Nina Victor Crittenden sits at her home studio desk and begins to paint. Shy and modest, she’s hesitant to talk about herself, but the words come easier as she strokes her watercolor brush across the back of a flying dragon.
She paints with a watercolor kit she says is “like most kids would have.” It’s the same set she used in high school. “I really like them and I’m sticking with them,” says Nina in her quiet, gentle voice, becoming more comfortable with each wash of green.
Talking about her artistic process, she explains that first she sketches a small image, then scans the sketch into Photoshop and enlarges it so she has more space to work with. Then she transfers the image onto watercolor paper, inks it, and lets it dry overnight.
Clearly, her prep for our interview was to have this image ready to paint. It’s a picture of Cedric, a young boy from her first picture book Cedric and the Dragon by Elizabeth Raum, flying on a dragon. “He didn’t get to do that in the book,” says Nina, “so I thought it would be fun for him to fly on the dragon.” As she starts to paint, the mom in her realizes she didn’t put a helmet on Cedric. “In today’s world, he probably would not be allowed to fly on a dragon without a helmet. But dragons are a pretty safe way to travel, so I think he’ll be okay,” she says, her subtle sense of humor surfacing.
Cedric and the Dragon is a story about a young prince who struggles with math and reading and fails miserably at dragon-slaying school. When a dragon appears to be terrorizing the kingdom, Cedric discovers the real problem, and saves the kingdom with kindness and hugs. A delightful story on its own, the underlying theme of compassion and kindness toward others reminds young readers that everyone matters and has special talents, and there’s more than one way to address conflict.
Author and former librarian Elizabeth Raum says, “I worked with a lot of kids in school who sometimes had trouble and they always felt badly about it. They just failed to realize there are many other skills and talents. And sometimes there are things that are more important than doing well in school. And certainly loving others is about as much more important as you can get. And Cedric’s good at that.”
Nina was naturally drawn to the book’s message. “My husband and I have been teaching our children to treat others with kindness since they were very young. The message at the heart of Cedric and the Dragon is kindness. It was a perfect fit,” she says. Even more so, the art requirements were a dream come true.
“What I really loved about working on this book,” Nina says, “was that as a little kid, all I did was draw princesses and horses, so this was totally right up my alley. Cedric had six sisters and they were all princesses. So it was such a great opportunity. And the great thing about dragons—there aren’t really any rules about what they need to look like. So I got to make this dragon the kind of dragon I would want to meet if I were a kid—or actually right now.”
A certified veterinary technician, Nina is an animal lover. She says, “What I love about being an artist is that I can draw pictures of dogs and cats and horses and I can put my pets in the pictures. And make up dragons. It gives me a chance to combine two things I really love: artwork and animals.”
Nina says she really felt like Cedric was the kind of kid who would have a dog and a cat with him all the time. “He just struck me as such a sweet boy,” she says. So she made sure his pets were always tagging along and integrated into what Cedric was occupied with in each illustration. “One of the things I tried to be conscious of when working on the book was keeping the ages of the dog, and cat, and Cedric all in sync so they would grow up together.”
Nina used her own pets as models. “My poor cat,” she says. “I wanted the markings to be consistent. So every time I had to paint the cat from a new angle, I disturbed my cat from wherever he was sleeping to check his markings.”
One the biggest lessons she’s taken from working on her first picture book is being open to revisions and learning from others. “I will never forget the kindness and patience that everyone at Elva Resa showed me when I was illustrating Cedric and the Dragon,” says Nina. “Revisions are an essential part of the process and they make the final product the best it can possibly be. I have learned to listen with an open mind, and I continue to do my very best to learn as much as I can from the talented people I am working with.”
One of the revisions to Cedric and the Dragon was the interior title page illustration, a page that for some might be an afterthought. The opening scene of the book celebrates Cedric’s birth at the palace, so Nina initially drew a beautiful dragon’s egg for the title page, to show anticipation of the birth of the dragon as well. The book’s editor loved the idea of anticipation, but wanted to keep the focus on Cedric. The collaborative result: a crown on the queen’s pregnant belly brought both ideas together.
When Nina was contacted to illustrate Cedric and the Dragon, she was at the tail end of an illustration mentorship through the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.
“I was just getting ready to dive into creating a picture book dummy, never imagining that I would be asked to illustrate an actual picture book,” says Nina. “It was such an honor. The biggest thing I gained was the confidence to keep working in hopes that I might have a chance to illustrate another book someday.”
Her mentor was the talented Christina Rodriguez, an illustrator experienced in several styles, who has won awards for her work in books like The Wishing Tree by Mary Redman and Storm Codes by Tracy Nelson Maurer.
“When I first saw Nina’s work, I was enamored with her whimsical style and the sweet, humorous stories she tells through her art,” says Christina. “It was a pleasure to mentor her as an illustrator and help set her on the path to publication: building and curating her portfolio and promotional presence before debuting as one of the most charming children’s illustrators I’ve ever known. It’s been a joy to see her expand and develop her voice both as an artist and a writer over the years, and I can’t wait to see what she does next!”
What’s next for Nina is more of what she loves most: combining her love of art and animals. She is busy submitting board book and picture book dummies to publishers. Her next published picture book, Chicken Lily by Lori Mortensen, is scheduled for release in March 2016.
“Books have the power to transport us and transform us,” says Nina. “I have always loved books and I am so thankful that I have been given the marvelous opportunity to help create books for young readers.”
Nina Victor Crittenden
Chicken Lily by Lori Mortensen
Buy the book: Amazon
Karen Pavlicin-Fragnito is an award-winning publisher, writer, and editor who has collaborated with many authors and illustrators to create meaningful books. One of her all-time favorite collaborative moments was Nina’s title page illustration of the queen’s crowned pregnant belly for Cedric and the Dragon.