Once Upon A Memory: A Release

He said his name was Mack and he came from Bahstan, and as I started to call him Mack I realized that his name was actually Mark. Mark was a congenial man a bit older than me, which would put him on the upper end of middle age. He told me that he had been following my books and he was at my book signing for "Bad Dog" which came out in 2000. This was a loyal fan, and he was out on a night that snow was predicted, and he was eagerly awaiting my event for "Once Upon A Memory" at the University Book Store. He was early, and he was alone. 

Many people think that book events are glamorous things- akin to movie premieres. That may be true if you are J.K. Rowling or Neil Gaiman, but for the majority of us, it is hit and miss. We want to celebrate our books and we want others to celebrate our books, but mostly we want them to find their way into readers' hands and hearts. That process is a gradual one, sometimes glacial, as word-of-mouth spreads, or if you are lucky, as buzz begins and the media helps your book take wing and fly.

It is hard work to create a book, and it is even harder work to launch it. There are untold folks along the way who breathe life into this, your creation, and help it pass from the reaches of your imagination into a solid and tangible object that people would love to own and cherish. The list begins with agents and editors, art directors, production people, printers, proofers, people bringing coffee, spending countless hours in meetings, publicists, marketing gurus, sales people, distributors, truck drivers, warehouse workers, container ship captains and crew- as most books are printed overseas and then journey far and wide to find their homes again, independent bookstore owners, managers from large store chains, purchasers for online stores, reviewers for magazines and newspapers, bloggers, and the list continues with friends, who I call "my secret sales force" who turn the cover face-forward in shops, who tell stores to order it, who give it as gifts. So many hands turn these pages and they deserve recognition and gratitude. 

"Once Upon A Memory" has taken this journey, and it has not been solo. Both Renata Liwska and I are on it together. We had not met in person, nor talked during production of the book. All correspondence went between us and our esteemed editor, Connie Hsu at Little Brown Books for Young Readers. As the December 3rd launch date approached and I was working with my local independent bookstore, Secret Garden Books to create a beautiful event, I hatched a plan to get Renata to come to Seattle from her home in Calgary, Canada. The plan worked and I was very excited to be driving to SeaTac Airport on a chilly, but clear early December morning to bring Renata back to my house. 
Renata and I bonded, as I had hoped we would. We were both artists, and my three-quarter Polish-Russian heritage and her 100% Polish origin made me feel like we were connected before we met. We walked to coffee shops and drew things, bought art supplies and clothing... we talked about books, characters, animals, stories, and we prepared for our Tuesday evening launch for "Our Book."
A lot of work went into the launch. In advance I had made around one-hundred-and-fifty paper owl feather bookmarks and cut them out with a scissors while sitting next to our wood stove. I sent out Evites, and created an event on Facebook, cross-promoted it with my different writers groups, and I worked on the window at Secret Garden Books with help from Dawn who works there.
I made signs and baked brownies. I bought apple cider and Portuguese vinho verde. I asked my amazing neighbor and friend, Savitri Parsons (I dedicated the book to Savitri, her husband Jon, and especially to their son, Miles.) to bake cookies (she baked these incredible almond ball cookies dusted with powdered sugar) and take photographs because she is a pro. My friend Teresa Bledsoe brought quiche and fruit, and she took on a very special mission, one that I didn't know was going to be part of book launch planning. I won't go into details in this post, saving it for the future, but I will say that my mentally ill father, who had threatened me not too long ago, made an appearance just as the event was underway, but with advanced warning from the store, Teresa worked her charms and kept things on a very even keel. 

The launch of "Once Upon A Memory" went beautifully. There were probably sixty or seventy friends and guests in the cozy store and we all had fun.

Everyone was patient and waited in line while Renata and I signed and chatted. Secret Garden Books owner Christy McDanold joined in the celebration: she is wearing the red sweater above.
Renata and I were exhausted but so thrilled to launch "Once Upon A Memory" together. We stayed up talking in my living room until past midnight buoyed by the energy of the evening.

The energy from our book launch has continued and so has the buzz. "Once Upon A Memory" has received many incredible reviews including a Starred Review from Kirkus Magazine, a beautiful blog post from Kirkus Blogs writer Jules Danielson, who also created this lovely post on Renata's gorgeous illustrations on her "7 Impossible Things Before Breakfast" blog. It is an "Indie Next Pick," and it received a Picture Book of the Year Honor in the "Heartfelt category" from the Huffington Post. Super-Librarian Nancy Pearl said this on Twitter: Once Upon a Memory: Another winning picture book from the ever inventive Nina Laden. And the illustrations by Renata Liwska are marvelous. √ it out. Many friends who blog have also given it rave reviews. All of this warms my heart, especially since the book is 18 days old as I type this. Yet, I know that isn't really true. Years have gone into making it. 

This brings me back to Mack, I mean Mark, who was waiting for my book event at the University Book Store last night. Mark was the ONLY person waiting. There was no one else, save for both Anna and Lauren who work there. Poor Caitlin was out with a cold and Duane had been working since 8am and couldn't be there at 7pm. Maybe it was the forecasted snow. Maybe it was the fact that everyone was off doing their pre-Christmas whatever-you-do-pre-Christmas-things. It didn't bother me a bit. I knew I would sign the University Book Store's huge stack of books and that they would sell them in short order. And Mark? Mark had a magical evening one-on-one with the author. 

Mark's eyes lit up as he told me how much "Once Upon A Memory" meant to him. It was like watching that scene in "Ratatouille" when hardened critic Anton Ego tastes the ratatouille and it immediately transports him back to his childhood. "This page especially," Mark said as he pointed to the page "Does work remember it once was play," "this brings me back to my childhood and our sugar maples," he told me. "I loved playing in those leaves," he said dreamily. "I still like raking leaves because of that," he added. Then he told me, "of all of your books, this one is my favorite." 

This may not have been my biggest book event, but seeing how "Once Upon A Memory" touched one man, I must say that I will never forget it. This is the reason I love to create books. This is the incredible release I get when my book gets let out into the world. It's not about the big buzz or the hype. It is about hard work, and quiet love. Thank you Mark, for coming to my event. And thank you all for reading my books and this blog. I wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

With Love,


Oh, My Dear Cali...

We lost our sweet girl, Cali yesterday. She flew away and now is free of pain. I want to share a letter that I wrote to her a couple of weeks ago. It will be included in a future book called, "A Letter to my Cat" which is going into production soon. It was a coincidence that the letters for the book were being compiled and a dear friend of mine, Karin, knew the woman who was doing the book.

Here is my letter, which is helping me grieve the loss of our "Little Bird."

She is sitting in my lap right now and I want to remember the warm rhythmic faint purring, the pointy ear tufts, the gorgeous orange, black, tan and white velvety-soft fur, but she is not comfortable. She is circling, trying to find a position that doesn’t hurt. She is breathing a little harder, a trilling sound, which must be the pain. I started calling her “Little Bird” yesterday because of that sound and because she has become so tiny.

Oh, My Dear Cali,
Cancer brought you to us, and  now cancer is taking you away. My heart is breaking constantly.

I will never forget the day we met. You were on the corner of our street and you ran out to greet us, my husband and me. You meowed and meowed so many different sounds. You were telling us a story but I didn’t speak cat. After you followed us for a mile on our walk, we kept looking back and you were still there, I decided to ask the guy in the house that you greeted us in front of what your story was. By then I knew your name was Cali. It was printed on your tag.

The man in the house, Jason, told us that you were three years old and you had come from Chicago all the way to Seattle because your first “person,” Jason’s sister-in-law, had died, very young, from cancer. You needed a home because you didn’t get along with Jason’s cat, so he had put you outside. That was not good enough for a feisty feline such as yourself. You wanted your own house and family and you chose us.

Dear Cali, you got much more than you could have imagined: a big, old city house with three floors, two out-buildings, three boys growing up, and soon a cottage on an island. You also got my husband and me: both self-employed, so we were always around and we both loved to cook- this was a house full of good food, and bonus: there were no other cats or dogs!

I grew up with a menagerie of animals: cats, dogs, rabbits, birds, turtles, fish, and whatever I brought home from fields and woods: frogs, snakes, bugs… but my husband only had dogs when he was a kid. He claimed to not like cats, the nerve! You saw that as a challenge and you worked him good. It turned my heart into a mushy puddle watching you use your wiles and ways. He was soon talking to you in baby-talk and letting you sleep on his chest. You have magic charms, my dear Kitty-Kitty.

For so many years we were a family unit: five humans and a feline. You sat on a high stool while we cooked and ate, and you always participated. Our friends fell in love with you, even the ones who didn’t like cats. You talked to them; you paid attention to them; you took their laps for a test drive, and they always left saying that you were “the only cat they liked.” Having had both cats and dogs, to me, you exhibited more dog-like behavior: you came when you were called, you were very people-oriented, and you memorized the sound-signature of my husband’s car, bicycle and later, the Triumph motorcycle, and you would race out the cat-door to greet him as he pulled up. You had such a crush on him, I must admit that it made me jealous. He kept saying, “it’s because I’m the Alpha-male.” But it was beyond that. You worshipped his smelly socks, you gave his fingers and toes little love bites, and you licked his armpits! Even I wouldn’t do that, and I’m his soul-mate.

But things weren’t always so rosy, yet you not only stayed when things got truly stinky, you rose to new levels and performed your duty over and over again as a nurse-cat. You weathered the first storm as my husband got very sick and was diagnosed with Celiac disease. Then you became a recovery cat when two of our family members wound up addicted to drugs and we helped get them clean. You watched like a hawk and alerted us if they tried to leave the house. You provided warmth, love, and you were on top of whoever needed you the most. Your next patient was my mentally ill father. He had refused to shower, but that did not bother you one iota. You sat in his lap like a queen. And then last winter when my husband almost died from heart disease and had a triple-bypass, botched surgery, an emergency room visit and then thoracic surgery to remove a blood clot you would not leave his side, his shoulders, or his lap. You gave and gave.

I was lucky to not need your nurse services, but you have provided me much more, my dear little whisker-face. You give me inspiration. Since I am a children’s book author and illustrator, this is very welcome. I know there are dogs in my books, and termites, pigs, and bulls… and there is a cat book you inspired that I have not sold yet, but someday I will, and you will be immortalized. In my heart and mind you already are. I never get tired of you interrupting my painting to ask to sit next to the propane stove in my studio, although you hate when I have to talk on the phone and you try to meow over my voice so that I can’t hear the other person. I have drawn you, painted you, photographed you, written about you- for fourteen years now. I’ve watched you go from a spunky three-year-old to a chubby middle aged purr-son, and now you are my fragile “little bird.”

I wish I could have read your mind or your actions when you started acting so strangely four months back. You were howling, eating constantly but losing so much weight, and you were pulling the fur out of your right rear hip. You had also licked the emulsion off of a Christmas photo-card from our librarian friends in Bend, Oregon. The vet said you had hyper-thyroid and fleas. So we treated you and the howling stopped. You started eating and sleeping better. You didn’t pull out so much fur. We thought we had it all figured out, but then your right rear leg started sliding out under you while you sat. This was the beginning of the slide down the slippery slope. You were also trying to give us a message when you were pulling out that fur. You didn’t have fleas. There was a tumor growing in your leg. By the time we discovered it, it was too late. Our hearts were broken as the vet told us that at your age it was not good to go down that long road of oncologists and test after test, but we understood. All we could do is love you and treat the pain.

We are treating the pain and it is helping you a little, but we know the end is coming soon, and the pain from that knowledge is killing us. Little Bird Cali- we will have to give you wings when we know that you hurt too much because that is the best we can do to make your journey easier. Our journeys are not over yet, but I hope that we can all find each other someday somewhere where there is always good food and no one gets sick.

Last night you climbed into bed with us for the first time in months, laying down between our shoulders, and you stared deeply into both of our eyes. At that moment we both felt your love and it made us so incredibly happy to be able to be there- all together. You have brought more to our lives than so many people, including members of my own family. I wish that there was a way we could talk, just for a little bit, but I know that isn’t possible. I tell you all of the things I want you to know even if you can’t understand them. I’m writing this letter so that I can share my love and my pain knowing you can never read it.

Yet, I know life is mysterious and if there is a way, I want you to know that you are in my heart. Forever and always.
Your human,