When Victoria Rock, founding children’s publisher and current editor-at-large at Chronicle Books, decided to publish Nina Laden’s Peek-a WHO!, a die-cut, guessing-game board book, her instincts proved correct. Released in 2000, the book currently has more than 850,000 copies in print, with 140,000 copies sold in 2013 alone. In March, Chronicle will release a follow-up board book, Peek-a ZOO!, which challenges toddlers to identify animals using visual clues seen through die-cut windows. The same month, the publisher will issue Laden’s Daddy Wrong Legs, a split-page board book that mixes and matches images of different fathers – including those of the hairy and scary ilk.
The daughter of two artists, Laden came to her calling innately – and early. Her father, Bob Laden, is a sculptor and special effects make-up artist who has been twice nominated for an Oscar. Her mother, the late Frieda Savitz, was an abstract expressionist painter who also wrote poetry. Laden explained that, with their encouragement, she began drawing and making up stories at a very young age.
“I definitely get my creative DNA from my parents,” she said. “My father taught me a love of wordplay, and my mother influenced everything I’ve done in my life and career. By the age of two or three, I’d fold pieces of paper and tell her a story, and she would write it down for me. At five, I stapled together a stack of paper and made my first ‘real’ book, Circles Have Reasons to Be Happy. At nine, I decided I wanted to become a children’s book author and illustrator when I grew up.”
The Night I Followed the Dog, Laden’s first book project as an adult, was partially inspired by her mother’s love of the film Casablanca, which as a child she watched with her repeatedly. In her book, a boy sees his seemingly ordinary dog alight from a limo one morning wearing a tuxedo (and, in Laden’s art, channeling Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine), and follows him that night to discover that he owns a jazzy nightclub.
“The book grew out of my memories of Casablanca and my love of dogs,” said Laden. “One day in 1989, all these images from my childhood came back to me as I was driving home, and when I arrived I sat down and wrote the whole story down in a single stream of consciousness, without paragraphs, and then drew a picture of a dog wearing a tuxedo.”
After Laden showed the book to a friend, who disliked the fact that it meshed the human and canine worlds, she stowed it in a drawer, where it stayed for four and a half years. “I had always wanted to publish my first book by the time I was 30, and that hadn’t happened,” she recalled. “So I sent The Night I Followed the Dog to three publishers, and one rejected it pretty quickly – but I still hadn’t heard from the others. Right around the same time, my best friend was in Italy on her honeymoon, and met an American literary agent, Kendra Marcus, on a ferry in the middle of Lake Como – and told her about my book.”
After Laden sent Marcus The Night I Followed the Dog, the agent submitted it to Rock, who was impressed. “The book was right up my alley – and Chronicle’s,” she said. “The story works on a variety of levels. On the surface, it is a fun narrative, with elements adults and kids can both appreciate. I love the book’s humor, and Nina’s hand lettering gives it a very different and distinctive look. It was clear that there was an author with a terrific mind behind this picture book.” Chronicle published the book in fall 1994.
Delving into a New Format
Though Laden published several subsequent picture books with Chronicle, including My Family Tree: A Bird’s Eye View and When Pigasso Met Mootisse, she had never expected to create board books until a personal experience propelled her in that direction and inspired Peek-a WHO! “All my friends were having babies at the time, and I wanted to give them a present that was intelligent and fun, but wasn’t a typical board book,” she said. “So on a whim I came up with the idea of a guessing game through a die-cut window, ending with a foil panel that worked as a mirror, so that children see themselves. And I played around with some materials to find the right medium to use, and stumbled onto the idea of making fake woodcuts, painting the paper black and then painting over that with acryla gouache, which has the best qualities of both acrylic and gouache.”
Given the success of Peek-a WHO!, the concept worked, and continues to work. Rock noted that, unlike most books’ sales patterns, sales of this title grow every year, an increase she attributes to “a perfect storm of timing.” According to the editor, word of mouth generated sales from the beginning, and they remained stable for six or eight years. “Then the numbers took a big leap, and I think that had to do with the fact that the Internet and social media came more into play,” said Rock. “People began reviewing the book online, and word of mouth travels much faster that way. It’s become a ‘go to’ baby gift, and we’ve come to call it ‘the little book that could.’ ”
And why did Laden wait more than a decade to create the sequel? “I never saw myself as a series person,” she explained. “I like to move on and am constantly trying to reinvent myself, and in between I did other board books with different concepts. So when Victoria suggested creating another book like Peek-a WHO!, I tried playing around with animals’ eyes and noses, but everything fell flat until the idea for Peek-a ZOO! surfaced. In a way, the idea came organically – even if it took 12 years.” After two pre-pub print runs, the new book has 65,000 copies in print.
Chronicle will promote Peek-a ZOO! and Daddy Wrong Legs on social media, and Laden (who is now represented by Laura Rennert at Andrea Brown Literary Agency) will discuss the books via guest posts on a variety of blog sites, where there will also be giveaways of her new books.
A third, Halloween-themed book in the series, Peek-a BOO!, is scheduled for fall 2015. Laden is happy to be back creating guessing-game books after experiencing what she calls “a rough period” between 2007 and 2012. “I had a lot of things going on in my life, and I couldn’t do fun and lively books then,” she said. “Now I’m out of the bad times and into the good times again.”
Peek-a ZOO! by Nina Laden. Chronicle, $6.99 Mar. 978-1-4521-1175-9
Daddy Wrong Legs by Nina Laden. Chronicle, $6.99 Mar. 978-1-4521-1528-3