Interview and Photos Written and Compiled by Jasmin Thankachen
Nina Laden is the author of "Yellow Kayak," a beautifully written and illustrated poem, describing a young child's journey through the sea with an unlikely friend. Nina began drawing and writing very early on, using her imagination to make lovable characters and memorable stories. Publishing her first children's book, "The Night I Followed the Dog" in 1994, Nina began her career as an artist and author, sharing over a dozen books with little readers through the years. Since then, she's landed on many children's "must read" lists with her fun children's books: "Peek-a Who", "Peek-a Boo" and others.
PopUp StoryWalk catches up with Nina, who shares a bit about her passion, inspiration and advice for future writers and artists. For more information about Nina Laden's upcoming projects, please visit her website at ninaladen.com. Meet her, in person, on August 11th at Rhododendron Park, at the PopUp StoryWalk booth. Trek on the path to read "Yellow Kayak" and adventure along with two brave friends who take on the sea!
A talk with Nina Laden:
How did you come up with the idea for the Yellow Kayak? What made you choose to write the story in rhyme?
“Yellow Kayak” is based partially on a true story of a kayak paddle I did years ago. I went paddling with my husband and two friends and we got caught in a gale that was not forecast and we had to be rescued.
I write songs and poetry as well as stories. The original poem, which was titled “Sea-Story” came to me while I was sitting in the ferry line waiting to go home. I wrote it to the rhythm of paddling my kayak. Each two words/line is a stroke of the paddle.
Why did you choose a giraffe to travel with the child on the adventure? Living on an island, do you get out on the water often? Have you had adventures like the characters of your story?
I had no idea that there would be a giraffe in the book. When I wrote it, I wrote it as a solo journey- and in my mind it was a little girl in a kayak. My editor and the illustrator, Melissa Castrillon added the giraffe. I didn’t know about it until the book was in proof form.
Yes, I love to get out on the water. I’ve kayaked for over twenty years now, and last year I started paddleboarding. My paddleboard only weighs 19 lbs- so it’s much easier to walk it down to the beach from my house. We also have a “sport utility vessel”- a fishing boat- and we love to go shrimping, crabbing, island hopping… the water is like another backyard.
I've read many summaries from reviewers about the moral of the story and wanted to know from you, what was the lesson that you wanted to convey to the reader?
That’s very interesting. I had no ideas that reviewers have been talking about the moral. I did write “Yellow Kayak” as a “hero’s journey,” where the child protagonist goes on this adventure and returns transformed- in this case the lesson would be not to give up- and to believe in the impossible, like being rescued by whales.
What motivates and excites you to write and illustrate children's books and not other genres?
It seems that I was wired to write and illustrate children’s books. Both of my parents were artists and loved books. I started making books before I could write by folding paper and telling my mom the story and then I’d illustrate it after she wrote the words. I believe that I still am in touch with the child I was and I’m curious by nature. I also love the world that you can create with a picture book- both story and visual- a world between two covers.
I did write an adult age novel- a very dark one, but I have not sold it yet. I’ve also been working on a middle grade novel, too. That one may turn into a graphic novel.
Describe the moment you knew that you wanted to be an author/illustrator.
I was nine years old and in the fourth grade at Garden School in Jackson Heights, Queens, New York City. (I skipped Kindergarten, that’s why I was nine.) Mrs. Gilman was my English teacher and I adored her. She adored the book that I had just written and illustrated in class, “The Unbearable Bird.” I still have it. It is nine written pages- with many color illustrations. I read it now and can hear “my voice.” I still have that voice. I knew at age nine that writing and illustrating children’s books was what I wanted to do. It has not been easy, but I’m doing it. And will keep doing it because it comes from my soul.
You have made books from a very young age , which book launched your career and was there any hesitation to send that book out into the world?
My career was launched with my first published book, “The Night I Followed the Dog,” which came out in 1994, published by Chronicle Books, and will be twenty-five years in print next year. It sold out the first printing BEFORE it came out. It’s been optioned for feature film many times. (but I have the rights back again.) I wrote “The Night I Followed the Dog” in October 1989 when I was 27. I let a friend read it and he didn’t like that the boy and the dog talked to each other. I was afraid to show it to anyone after that, so I put it in a drawer for four years. Finally in 1993 I got up my courage to submit it… and the rest is history.
Who are your top three influences, literary or otherwise? What is the last book you read?
My biggest influence hands-down, was my mom. She was an abstract expressionist painter, a poet, an art teacher- she exposed me to so many artists, poets, writers, nature, life- at such an early age. She also battled mental illness and poverty after my father left us when I was eleven. Tragically she never lived to see my books get published. I think she knows. I call her my “avant-guardian angel.”
My other influences are so vast and varied. I’m a polymath. I love artists like Saul Steinberg. I grew up on underground cartoonists and worshiped R. Crumb. My mom had me reading James Thurber and Edward Lear when I was in elementary school. I’ve played guitar since I was eight and the blues is my favorite genre- so many amazing influences there… I also wanted to be Joni Mitchell when I was in high school. I started writing songs when I was thirteen.
It’s funny, right now my life is so complicated that I can’t enjoy reading like I used to. I read many books at once and if a book truly grabs me, then I finish it. I’m also reading picture books to keep up with what is going on in the field, although I can’t even do that. The most recent book I finished (and it did grab me) was Kate Messner’s “The Seventh Wish.” (And I recently read and loved both of Anthony Bourdain’s graphic novels “Get Jiro” and “Blood and Sushi.”)
Yellow Kayak was illustrated by UK artist, Melissa Castrillon. How did you know that you wanted to partner with another illustrator and not use your own illustrations? What was the collaboration process like in creating the drawings for this book?
I didn’t know that I was not going to illustrate “Yellow Kayak” when I wrote it. When Paula Wiseman of Simon and Schuster wanted to publish my book, “If I Had a Little Dream,” she didn’t think my illustration style went with what I wrote. She sent me a link to Melissa Castrillon’s website to see her work. Melissa had never illustrated a full children’s book at that stage, but I liked her style and was willing to let her do it. The way that this particular editor works is not like what I had experienced before. I was not allowed to see the sketches until the book was in proof form. Fortunately it was a nice surprise and I loved what Melissa had done for “Little Dream.”
Then editor Paula wanted us to collaborate on another book together right away and she asked me to send her some texts. I sent quite a few, and to my surprise, she chose “Sea-Story,” which was my original title for “Yellow Kayak.” I was reluctant to give up illustrating it, especially since it was based on personal experience. But I decided to let it go. Sometimes you just have to do that. And again, I was not shown sketches… so it’s been a bit of a strange journey, but somehow we made it home safe and a great book was born.
When you are piecing together the concept for a book, which comes first for you? The drawings or the words?
Almost always the words/story comes first. Sometimes I may have a visual image in my head that sparks a concept, but more likely than not – a title, or a series of words combine together and form a unique idea. After I’ve figured out the story, which includes the tricky part: the voice- and when my agent has approved of the text after I’ve revised it- sometimes over and over- then I’ll start sketching.
What is the best career advice you have ever been given? Please share some tips for aspiring authors and illustrators.
Before I touch on “career” I want to touch on “creative advice:” The best advice for creativity came when I was a teenager. A woman who was an artist- a friend- gave me an accordion fold journal. I had already started journaling, but she said, “I gave you this kind of journal because you can’t tear the pages out.” It was then that I realized that everything is important and you never know where the seed of an idea will come from- so I do journal everything- writing, drawing, I paste things in my journals, and I never tear out the pages.
As far as career advice: I’m not sure that most of what people have told me has really helped. What I’ve learned over twenty-five years of making books is that you have to be yourself. You can’t be the “next Harry Potter- for an obvious example”- you have to be you. Sometimes you will be riding the wave, and sometimes you will be dashed by it. I’ve learned that you have to write from your heart- and draw from it, too. And kids know when you are being authentic. Publishers and editors change their tastes over time- and things go in and out of style, but I believe that if you have a good story – it will live on. Hopefully for a very long time.
Talk to us a little about your future projects.
Right now I have a new novelty book for toddlers that I’ll be painting soon. Chronicle Books is the publisher. I also have another poetic book that will be coming out from Roaring Brook/MacMillan in 2020. I’m not allowed to say anything about these until the publishers announce them. Sometimes that takes a long time. My editor for “Yellow Kayak” wants Melissa and I to do a third book together. I’ve sent her many, many texts, but so far she hasn’t accepted any of them. So I keep on keeping on.
I have dozens of other stories/texts in various stages and I’m always coming up with new ones. Some need a long time to simmer. Some are born close to ready to go. Sometimes it’s timing. I’m becoming much more philosophical about things these days!
What is your favorite outdoor memory?
This must be a trick question! I do so many things outdoors. Maybe years ago, when we were out in our old little 18’ aluminum skiff crabbing. My best friend, who is a documentary filmmaker was visiting from Los Angeles. We were sitting in the boat, floating in Rosario Strait, eating lunch, and the entire J-pod of orca whales came through. They swam under our boat, around it, they breeched and did cartwheels… it was pure magic. My girlfriend caught it with her camera, too. We didn’t catch any crabs that day, but it was the best treat ever.
Many children will be walking the PopUp StoryWalk trail to read Yellow Kayak and will be inspired by your work. What would you like to tell them?
Greetings fellow book lovers, picture lovers, story lovers, kayak lovers, adventure lovers: may your experiences inspire you, and may your imagination take you places that will excite you to explore this beautiful world, and to tell stories about it. I hope you enjoy "Yellow Kayak," and will want to dip a paddle, or a toe in the water. I also hope you will see that books can take you places, in real life and in your dreams. I'm so happy you are here. Happy Paddles from your friend, Nina Laden.