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Nina Laden Biography (1962-) - Sidelights

review book dog story

Nina Laden is an author-illustrator with a gift for blending vibrant art work in a variety of mediums with humorous word-play and stories that show a love of art, literature, and films. Most often, her protagonists are animals that act like humans in how they dress and behave. Some resemble real people, such as the artists featured in When Pigasso Met Mootisse and the characters Hank Floyd Mite and Fleas Van Der Rohe in Roberto: The Insect Architect. Laden's books for elementary-and pre-school-age children are often considered entertaining and sometimes slyly educational, for both children and the adults reading to them.


Having first worked as an illustrator, Laden once told SATA that she had long-cherished plans to become an author as well and detailed how her first book came about: "I wrote The Night I Followed the Dog on October 16, 1989. I remember the day quite well. I just sat down at my drawing table, like I always do, and suddenly this entire story popped into my head. I wrote the whole book, start to finish, in twenty minutes, including a sketch of the dog in his tuxedo. I knew who the dog was, but I didn't know where he, or this story, really came from. Later on, I rationalized that he (the dog) was an amalgam of my childhood dog, a German shepherd named Sparky, and Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, in the body of a yellow lab.


"At any rate, I wrote the story and then put it away for nearly five years. During that time, I continued to illustrate for all different clients, mainly working in dyes, ink, and prisma color pencils. I was getting frustrated with myself for not trying to submit my book, and at the same time, I was getting tired of my illustrative techniques. I started experimenting with pastels. In January of 1993, I finally got the motivation to put a dummy together. I had just turned thirty-one, and I had always wanted to be published by the time I was thirty. I was behind schedule.

"I did sample pastel illustrations (the cover of the book is one of them), and I was at once comfortable and happy with the medium and its results. However, when I added type to my dummy, I was not pleased. I felt that the type was too conservative and did not convey a fun, child-like feeling. So I came up with the idea of hand lettering with some words represented somewhat pictographically without compromising their readability. The dummy was definitely different . . . but would it sell? It did . . . and now I am onto my next book, planting seeds for many others, and hoping I can continually create books that are innovative in some way."

Laden has published a growing number of books that continue in the tradition of The Night I Followed the Dog. Private I. Guana: The Case of the Missing Chameleon uses plot and language elements from the hardboiled detective novel and film genres. Detective Private I. Guana undertakes a search for Liz Lizard's missing husband, Leon Chameleon, who is understandably hard to find. In Children's Book Review Service, Linda Nelson said that the book's illustrations were "loaded with humorous details" but advised that much of the humor required a knowledge of detective stories.


When Pigasso Met Mootisse references the real-life friendship of painters Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. In Laden's story, the two animal artists are living next to each other when they let professional differences hurt their friendship. Opposing opinions sprout into a competition in which they fill their farms with art. But they come to miss each other and use fence paintings to apologize. Nancy Menaldi-Scanlan commented in School Library Journal that "the story is fast paced, packed with humor, and filled with clever wordplay." A Kirkus Reviews writer said the book provided "neat little lessons in art history and ego reduction" and remarked that the "characters come across as bumptious, strong-willed, and appealing."

A canine burglar is the lead character in Bad Dog, a pun-filled story about a supposed misunderstanding over the expression "free-range chicken." Bad Dog and his partner Butch are jailed after trying to help themselves to the contents of a chicken coop. Laden provides images of the tempting chicken dishes that fill the dogs' imaginations as well as mug shots after they are caught. A Publishers Weekly reviewer responded that "while the wordplay suggests pure silliness, the casual—and human-scale—crimes detract from this desperado's charm." But Sheilah Kosco of School Library Journal was charmed by Bad Dog's comic visuals and "rollicking text . . . full of humorous innuendo," including what she called a Dragnet-style narrative.

Collages, using painting, drawing, and photographed wood grain, fill the pages of Roberto: The Insect Architect. After failing to find work with famous architects, Roberto anonymously takes on the task of building a community for some homeless bugs. His excellent work turns him into a celebrity. Reviews of Roberto included When your job is having fun, your vacation time becomes especially imaginative as wittily demonstrated in Nina Laden's self-illustrated picture book about the Clownman family. (From Clowns on Vacation.) comments from a Publishers Weekly writer who admired Laden's "striking collages" and found that the "nonstop insect quips and humorous bug house illustrations keep this book buzzing along." Booklist's Gillian Engberg remarked, "It's the elaborate, whimsical collages that are exceptional."


Clowns rather than animals are featured in Clowns on Vacation, in which Laden imagines the fun of tourism and travel clown style, including getting from place to place by getting shot out of a cannon and putting on "Clown Tan" sunscreen rather than "Clown White" makeup. Marge Loch-Wouters observed in School Library Journal that the illustrations are "so busy that readers may find it hard to follow the action." However, a Kirkus Reviews contributor suggested that readers "better sit down before [they] fall down laughing."


Laden's has also illustrated the books of other authors, including The Blues of Flats Brown by Walter Dean Myers. Flats is a guitar-playing hound who travels from Mississippi to New York City, where he eventually becomes a famous musician. In Publishers Weekly, a reviewer described how in a "dusky-pastel world, the anthropomorphic Flats sports sunglasses and jeans, blending right in with other performers and nightclub folk." Karen James commented in School Library Journal that the "story and pictures work well together to create a bluesy atmosphere." And Booklist critic Shelle Rosenfeld admired the way in which "the vibrant, jewel-toned illustrations, dominated by moody, bittersweet, tonal variations of blue, are filled with rich detail, expressive characters, and fantastic landscapes."

Biographical and Critical Sources

PERIODICALS


Booklist, March 1, 2000, Shelle Rosenfeld, review of The Blues of Flats Brown, p. 1242; November 15, 2000, Gillian Engberg, review of Roberto: The Insect Architect, p. 646; May 15, 2003, Carolyn Phelan, review of Grow Up!, p. 1672.

Children's Book Review Service, February, 1996, Linda Nelson, review of Private I. Guana: The Case of the Missing Chameleon, p. 76.

Kirkus Reviews, September 1, 1998, review of When Pigasso Met Mootisse, p. 1287; April 15, 2002, review of Clowns on Vacation, p. 572.

Publishers Weekly, January 24, 2000, review of The Blues of Flats Brown, p. 311; September 11, 2000, review of Bad Dog, p. 90, and review of Roberto, p. 89; May 6, 2002, review of Clowns on Vacation, p. 57; May 12, 2003, review of An Ant's Day Off, p. 66.

School Library Journal, November, 1998, Nancy Menaldi-Scanlan, review of When Pigasso Met Mootisse, p. 89; March, 2000, Karen James, review of The Blues of Flats Brown, p. 210; September, 2000, Sheilah Kosco, review of Bad Dog, p. 2002; July, 2002, Marge Loch-Wouters, review of Clowns on Vacation, p. 94; July, 2003, Wendy Woodfill, review of An Ant's Day Off, p. 87.

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