York. It was falling apart and my mother didn’t know how to drive. We lived below the poverty level and only survived because my mother’s Russian immigrant parents helped us- for a few years- until my grandfather died of a heart attack in our kitchen. Despite the difficulties, my mother tried to show me that there was art and beauty in the world.
Also, my imagination most likely saved me. I wrote, drew, played guitar, and wrote songs. I could escape that way. I also started working at age eleven. My first job was babysitting for the son of jazz bassist Bill Crow. (I didn’t know he was he was a famous musician; I only knew he could cook way better than my mom and I loved staying at his house.)
I didn’t think of what I created as “fun,” though. It was a necessity, like a warm blanket or good shoes.


What else influenced your creative life? What were the most effective tools for learning your craft?

I never stop learning or being curious. My mother influenced me so much even though it was not easy- and she died so young. I also had a great education at Syracuse University’s College of Visual and Performing Arts. I loved art school, but I also was lucky to take my English Lit classes with new professor, Tobias Wolff, who was another great influence.
I knew I wanted to write and illustrate children’s books, but I also knew that I had to make a living and doing freelance illustration and graphic design would pay my bills, so I trained to do that in school - and started while I was in college.
Will you tell us about your first big break?
I tried to get a children’s picture book published that I wrote when I was eighteen. Of course, it was rejected over and over. I kept working doing freelance illustration and I wrote stories and poems, as I had always done, in my journals. On October 16, 1989 in a fit of inspiration I sat down, and in stream of conscious, wrote The Night I Followed the Dog. I feel like I channeled it. I was living in Atlanta, GA then, and I let a friend read it, but he didn’t like that I had the main character, a boy, talking to his dog, who winds up owning a club for dogs. I was afraid to submit the story, so I put it in a drawer for four years.
Four years later, I had more “tools in my belt”- I had learned how to properly make a picture book dummy from a man named Cooper Edens, who I had met in Seattle through a mutual connection, and I had started experimenting with illustrating in chalk pastel. I decided to take a chance and I submitted The Night I Followed the Dog in 1993- and long story short: I wound up with a literary agent and a publisher.
Since you've published so many books since then, does it get any easier?
Sometimes I wish I had created an independent study major in college and focused on my writing as much as my art, but that seems irrelevant because I constantly write. Maybe I should have not been afraid to submit sooner, but sometimes timing is everything. Yes, I’ve published many books since then, and honestly it does not get easier. In fact it seems to get harder as the industry changes what it thinks will be successful. I write way more than I submit.
Describe your work process. What comes first on your book projects, the concept, the words/story, or the artwork?
I journaled throughout my life. Everything starts in my journals. Each book is also its own journey. The Night I Followed The Dog was born whole. That does not happen very often. Some books began as a concept and required research, many years of revision, and reworking. Some books sparked with a character that I first, created and drew and then, wrote a story about. For example: Private I. Guana- The Case of the Missing Chameleon. Some of my books have been poems. My new book, If I Had A Little Dream, which will be published on February 7, 2017 from Paula Wiseman Books at Simon & Schuster, began as a song I thought of as I was writing while stirring blackberry jam.
What techniques do you use to spark your creativity or keep it flowing?
The only “technique” is to get out in nature. Long walks help me think things through, and I write ideas down as soon as I think of them so I don’t forget. I also read my writing aloud to make sure that it flows properly, whether it is poetry or prose.

Will you tell us about the differences between books that target each age group, the word-count and any other distinguishing characteristics that might help guide a prospective children's book author to success?
This is a fairly complicated question that would be better answered by joining the SCBWI (the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators) and downloading their guide called “The Book.” The basics are: Board Books have very few words and are printed on sturdy board- they are for babies through toddlers. Picture Books have 32 to 40 pages – usually- and the word count can range from a few words on a page to around 600 words- but this is where it gets fuzzy: picture books used to have 900 to sometimes 1200 words, but the industry now prefers them under 500 words. Middle Grade Novels can be over 500 pages- like “Harry Potter.” YA novels also can range widely. Graphic Novels are very hot now, and they can be for all different age levels.
Can you tell us about how you got caught in a dispute between Amazon and Hachette a few years ago what you learned from the experience?
My first book with publisher Little Brown Books for Young Readers, “Once Upon A Memory” came out when Amazon and Hachette started their highly publicized dispute. My book got caught in the crossfire, along with thousands of books that Hachette distributed and published. I was just a tiny needle in that burning haystack and I was outraged at what Amazon did to dissuade buyers from purchasing my book.
I sent them a letter through customer service and when no one replied, I posted it on Facebook, and to my surprise, it went viral. I wrote an editorial for the paper. I was interviewed on radio and TV. All said and done, it didn’t matter. Amazon really killed the sales for such a beautiful book. They don’t care about one author. Not sure that I would do what Jeff Bezos did in the same position. Once Upon A Memory is still in print, but it lost the great momentum that it deserved.
Though you've published mostly children's stories, you've dabbled in writing for adults. Are there other genres that you've explored?
I wrote one novel for adults - and it still has not found a publishing home. It did get some great rejections, though! I do want to write for older audiences. I’d like  to write a graphic novel memoir that would be for adults and crossover to the YA market. I also write poetry- mostly for myself.
What projects are you working on now?
I just sold another picture book/poetic story to Paula Wiseman Books at Simon & Schuster. I have another picture book that I wrote and will illustrate out for submission at several publishers. I have stacks of picture books that I’ve been submitting and then reworking for future submission.
I’m also working on two different middle grade novels. I know I want to turn one of them (I wrote a complete first draft) into a graphic novel. The other one is written as a treatment right now and I need to get that first draft blasted out so I can begin to sculpt it.
Often other ideas just pop up and I jot them down in my journal and let them simmer until they demand attention.
I notice you do lots of school visits. How do you make them fun? Do your interactions with the kids spark more ideas for new projects?
I used to do a lot of school visits. I’m not very good at waving a flag and promoting. (I am truly an introvert at my core.) I’ve done school visits for over twenty-two years now and I’ve done them all around the world. I love to teach. My mom taught art and she instilled that sharing of what you love in me from an early age. My school programs are interactive and I teach character development and have the students draw characters with me so that they will be inspired to write about them.
I have not really gotten new ideas from any particular school visit, but I love seeing what the students, teachers and librarians are into- I love seeing what is hanging on the walls- I love children’s art- it reveals so much of their character and personality. Sometimes I think about silly ideas: like what really goes on in the teachers lounge. Not sure if that is a book for kids, though.
What advice would you give an aspiring author or children's book illustrator?
This is my advice:
1. Keep a journal and write, draw, paste things in it… keep it safe and don’t tear out the pages.
2. Read. Read. Read. Read the kinds of books you want to write. Read the books you don’t want to write. You’ll learn from them all.
3. Join the SCBWI and go to meetings and conferences. Learn the business.
4. Explore nature. Get off your device. Use a real pen or pencil and paper.
5. Dream. Believe in your imagination. Don’t write to a trend. Write who you are. Kids are the biggest bullshit detectors out there. Engage their spirit and inspire them. That is your job.
6. Love your job. You won’t get rich. You may not be able to quit your day job. You can’t do this if you think you’ll make a lot of money. It’s not about the money. It’s about story. Tell good stories.

Is there anything else you wish we'd asked you or would like to share here?

I’d like to share that I feel so darn lucky and blessed to be able to do this: to be able to create something out of nothing with my brain and my hands- that is a gift and to be able to share that gift with children is worth all of the bad things I went through to get here. Thank you for reading this and thank you for reading my books.
Nina, Thank you so much for this extensive, informative interview. We look for ward to your next book!

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