Photo by Peggy Sturdivant
Ballard author and illustrator Nina Laden

At Large in Ballard: Full Color

Nina Laden admits, “Ever since I was born I’ve been trying to do the whole package.”

Although referring to writing and illustrating books, the statement could apply to all aspects of her life. She is so creative she can barely hear a word without realizing its story potential, gather shells without creating jewelry, or pick berries without making her own liqueur (and labels).

Nina credits her creativity in part to genetics -- her parents were both artists -- and from the time she could hold a crayon she was drawing. At three, she was folding paper into books and dictating stories to her mother. She completed her first book, “The Unbearable Bird,” at nine years old; including a handwritten copyright and a dedication to her 4th grade teacher. With every single school assignment she included full-page color illustrations.

A framed illustration from her 4th grade book hangs on the wall of her Ballard home office, next to the bookshelf with first editions of some of her 13 books in print, above the oak file drawer that belonged to her mother and holds every sketchbook journal she’s kept since she was a teenager.

The journals hold ideas for projects already realized and those still to come. Hence, a notebook is always close by, because that way no idea is ever lost. When Nina visits schools or speaks to groups about inspiring creativity, she passes on her most important lesson: “Never tear out any pages.” In the journal drawer there’s a gift from a high school friend who must have been wise beyond her years. The journal was one continuous page so Nina couldn’t tear anything out.

In addition to ideas, these journals and notebooks contain sketches, including one of her teacher Tobias Wolff at Syracuse University, who was surprised to learn she was a Fine Arts major rather than one in Creative Writing. The writing was intuitive -- she wanted to master illustration so she could create that full package. Nina also wanted to have her first book published by the time she was 30 years old. The Night I Followed the Dog was in bookstores when she was thirty-two.

In the 18 years since that children’s book, Nina has had 12 more books published, illustrated three others, won numerous national awards and has a book she authored due out in April 2013, through publisher Little, Brown. She also has a young adult novel being “shopped” by her agent and several other projects in various stages. Her picture book Peek-A-Who was on Scholastic’s 100 Greatest Books for Kids list that was released in 2012.

Since her youthful desire for publishing Nina has acquired more patience, realizing that even time not spent illustrating in her studio or writing in her office is creative time. However she wishes she did have more time to devote to work. Along with her husband Booth she raised three stepsons and the last years have had more than their share of challenges, Booth’s father’s death, her father’s mental illness. Nina’s mother died when she was in her mid-twenties; Nina hopes she somehow knows of her success in creating award-winning children’s books.

“The story is what matters to me the most,” Nina said. “I can draw in any style but the story is what brings a child back over and over.”

Even though, for the first time, she won’t be illustrating the forthcoming Once Upon A Memory, it will still be her story and rhyme.

“I’ve never been accused of warm and fuzzy,” she said, referring to the publisher’s concept for this book. “But the collaboration has been a great symbiosis.”

Although raised in Queens and then in New York State, Nina came to Seattle by way of Atlanta, where she met her future husband, Booth Buckley. On a subsequent visit to him in Seattle, she said “The coffee blew my mind.” After all, she was a child raised by New York artists, with her mother stirring a teaspoon of espresso into her milk. Now she stirs a teaspoon of milk into her Kenyan coffee, her mother’s stovetop espresso makers still very much part of her spotless kitchen. What could she do but move here and buy a house in Ballard?

The 1903 Ballard Farmhouse is another one of Nina’s artistic creations, along with her husband Booth. “The history of the house is written on the walls,” she said.

It’s true, the original owner did write on the walls. In the backyard she has a studio, and Booth has a garage and storage for their kayaks. Just as in her speech everything but the exterior of the house speaks to the creativity percolating inside night and day. Nina had the idea to use aluminum diamond plate in the kitchen, usually seen only on semi-trucks. From cooking to jewelry making to book projects, “I have never ever been without ideas,” Nina said.

Just as in her illustrations Nina Laden doesn’t get described as warm and fuzzy. Her mind is too sharp, her past too dark. Possibly her contradictions create the tension at the root of all her compelling stories. She’s anti-social by nature and yet appears to open her life to others in words and photos online, through website, blog and Facebook. Her energy is incredible yet she claims to know that rest is essential.

On the eve of what life has most recently put across her tracks, her husband’s need for triple bypass surgery, she proved as fierce and yet nurturing as a mother bear. When Nina Laden says, “No one will get between me and my husband’s life,” know that she means every word, with or without illustrations.

Nina’s website is at

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