Local author and illustrator Loren Long has illustrated picture books by major national figures, including President Barack Obama, and he’s also written and illustrated numerous stories of his own, many of which feature a beloved dog named Otis. Loren’s latest project is illustrating the picture book Change Sings: An Anthem for Children (Penguin Random House) by Amanda Gorman, the youngest inaugural poet in U.S. history.
Loren shares how Cincinnati, which he calls “an incredible mural town,” played a role in his creative process for Change Sings. Gorman’s book was released in September, her third title published this year.
How did you become the illustrator for the picture book Change Sings: A Children’s Anthem?
I don’t exactly know how I was chosen to illustrate it, but Amanda Gorman and I have the same literary agent, Steven Malk, so I imagine it started with him. I believe Amanda may have known of some of my books, certainly the one I illustrated for President Obama, Of Thee I Sing.
How did you first hear or read the poetry of Amanda Gorman? What line in Change Sings most inspired you personally?
I first heard of her in summer 2019 when Steve called with her picture book manuscript. Like many people at that point, I hadn’t yet been introduced to her work but learned that she was the Inaugural Youth Poet Laureate of the U.S. I believe at that time Amanda was entering her senior year at Harvard, and I was quickly impressed that she was already a powerhouse and a young person bringing positivity and hope into the world. My favorite line in Change Sings is “Change sings where? There! Inside me. Because I’m the change I want to see.”
The illustrations are saturated with glowing, bright, jewel-like colors. How did you decide on the color palette for this project?
The color palette developed organically upon making the MLK mural scene in the second spread of the book. I painted it as if it was a summer mural project, something done by our very own ArtWorks here in Cincinnati. The warm mosaic pattern and bold hand-drawn letters called for bright warm colors, and that set the stage for the art in the rest of the book, including the “We Are the Change” mural toward the end.
In a way, the illustrations tell a story that belies the text itself, about a young girl assembling a band of children. Tell us a bit about this visual sequence and some of the specific children in the band.
Amanda’s poem is a lyrical verse rather than a narrative story, like Otis the Tractor, for example. I love illustrating both, but the illustration challenge in Change Sings was to make up that visual narrative to accompany Amanda’s lyrical verse that would be both intimate and universal. It felt similar to the challenge I had when illustrating Of Thee I Sing and Matt de la Peña’s Love. A lyrical verse text challenges the illustrator to create their own storyline, taking inspiration from words and themes from the poem.
Inclusiveness, diversity, and representation are important in children’s literature. I want as many different children as possible to see themselves in my books. It’s a privilege for me that my art will be some of the first art children see, and Amanda’s manuscript gave me an opportunity to show inclusion and acceptance.
My daughter’s favorite image is a spread in which the children in the band are presented as part of a giant mural on the side of a city building. This illustration echoes an earlier moment in the book, in which the young band leader gazes at a mural featuring Martin Luther King. Both images reminded me of ArtWorks murals. Can you tell us about what inspired you to incorporate public art into the book’s visual language?
Before any sketching is done for images for a book, I sit with the text and jot down ideas, reading and looking for visual words that jump out at me. The first spread of the book is quiet and contemplative, but the second spread employs words like “scream” and “dream” and “cries” and “dreamers.” Those words made me think of Martin Luther King Jr., and making that sketch gave me momentum and set the tone for the entire book.
When I was brainstorming toward the end and read Amanda’s line, “We are the wave starting to spring / For we are the change we sing,” I knew I wanted to showcase all the characters together with an audience looking up at them (our future), and it hit me that they should be the figures up on a mural this time. They are the “change,” and it felt so perfect to echo that opening MLK mural.
Thanks to organizations like ArtWorks, Cincinnati is an incredible mural town. I love “The Hands That Built Our City” on Elm Street downtown and how it tributes the skilled labor that builds our world, which is a theme in a recent book I illustrated called Someone Builds the Dream by Lisa Wheeler. Also love that bold James Brown mural on Main Street and the one on McMicken in the Brewery District in OTR. I also love the “Love” mural in the Reading Bridal District—it just makes a person feel good. It would be an honor to have one of my murals found in the pages of Change Sings up on a building in Cincinnati. That would be so cool. And I love that your daughter responded to the art in the second mural. Thank you to her!
You’ve illustrated dozens of your own books, of course, but recently have done the heartfelt and tender work of illustrating the words of national leaders, such as President Obama. What has this experience been like?
I started out as an illustrator, and I’ll always be a picture-maker first. I’ve found that I love the challenge of writing and will continue to write as long as I have ideas. But I’m blessed to be able to entertain other people’s stories and, as you mention, I’ve been fortunate to illustrate some meaningful projects like Of Thee I Sing and Change Sings.
It’s certainly flattering to have been thought of in the first place, and I’ll admit to feeling a bit nervous asking myself if I can pull it off. But after the nerves calm down, ultimately, regardless of who writes a manuscript, I have to love it. I have to believe in what it’s doing and saying. I believe in what Amanda is saying in Change Sings, and I’m proud to “say” it with her in my imagery.
What are you working on now?
I’m currently writing a handful of picture book ideas of my own that I’ve been knocking around for several years, really enjoying the process, and it feels good. I plan to deliver seven or eight stories to my agent, and I’ll be happy if two or three are good enough to be published. In the meantime, I’m illustrating a sweet story of an elephant who starts forgetting things called Never Forget Eleanor written by Jason June, a wonderful children’s author in Austin, Texas.