From a young age, Loren Long loved to draw. In school, it was something he was really good at. And he wanted to grow up to be an artist. Even when he was diagnosed with colorblindness, Loren never let go of his dream. He majored in graphic design in college, went to art school, and became a #1 New York Times bestselling illustrator and author.
After a career illustrating greeting cards and magazine covers, he designed book covers. That led him to his career in picture book illustration. And ultimately paved the way to writing and illustrating picture books.
Loren is a storyteller. Watching him present at a book event or speak on a panel with other authors and illustrators is a real treat. He is funny, insightful, and inspirational.
Here are a few reasons why his books are so popular.
EMOTIONAL CONNECTION TO THE READER
Loren Long’s stories have a timeless quality and are cherished by children and adults alike. They have what many refer to as “heart”.
In Little Tree, Long delivers emotion in every spread using pictures and or words. He doesn’t say the little tree is happy or has friends; kids see bright green leaves and other trees all around him. But fall comes and other trees drop their leaves except for Little Tree. He didn't say Little Tree is afraid of change. In every season, the art and the repeated refrain “Little Tree just hugged his leaves tight.” reveal that emotion.
SETTING & CHARACTER
Long is well-known for creating the picture book series about an endearing character named Otis highlighting themes of friendship and kindness. In each story in the series, Long uses events from farm life that easily translate to universal values kids are introduced to at home and in school.
Otis his first book in the series, Long’s young audience learns about where Otis lives and what’s important to him in the opening.
“There was once a friendly little tractor. His name was Otis, and every day Otis and his farmer worked together taking care of the farm they called home. Otis liked to work.”
The child understands:
· The character is a tractor.
· The tractor’s name is Otis.
· Otis is a friendly tractor.
· Every day Otis and his farmer are together.
· Together they took care of the farm.
· The farm is home.
· Otis liked to work.
When developing a character, it’s important to know what makes that character appealing. In an interview, Long said he developed the character first before creating the image. The traits of Otis are reflected through his sounds, actions, and reactions to situations and other characters. Let’s look at how Long shows us what he wants us to know about Otis.
Why do kids care about Otis?
He’s friendly. Otis has big headlight eyes, a metal nose, cute smile, two big wheels in the back, and one in the front that helps him do things tractors do. His putt puff puttedy chuff helps a scared little calf drift off to sleep. His puttering purr reveals his gentle nature.
What are some childlike qualities Otis has?
He loves to play and have fun! He chases rabbits, plays leapfrog over bales of hay and ring-around-the-rosy.
Why would a child remember Otis?
Otis is kind. In this story, he befriends a lonely calf. And children can relate to the idea of loneliness or at least empathize. They can relate to the sadness Otis feels when the farmer brought home a newer bigger tractor and Otis is sent to live behind the barn where “weeds began to cover his tires.” Kids will cheer when the calf gets into trouble and Otis comes to the rescue. Because that’s what we teach kids what friends do and Otis is a special friend.
Long establishes the character qualities of Otis the first book. In each book thereafter, when Otis is faced with a new conflict, he stays true to himself.
In Otis and the Tornado, Long introduces a bull who snorts, snarls, huffs, glares, and flares his nostrils. This character is not gentle and everyone is afraid of him. But when Otis learns the bull could be in danger, he stays true to his character and takes a big risk to help the bull. And in the end, Otis makes a new friend.
In this story Long reveals something new about Otis. He is not only brave, but he is courageous too. Otis is brave when he acts without fear to save the calf; he is courageous when he acts despite fear of the bull and the tornado.
In Otis and the Kittens, An Otis Christmas, and Otis and the Puppy Long continues to explore the character trait of selflessness by putting Otis in danger before saving others.
Long’s supporting characters; the lonely calf, big scary bull, and an impulsive puppy also serve a purpose. They all have traits that lead to making choices so Otis can jump into action and become the character he is supposed to be.
Find more books in the Otis the Tractor series here.
So writers, if you are creating a character that is kind, considerate and caring, you want them to be like Otis. If you have a dream of becoming a picture book writer and wonder if you have the talent, persistence, and perseverance, be like Loren.
Illustrated picture books by Loren Long
Creating a Character? Keep it Simple by Bonnie Becker
Character Traits in Every Word by Erika Wassall