General Info
Q & A
For Teachers
Just for Fun
(curricular activities with the emphasis on creativity)
© Nina Laden 2003

Since my first book, “THE NIGHT I FOLLOWED THE DOG” came out in 1994 I have seen some very creative activities inspired by it in classrooms across the United States, Canada, Guam, and a few foreign countries too. I have also come up with ideas of my own for extracting fun, and lessons from my books. I want to share some of them with you. Understand that I come from a fine art background, not an educational one- but my mother was a teacher and she inspired me to always share what I learned. I hope you will find some things to use in your classrooms. I’d also love to hear any new ideas and uses of my books that you create!


My first published book, “THE NIGHT I FOLLOWED THE DOG” came out in September 1994 to huge critical acclaim, many awards and long-term success. This book has inspired so many classroom projects. I will attempt to highlight as many as I can. What seems to be the focus is my “animated "word” text.

• WORD PLAY: An activity that I created which is similar to “Mad Libs.” Students learn the importance of nouns, verbs and adjectives. They also will experiment with illustrating words graphically. This is not a rebus, the word must be represented typographically and with visual elements that suggest its meaning.

• WORD PLAY 2: A school came up with this great idea which is the opposite of my word play above. The teacher xeroxed and cut out a set of all the “animated words” in the book text. (this is fine with me!) She gave a full set to each student. They had to write a coherent story using and pasting the animated words in place. The results were so varied, hilarious and inspired.

• WRITE ON: Write an adventure story where you follow your pet, or sibling, or teacher... or?

• FOCUS ON VOICE: The voice in this book is a seven year old boy. What if the dog told the story? Or the Mom? How would you tell it if you were witnessing it happen?

• ILLUSTRATION: The art is done in chalk pastel on dark gray paper. Pastels are messy, but fun to work with. Try doing a pastel illustration. Try blending the colors with your fingers on the paper. Draw the background first and then add details on top.

• A LITTLE SCIENCE: Study dogs. Of course you know they don’t act like humans, or do they? What traits of dogs are similar to humans? Which are not? Why is a dog the best choice for this story?

• FUN: On the back flap of the book, in my biography I wrote that I was trying to figure out where socks disappear to. One school had their students write stories about where socks go. They rolled up the stories and put them in (clean) socks, which were pinned to the wall. The teacher had the kids guess whose sock was whose, and the owner read their story.

• HOLLYWOOD: This book may (fingers crossed!) be turned into a movie. We had to add more to make it a full-length feature film. How would you make this story continue? Or what would you add at the beginning? The middle? Which characters would you like to know more about? What kind of


My second book, “PRIVATE I. GUANA” came out in the fall of 1995. It has been a great book to read out loud and perform. I have seen some great “plays” at schools inspired by this detective mystery. This book is also available in paperback. The paperback edition has a detailed “Reader’s Guide” with many activities at the back.

• WORD PLAY: This book is great for emphasizing language and word play.
What is a play on words? The clue to the entire mystery is a play on the word “chameleon- Camille/Leon.” Find other words with more than one meaning. (eg: Officer Croaker had a habit of jumping to conclusions.)

• WRITE ON: What makes a mystery work? What are clues? Private I. Guana is an iguana detective. What kinds of cases are good for an iguana to solve? Write another case for Private I. Guana to solve. Create your own detective character, write a case for that kind of detective.

• FOCUS ON VOICE: Private I. Guana has a very strong voice. He speaks like a detective from an old movie. Liz the lizard has a different voice, so does Officer Croaker. What if a different character told the story, how would it sound? Make your voice sound like the different characters when you read out loud.

• ILLUSTRATION: The art here is also done in chalk pastel on dark gray paper, but with much more detail. There is also a huge emphasis on perspective. What is perspective? What is a bird’s eye view? What is a worm’s eye view? Why would you use different perspectives? Do a drawing of something from a straight-on perspective; then draw it from above or below. Notice the shadows and the light in the illustrations. Notice the details, like the lollipops in Private I. Guana’s pencil holder. Draw some details that will show extra things about your character or story. Or create a “Missing Poster” for a character.

• A LITTLE SCIENCE: I did a lot of research on reptiles and amphibians before I did this book. Study reptiles and amphibians. Focus on iguanas, learn about their anatomy, where they live, what they eat. Find different reptiles and amphibians in my illustrations, what are they? (eg: There is a basilisk and a Texas horned lizard on one page.)

• FUN: The characters have very funny names. Think of some fun names for different characters.


“MY FAMILY TREE” is my first non-fiction book. It came out in 1997, and has won high praise. It is an activity book with a poster included. There are also pages to list information on relatives, pages to paste photos, and an “about me” page for the child to fill out. This book is great for units on Family Trees. It is also “modern” in that it deals with divorce, re-marriage, half and step-siblings. (I do not mention adoption. That, I believe, is a separate issue.) Most activities with this book are self-explanatory!


Debuting in the fall of 1998, based on the true story of the rivalry between Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, this book continues to grow in popularity in the classroom, the library, and in museum shops around the world. There is much to be learned from Pigasso and Mootisse, not only the world of art and its foibles, but a nice lesson in creative conflict resolution. I also wrote actual biographies of the real artists on the last spread. This book has also been performed as a play in the classroom.

• WORD PLAY: There are some very playful words here. Notice words that are fun puns like “moosterpiece,” and “pork of art.” When Pigasso and Mootisse yell at each other, they use art as a theme- what if they were scientists, what kind of insults could they hurl at each other?

• WRITE ON: Study some other artists or famous people. What if they met someone else famous. Write a story about what happens when one meets the other. What if YOU met someone famous, write a the story of when you met that person. Pigasso and Mootisse are “characters” but they are based on real people. Turn other “real” people into animal type characters. Write their story.

• FOCUS ON VOICE: The voice in this story is the narrator- or third person. How would it change if Pigasso told the story... or Mootisse? Would it be the same?

• ILLUSTRATION: Huge emphasis on style! This is where this book shines. Study the styles of Picasso and Matisse. What makes a style different? Is one better than the other? In my illustrations, painted in Gouache- a French tempera paint, I paint Pigasso and his world using elements of Picasso’s style. (eg: Cubism) Mootisse and his environment is painted using elements of Matisse. (eg: flat color cut-out look) Paint a portrait of a friend (or yourself) using Picasso’s style. Do another one in Matisse’s. Do you like one better?

• ILLUSTRATION 2: I have parodied (made fun of) some very famous paintings done by Picasso, Matisse, and I’ve also made fun of Jackson Pollock... and Michaelangelo’s “Creation” done for the Sistine Chapel. Find reproductions of the originals and compare and contrast. Find a “masterpiece” that you like, and create your own modern version using any materials- paint, crayon, collage, etc...

• A LITTLE HISTORY: Picasso and Matisse were considered the greatest artists of the 20th century. Learn more about their lives and their careers.

• FUN: Visit a museum or a gallery. Imagine what it is like to see your art hanging on the wall!

(written by Walter Dean Myers, illustrated by me)

It was a huge honor for me to illustrate the Legendary Mr. Myers book. “FLATS BROWN” came out in March of 2000 and gave me a new audience. (It also won awards.) I play blues guitar and found the heart of the blues in the text, which I tried to give a soul in the art.

• WRITE ON: Walter’s story is told in a “storytelling” style. What is that? Write a story in that style. Flats Brown is a dog who plays guitar, but he lives in a normal “human” world. What if the human character- Mr. A.J. Grubbs suddenly found himself doing something not normal for a human, what kind of story could you write about that? (eg: He started barking instead of speaking.)

• FOCUS ON VOICE: The narrator of this story uses “vernacular” language. What is that? What would happen if you used more “proper” English? What does this do to the “flavor” of the story? What are accents? Discuss accents from different parts of this country or from other countries.

• ILLUSTRATION: The illustrations are done in chalk pastel on dark gray paper. This book has a color “theme” of blue tones. I did this on purpose because it was a story about the blues. Do an illustration that has a color theme. What would be a good color choice for a certain subject? (eg: the desert: orange variations)

• MUSIC: Study the blues and blues singers and musicians. Perform the song at the end of the book. Write your own blues lyrics, or lyrics and music.

• A LITTLE HISTORY: This book traces the history of the blues- the only truly American music form. Study how the blues began in the deep South, and worked its way to the North.

• FUN: Tape your class performing Walter’s song. Mail it to him c/o the publisher.


These are my interactive board books for the littlest beginning readers. Both published in 2000. Besides being adorable, these little gems actually are used in kindergartens and some first grades. “PEEK-A WHO?” actually out-sold every book on my publishers list (including adult books) in 2001.
• PEEK-A WHO?: Not just a guessing game- but a phonetic approach to the “oo” sound!

• READY, SET, GO!: Guess the “action” words.

• ILLUSTRATION: Make a little book with fun features like die-cut windows, or a pop-up or pull-the-tab. What would be a cool use of a mirror, window, or other materials in a book?


“BAD DOG” also published in 2000. (I had five books out that year, whew!) I actually wrote this book in 1995, but after rejection, re-working, more rejection and a few years, I wound up taking it to a different publisher who was delighted. (The lesson is: don’t give up!) “BAD DOG” was not completely understood by some who reviewed it, but it is (I think) the best read-aloud I’ve written.

• WORD PLAY: This book is chock full of nutty word play. Not only will you find tons of puns, but there is a lot of alliteration, many metaphors, similes and homonyms. Dissect the language to discover many layers. (and eggs, chickens, poachers, scramblers, etc...)

• WRITE ON: The “Endpapers” (the pages that glue the book into the cover) have been an endless source of fascination for students I’ve talked to. I created a “Rogue’s Gallery” of other “Bad Dogs.” These dogs do not actually appear in the book, although some look an awful lot like some characters from “THE NIGHT I FOLLOWED THE DOG.” (I’m not telling.) Have the students write a story about one of these other “Bad” dogs. Or create a new one.

• FOCUS ON VOICE: “So they say I’m a bad dog.” So begins Bad Dog’s first person narrative. “BAD DOG” is actually written in free verse. It is a form of poetry that doesn’t rhyme, but has a strong rhythm. Listen to the rhythm. Read it out loud. Notice that it flows easily, and allows you to take a breath at the end of a sentence or paragraph. Songs are written this way. Experiment with writing with a rhythm, or a beat.

• ILLUSTRATION: Again, chalk pastel on dark gray paper here. Pastels are good for depicting motion because you can smear and smudge them. Notice how I’ve used that in the book. Draw something that will have motion, and try smearing the colors for that effect. Or work on dog characters- create “Wanted” posters for your “Bad” dog.

• A LITTLE SOCIOLOGY: Discuss what makes someone “bad” in society. Why do we have rules? Bad Dog doesn’t understand the “human” rules. What kind of rules would dog societies have?

• FUN: Bad Dog loves chicken! Plan a lunch where you eat chicken cooked in different ways.


“ROBERTO” also took many years to develop, finally publishing in Fall 2000.
This book took the longest for me to create on all fronts, but I am incredibly proud of how it turned out. Awards have followed including “Notable Book from Smithsonian,” and a Silver Medal from the New York Society of Illustrators. The message in this book is loud and clear: You can build your dreams.

• WORD PLAY: As with my other books, puns are plentiful. There are also some unusual character names. (eg: Hank Floyd Mite, Steven Shieldbug) Turn a famous person’s name into a good character name. Roberto’s mother tells him “there are termites starving in Antarctica.” Why? What would be a good place for termites to live? (eg: Redwood City, HollyWOOD.)

• WRITE ON: Roberto wants to be an architect. What would be a good job or career for other types of characters? Write a story about how your character achieves his/her/its dream. What obstacles will your character have to get over in order to achieve their dreams? How will your character’s achievement affect the the others, or the world itself?

• FOCUS ON VOICE: Roberto is told in “third person.” When I first wrote it, Roberto told the story himself. Then I tried having his mother tell the story. Try writing part of the story with Roberto telling it, or his mother. Listen to the difference. Which way works the best? Why?

• ILLUSTRATION: BE CREATIVE! Read the information on the copyright & dedication page where I explain what materials I’ve used to create the collages in this book. What is a collage? What effects can you create with collage that you can’t with paint or pastel alone? Make a collage using as many materials as you can. Look closely at the illustrations in the book, try to figure out exactly what the images were before I used them to create other images. (eg: The “Wingfly Museum” is made from a coffee/espresso machine, with boom box speakers for “eyes,”pasta forks for “antennae, and a nose hair clipper for the “beak.”) Use unusual source materials to create a completely different image.

• A LITTLE SCIENCE: Study insects and what kind of “homes” they live in. Design and build a “home’ for some kind of insect. (I have seen some incredible examples of this project from intermediate grades all over the world.) Use all kinds of material from clay to board to whatever...

• A LITTLE HISTORY: Study about architects and architecture. Who was Frank Lloyd Wright? Who was Mies Van Der Rohe? What modern buildings do you like? What do you like about them?

• FUN: Look at buildings. What you would you feel like if you lived in different types of buildings?


“CLOWNS” came out in April of 2002. This book is a little “younger” than my
other fiction, but don’t let it fool you! There is more going on than you think! I have been a little frustrated by the discovery that a lot of people don’t like clowns. This is too bad. My clowns wish to change that opinion! Help spread the word.

• WORD PLAY: Questions, not puns are the rule here. The text also rhymes. Can you write a series of rhyming questions that tell a story?

• WRITE ON: Answer the questions in the story and turn it into your version of what happens on the clown family vacation. Describe what happens in the illustrations. Have you ever had a fun/great/bad/unusual vacation? Write a story about it. Where else could the clowns go on vacation? Write a story about that. (eg: Clowns in Space.)

• FOCUS ON VOICE: The voice here is that of the Ringmaster in the circus. How would it sound if the clowns were telling the story, OR asking the questions?

• ILLUSTRATION: The illustrations are done in a combination of paint (acrylic) and collage. The colors are very bright. Why? Clowns are fun to draw. Draw or paint different clown faces. Create fun clown clothing using collage technique.

• A LITTLE HISTORY: Study the history of the circus. What kind of performers are there besides clowns? Have circuses changed much since they started? Would you want to join a circus? Why or why not?

• FUN: Lots of fun here: Dress up as clowns. Paint each other’s faces, or do your own. Wear a clown nose somewhere serious. (Like the dentist.) How does it make you feel? Go to the circus!!

(written by Bonny Becker, illustrated by me)

This book published from Simon & Schuster in June 2003. It is a very sweet story about a “sand-moving” worker ant who takes a day off. It’s a “natural world” adventure of sorts. I did the illustrations in pastels. It will be a great book to launch a unit on ants and what “jobs” bugs do.


This is the third in my board book series, along with “PEEK-A WHO?” and“READY, SET, GO!” “GROW UP!” will also publish in May 2003. It is interactive with die-cut windows and a mirror at the end of the book. It focuses on “little to big” or “baby to adult.” (eg: Kitten to Cat, Puppy to Dog, Tadpole to Frog, etc...) And it rhymes. This book will be a great book to introduce a little science to the younger set.


“ROMEOW & DROOLIET” is about a male cat who falls in love with a female dog. It is my take on Shakespeare, but for the elementary audience. I am including some iambic pentameter in rhyming couplets for those young budding literary majors, though! This book is being optioned for feature film... so keep your paws crossed that my star-crossed inter-species love story will make it to the big screen!

FINALLY: Thank you for bringing my books into your class rooms and libraries... and thank you for creating and nurturing our future generations of readers and book lovers. You have my deepest appreciation, admiration and respect. -Your Friend In Fiction and Reality- Nina Laden