A Feather in My Cap

Finally I can say something. My new picture book, "Does A Feather Remember?" was just announced the other day in Publishers Weekly. I am really excited about this book for many reasons. For one, it is a poem I wrote that is very different from what I have done in my other books. I have written poems as long as I have written sentences. My poetry tends to be more evocative. It's a completely different side of my soul.

Little Brown Books for Young Readers will be publishing "Does A Feather Remember?" A new publisher and a new editor. Another reason to be excited. My editor asked me to write a little piece about writing "Does A Feather Remember?" and I wrote this:

Nina’s Notes on writing “DOES A FEATHER REMEMBER?”

I was walking on our neighborhood beach on Lummi Island in the San Juan islands in Washington state. It was June 15th in 2009. I spied a beautiful feather on the beach and picked it up. I had been saving feathers for years and had a vase where I kept them- a bouquet of feathers instead of flowers. I held that feather- it had belonged to a bald eagle, and I thought about the native American legend that eagle feathers are to be left where they are found so that they can return to the heavens, and the thought crossed my mind, “does a feather remember it once was a bird?” Does that feather “fly” back to heaven like the bird it once was? As I walked on the beach- a favorite meditation method for me- I started to write a poem in my head which became “Does A Feather Remember?” The original poem contained eight couplets and they reflected memories of “origins” like, “does a chair remember it once was a tree?” “Does an ocean remember it once was rain?” These were deep and soulful questions, and they came at a particularly difficult time in my life when I was dealing with a major family crisis with two of my stepsons, both in their early twenties. I continued working on the poem and submitted it to Connie Hsu at Little, Brown. We had met at an SCBWI conference and we bonded over the coincidence that we share the same birthday. Connie helped me build on the poem I started to find the flow to take the “origins and remembrances” and make them build on each other, ultimately bringing the bigger and bigger thoughts back around to the child reading the book, “will you remember you once were a child?”

The decision to not illustrate my own book was an interesting one. I am both an illustrator and a writer, but we felt that my style was just not right for the text. I was actually very happy to let someone else illustrate one of my “babies” for the first time in my career. Connie suggested Renata Liwska and I went to my local bookstore, Secret Garden in Seattle, and picked up “The Quiet Book” and “The Loud Book,” and found her work very sweet and endearing. (I have never been accused of being warm and fuzzy in my illustrations!) I checked out Renata’s work online as well and felt good that she would add the right look and feel to my poem. I was also happy to see that Renata was originally from Poland. My heritage is mostly Polish and Russian; my last name used to be Ladinski, but it was changed by my grandfather to Laden. Maybe our DNA remembers we once were related?

I am very excited to see “Does A Feather Remember?” coming to life. This will show that I do have a poetic side, and a deep one at that. There is more of this in me and I hope it will help children see the beautiful and reflective nature of not only the world around us, but how we remember it.

Nina Laden
February 2, 2012

And yes, I am NOT illustrating this book. This will be the first time that someone else will illustrate my words. I am very excited to see what Renata Liwska will bring to the table. Her work is soft and sublime. My work is edgier. Her style will add layers of comfort to my words that they need. It feels good to let go and let this happen. I did try a few different styles and techniques which I'll show here.

I tried a retro look, a dry brush approach and the collage that I put at the top of this post. They all were interesting, but ultimately they did not work for my editor and publisher. Creating a book is a team effort and I was happy to let the team choose another big player. I am so looking forward to seeing Renata's sketches and then her final illustrations. This is a new place for me to be- a different perspective. 

It is also letting me work on other books, which I am doing in earnest, and I hope to have some other new announcements soon. In the meantime, I'm so happy that this "Feather" is flying. The book will hopefully publish in Fall of 2013, which can't come soon enough.

With Love,


Torn Between Two Loves

When I told my husband that this was going to be the title of my new blog post he said, "who is he?" I laughed and replied, "don't worry, you are the only man for me. I'm talking about writing and illustrating." He sighed with relief. 

Here it is, Valentine's Day, and I thought that to be the perfect timing for ruminating on one of the most strange relationships in my life: the seeming "love triangle" I have with both words and pictures.

When I speak in schools I am often asked, "which do you like better, writing or illustrating?" I have used a somewhat pat response, "when I'm writing I wish I was illustrating, and when I'm illustrating I wish I was writing." There is a smattering of truth in that statement, but it's not really the honest answer.

Since I was a child I have always created "the whole book." That meant everything from the cover design to the marketing blurbs on the back. I majored in illustration in art school, and I'm also trained as a graphic designer with some art direction under my belt as well. I even did off-set printing and letterpress as a teen. My writing has been a part of my life like the very blood that courses through my veins- and like that blood, sometimes it has left me a bit bruised... more so than the strength of my artists' bones. 

I have always been a storyteller, a poet, a songwriter... but I never majored in it. Why do we seem to place such importance on degrees? I have a BFA in illustration and for years after I graduated I thought of myself as an illustrator and made a living as one. However, I kept writing in my journals, creating stories, writing poems, making notes for concepts of future books. 

I love illustrating. I am at peace. Listening to music (another love that sometimes demands my attention) and playing with technique and style, lost in my thoughts, and yes, coming up with new ideas for stories while I draw, or paint, or create collage. I just write them down and then get back to illustrating.

But somewhere along the line I stopped loving being a freelance illustrator, a wrist for hire. I didn't want to do art for advertisements or corporate brochures anymore. The main reason was because the work didn't have any soul. I need soul in order to thrive. The money was not worth the loss of the depth of meaning I craved. That was around the time that I had finally gotten my first book, "The Night I Followed the Dog" published.

There was a time when I dreamt of winning a Caldecott award. I wanted the recognition of my souls' creations. But that turned out to be a very disappointing desire and I taught myself to not wish for it anymore. I also started falling a little out of love with illustration and I started pursuing writing in the heat of lust.

Delving deeper into my writing was the product of a personal epiphany that I will share with you. I came to the realization that what drew children, or people to my books were not my illustrations, although they did love them. What captivated them were my stories. Story, I discovered is the most important element. Story is what brings you back again and again. Story is what lives in your heart. I love story.

Loving story is not as simple as loving illustration. Story is writing, and it is far more fickle and complicated and moody and sometimes brutal. For me, illustration is generally a walk on a beautiful beach, finding treasures at every step. Writing is almost drowning in an angry ocean, treading water at all times, desperately wanting to feel the ocean bottom under your feet, keeping your head above breathing air. I have a tempestuous relationship with writing. I love it and it tortures me ofttimes. Yet when it flows, it is sublime and soul-satisfying on an even higher level than my art.

I wrote my first novel, "Jacked" over a period of years and it is currently being shopped. It was scary, almost death-defying experience to write this first huge hunk of story. There is a lot of my soul in those words, and there is truth behind the fiction. I have no idea if it will see the light of day yet... but I am now working on a middle-grade novel and other ideas are auditioning themselves in my head, too.

However, I have not forgotten my first love, illustration. I still love to dance with her, and I have a line-up of picture books and board books that we'll be reunited in wedded bliss as soon as I get permission from designers to start sketching and then painting. 

But again- it was my stories/poems/ideas that let me paint those pictures- so I know I will always need both in my life. It can get complicated, but this is the path I am on, and all I hope for is that I can be the best lover to both of them. 

Here's wishing you a Happy Valentine's Day.
Celebrate all of your loves.

With love,