Popular children's author and illustrator Nina Laden flips through her journal No. 22, looking for the page where she sketched out possible...
Popular children’s author and illustrator Nina Laden flips through her journal No. 22, looking for the page where she sketched out possible dog breeds for her 13th book, “Romeow & Drooliet,” her “wag of the tale to William Shakespeare.” In her journal, neatly printed lists of characters and scene-by-scene breakouts share space with newspaper clippings and poetry.
The book’s inspiration is back in Journal No. 19, in a pen sketch of a cat with the name “Romeow” written above it. “One day out of nowhere, I did this Romeow drawing and I realized it was a fun character,” Laden says. “It’s like a puzzle when I write a book. I start with a character as the first piece of the puzzle.”
Laden — best known for her word puns and bold artwork in “When Pigasso Met Mootisse” and “The Night I Followed the Dog” — is funky by way of meticulous. In her lovely 1903 Ballard home, which she and her husband, Booth Buckley, renovated themselves, their folk-art collection mixes with oddities from novelty shop Archie McPhee.
“Nina is a lot like her books — just a very vibrant, colorful, wonderful person,” said Holly Myers, children’s book seller at Seattle’s Elliot Bay Book Company. “If I had to make up what a children’s book author should be like, it would be Nina.”
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In “Romeow & Drooliet” (Chronicle Books, $16.95), the Felini family’s cat falls in love with the Barkers’ dog; their marriage is almost torn apart by a Rottweiler, animal control and a car accident, but it ends happily. The introduction and epilogue are written in iambic pentameter.
To adapt her interspecies “Romeo and Juliet,” Laden traced the play’s history to its Italian roots, before the Bard took up the story in 1597.
The detailed, colorful paintings in the 34-page book took seven months with a brush so tiny it dug into her fingers until she wrapped the handle with duct tape. The illustrations are designed to feel like stage sets, with characters entering and exiting out of the main frames.
The author of “Romeow & Drooliet” will read and sign copies of her book at 10:30 a.m. today, Barnes & Noble, 626 106th Ave. N.E., Bellevue (425-451-8463).
The book-launch party will be a costume ball (Elizabethan dress or cat/dogs) at 7 p.m. Thursday at All for Kids Books & Music, 2900 N.E. Blakeley St., Seattle (206-526-2768 or www.allforkidsbooks.com).
Weekday appearances include 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, Valley View Elementary School, 17622 46th Ave. S., SeaTac; 1 p.m. Tuesday, Laurelhurst Elementary School, 4530 46th Ave. N.E., Seattle; and 10 a.m. Wednesday, Elliott Bay Book Company, 101 S. Main St., Seattle (206-624-6600; call ahead for space availability). All are open to the public.
Readers charmed by the simplicity of children’s books often don’t realize the thought and time required. As Laden drills into kids during her school visits, revision is a key part of creation.
For the new book, she initially tried a Lhasa apso Juliet (a third-grader suggested the pun “Drooliet” and garnered a thank-you in the credits) but soon settled on a cocker spaniel as the prettiest and most feminine breed. She toyed with water colors for a muted, antique style but opted for vibrant illustrations with acrylic gouache.
Just released this month, “Romeow” already won fans at New Line Cinema, which bought the film options for a possible live-action movie. She’ll serve as a consultant if it goes into production but isn’t writing the script.
“When I looked at [“Romeow”], I thought, ‘Only Nina could do this,’ ” Myers said. “It’s a brilliant nod to Shakespeare.”
Laden’s first book, “The Night I Followed the Dog,” published in 1994, continues to be her best-seller, but she’s been surprised by the popularity of her baby books, especially the clever “Peek-a-Who?”
“Nina’s board books are some of the top ones for young children — they are exuberant and colorful and (unlike many other board books) totally age appropriate,” raved librarian Susan Veltfort, who selects children’s books for the King County Library System.
Laden writes first, then sketches, and finally, paints. “It’s difficult to say which is harder,” Laden said. “When I’m doing one, I think the other is easier.”
Some references (in one picture, the cats’ coffee table features “As You Lick It” and “Much Ado about Napping”) might sail over kids’ heads, but the action engages them.
“I love her books for their great sense of humor and how they work on so many levels,” Myers said. “Even when you’re reading it for the 1,500th time to your 4-year-old, there’s still something in there to make you smile.”
While some of Laden’s books, such as “Bad Dog,” are one pun after another, Laden says she’s deliberately toning it down. “I grew up with a steady diet of puns; my father was the pun master,” she said. “In the very beginning, I couldn’t help it with the word play. Now I’m more careful about what words I choose to play on; it’s very much for a reason. I want it to be texture, not the main course.”
Laden isn’t wedded to a particular art style. “A lot of times, the books tell me how they want to be illustrated,” she said.
Her first books were in chalk pastel. With “Pigasso,” she went with gouache, an opaque watercolor. She collected junk mail for months to use for the collage in “Roberto the Insect Architect.” She’s experimenting on how to mimic Van Gogh’s thick brush style without its months-long drying time for her next book, “The Brothers Van Goat,” about siblings Vincent and Theo.
“I’m trying to distill the positive influences,” she says of Van Gogh’s life, which doesn’t exactly shout “children’s book.” “I’m not dealing with the ear.”
Visit Nina Laden’s Web site at www.ninaladen.com.
She’s also working on a couple chapter books, but she hopes to move into animation, including consulting on a Disney film.
“I’d never do a series,” she said. “I have too many new ideas I want to present.”
She writes on a computer at their cabin on Lummi Island or in her upstairs office in Ballard. She helped raise three stepsons — Brian, 22, Chris, 20 and Doug, 18 — but only Doug, a high-school senior, still lives at home.
For painting, she moves to her backyard studio, a whitewashed, stove-heated shop with a loft and door porthole. “It’s like a different world,” she said. “I can go up into the loft and hide and my husband doesn’t even know I’m up there.”
Her office is decorated with pictures, cards and letters from fans; she even exchanges Christmas cards with one young pen pal even though the Pennsylvania girl, whom Laden has never met, is now much too old for her picture books.
“I may not be rich financially, but I’m rich with things from the heart, and that’s what counts,” she said. “Kids ask why I do this, and I tell them I always loved books. I’m blessed that I’m able to reach a lot of people, make them laugh and do something that lasts.”
Stephanie Dunnewind: 206-464-2091 or firstname.lastname@example.org