When Loren Long was a boy he loved sending his GI Joe on special missions. Sometimes the missions started from the second story bedroom window of his Lexington, Kentucky home. “I would dress him up and put all of his gear on,” Long says. “I gave him his poncho, extra ammunition, grenades, binoculars, a water canteen, and his rifle and put him on the window sill. His mission was to protect my bedroom and make it until morning.” Long remembers lying in bed at night and thinking about GI Joe–What was he thinking? Did he miss me? Is he okay?—attaching human emotions to a beloved toy. Sometimes Long ramped up the missions. “I would climb a tree in front of a stranger’s house and place GI Joe as high as I could climb.” Then Long would wonder: What if a squirrel came up or an owl swooped down? How would GI Joe protect himself?
These memories and emotions came back to Long as he wrote Drummer Boy, his author/illustrator debut. In Long’s take on the familiar Christmas story, the drummer boy is a lost toy who comes face to face with a raccoon, and is swooped up by an owl and deposited at the top of a bell tower. Using his considerable artistic talent to create acrylic paintings alive with mood and emotion, Long assigns his inanimate character the human emotions he imagined GI Joe felt on those cold lonely nights on the windowsill or in a tree, keeping the area secure for his boy.
When Long graduated from art school, he worked for a greeting card company before finding a niche in broad-based magazine illustration for such clients as Sports Illustrated,Time and Reader’s Digest. At the time, Long’s artist representative began sending his work to book publishers in addition to magazines, and HarperCollins called him to illustrate the book jacket for Gail Carson Levine’s Dave at Night (note: Levine was profiled in this column in December 2010). Other jackets followed, and soon editors from Simon & Schuster and Philomel called Long to illustrate Angela Johnson’s I Dream of Trains and Frances Ward Weller’s The Day the Animals Came: A Story of Saint Francis Day, his first picture book illustration jobs. Long says these opportunities “gave me my career, my passion.”
As Long reflects on the artistic influences of his life, he recalls the American realist painters who painted the Works Progress Administration (WPA) murals during the Great Depression. “Those people were storytellers,” he says. With his characteristic soft-spoken modesty, Long is quick to point out that many artists are technically more accomplished than he, but he recognizes that he has an ability for storytelling through his paintings. “There is a different art to the picture book medium,” he says. “That’s the part that I discovered I had a love for. The process of reading [a manuscript text] and picking moments to illustrate, deciding what to portray and how to portray them.”
For Otis, Long’s second foray as both author and illustrator, he borrowed a story that his two sons made up about a tractor they dubbed Little Green Samuel who rescued a calf from a pond. His sons’ version of the story was loaded with characters, had no front story to build suspense, no device for setting up the problem, and no clever solution, so Long applied what he had learned about storytelling and pared down the idea to a tractor named Otis, a little boy, and a calf. Unlike Drummer Boy, Long wrote the text without thinking about the illustrations, tinkering with words and phrases until he and his editor were satisfied. But while drawing the initial sketches, Long had an epiphany: “What if I take the boy out? The heart of this story is the friendship between the calf and the tractor.” Instead of his usual acrylics, Long chose gouache, relatively unforgiving opaque water colors, experimenting with value—lights, darks and tones—using shades of grey and judicious bursts of red.
President Barack Obama chose Long from a group of artists to illustrate Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to My Daughters. “I got the opportunity to read the text by our President, and I was instantly moved by it,” Long says. “This is a message I wanted my two boys to hear, and that hooked me,” but he admits that the illustrations would be challenging. The President’s manuscript was not a story in the traditional sense, but a survey of famous Americans, harkening back to Long’s portraiture work in magazines. “I didn’t want [the book] to be assorted portraits.” Long wanted more than that, and was actually fearful until he stumbled on an idea that brought the book’s message together with the illustrations. “I had to get to the heart of what the President was saying,” Long says, and he found that heart in the last few lines of the story: “Have I told you that they are all a part of you? Have I told you that you are one of them…” Long drew the President’s daughters, Sasha and Malia, into the story. On the first page, the girls are joined by what could be a young Georgia O’Keefe looking up at what she becomes, a pattern Long repeats on subsequent pages for each famous American.
As Long paints from his studio in his Cincinnati, Ohio home, he tries to create books that children will look upon as friends, a place a child can go to again and again. “I am a 46-year old man,” he says, “and I am focused on the 15 minutes [a child] might spend with my story. Those moments shaped me as a person, they stayed with me.” Creating children’s books is not just a job for Long, “it’s a life, it’s my life’s work.”