Of Loren Long We Sing

The children’s book illustrator grounds his work in a Cincinnati and Midwest aesthetic that authors from Barack Obama to Madonna to Amanda Gorman love being associated with.
Photograph by Chris Von Holle

If you walk into a children’s book section today at any library or bookstore, you can gather a tall stack of books illustrated by Loren Long. In some cases, the author’s name will be more familiar than his: Barack Obama, Madonna, and Amanda Gorman or, if you enjoy literature, Matt de la Peña, Frank McCourt, and Margaret Wise Brown.

Though you might not know Long or that he’s lived in Cincinnati for 30 years, you’d find a few clues inside the picture books: a Graeter’s black raspberry chip ice cream cone featured on a double-spread of The Little Engine That Could (Watty Piper); a “Bunbunnyrie” bakery nestled into the base of a tree in a bunny village in Good Morning, Good Night (Margaret Wise Brown); the Cincinnati Art Museum towering in the background of a lecture setting in When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer (Walt Whitman).

Long was already living here with his wife Tracy and sons Griffith and Graham, then in preschool, when he illustrated his first picture book. Now his sons are grown, and Long’s influence as an illustrator has grown, too: Of the 26 books he’s illustrated, 12 have appeared on The New York Times bestseller list.

The books have a particular style in common: American regionalism, a realist art movement that resisted abstract modernism in favor of a naturalistic approach to everyday scenes in small-town America. Long was especially drawn to the work of Thomas Hart Benton (1889–1975), a painter from Neosho, Missouri, which is approximately 23 miles from Long’s hometown of Joplin. “He’s my favorite artist, really, still to this day,” says Long. “His drawing felt so homegrown and soulful, and his colors were just kind of raw.”

Benton became famous when he won a commission to paint murals of Indiana life in 1933. A self-portrait of him wearing an oversized workman’s jacket and giving the viewer a sidelong glance from behind an easel appeared the following year on the cover of Time magazine. Long felt a connection—not just to Benton as an artist but also to the values that public art of the 1930s and ’40s represented. “They all had this hope and this muscular We are picking ourselves up and working through tough times attitude,” he says. “I just feel like it was great art with a positive meaning. I let it seep into my style as I was doing sample and freelance work.”

Sixty years after Long’s favorite artist was featured in Time, he got a cold call from the magazine’s then-art director, Ken Smith, offering him freelance work and saying, “I want that Loren Long/Thomas Hart Benton thing you’re doing.” Long had recently stopped working for Gibson Greeting Cards in Amberley Village, the job that brought him to Cincinnati, and he’d been doing freelance work and relying on his wife’s stable income as his work ebbed and flowed.

Long had been interested in art since he was a kid and studied fine art at the University of Kentucky. The dream initially seemed out of reach because Long, like one in every 12 men, is unable to discriminate among certain colors—in his case blues from purples as well as differences among browns, grays, and greens. His colorblindness led Long to develop strategies that he still uses today, such as carefully placing and labeling the paints on his palette, discussing color with others during his creation process (Tracy is his main consultant), and honing his ability to perceive color values from darks to middle tones to lights.

He’d ultimately had success in college, at Gibson, and in juried art exhibits, yet Long was shocked to hear from Smith. “It was an incredibly exciting time,” he says. His work soon appeared in other high-profile outlets: Forbes, Reader’s Digest, Sports Illustrated, Atlantic Monthly. In a 1996 article about the presidential election, Time published Long’s American-regionalism-style portrait of Bob Dole opposite Peter Max’s Pop-art-style image of Bill Clinton.

Long had stepped onto the national stage thanks to his artwork’s homey, folksy approach that felt both familiar and fresh and signaled American ideals Long continues to highly regard: community, power in everyday people, the value of a good day’s work. From these early days, his work evoked patriotic nostalgia and opened doors to new opportunities.

Loren Long received his first contracts to illustrate children’s books in 2002. He began working on illustrations for both I Dream of Trains (written by Ohio writer Angela Johnson and published by Simon & Schuster) and The Day the Animals Came (written by Frances Ward Weller and published by Philomel, a division of Penguin) when a third project popped up. The singer Madonna, in the blush of new motherhood, had written a set of five picture books, and her editor, Nicholas Callaway (whose boutique publishing firm also published Madonna’s erotic photography book Sex), had seen Long’s work in magazines and art shows. “He definitely picked up on the American regionalism feel in my work,” Long recalls.

Madonna’s Mr. Peabody’s Apples was set in postwar America in “some little town somewhere,” and the unproven Long was offered the job of illustrating it. The offer was, in a sense, a double-edged sword. It meant immense exposure, of course, but people tend not to take celebrity books seriously. Long went for it, and his son Griffith was the model for one of his characters.

Loren Long’s work in “Someone Builds the Dream.”

Illustration courtesy Loren Long.

Callaway contracted with Penguin to distribute the book in the U.S., and so he presented a sneak peek of Mr. Peabody’s Apples at the publishing house’s 2003 seasonal launch. Long’s editor on The Day the Animals Came, Patricia Lee Gauch, was there. Though Long wasn’t mentioned by name and everything was supposed to be “top secret,” she recognized Long’s work immediately and called him after the meeting. He remembers her saying, “Loren, I just saw a very interesting book by a very interesting person and I recognized the art. I know you’re not allowed to tell me, but I’m just giving you a wink.”

All three books published in a quick succession in fall 2003. Mr. Peabody’s Apples debuted as No. 1 on The New York Times bestseller list. I Dream of Trains won a Golden Kite Award from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. The Day the Animals Came was so exquisitely colorized that Gauch ordered the printer to reprint the books when the first round’s coloration was slightly off. “I was having a blast,” Long recalls now. “I realized that I’d love to do this work for the rest of my life if I could keep getting these gigs.” At nearly 40 years old and after years of “slugging it away” as a freelancer, Long says he figured out something about himself: “I am a storyteller.”

In the months that followed, Long accepted multibook contracts from Simon & Schuster and Philomel, which lined up steady work for the next five years. At Philomel, Gauch and Art Director Semadar Megged created unique opportunities for Long to shine. They offered him Toy Boat by established author Randall de Sève, and Long’s son Graham was the model for the main character. The book was a bestseller. They next asked Long to illustrate a new edition of one of his favorite stories, Watty Piper’s classic The Little Engine That Could (originally published in 1930). The book was selected as a Read for the Record Book and also landed on the bestseller list.

Gauch and Megged believed Long had stories of his own to share, and following their gentle encouragement he created a tractor named Otis. Named after Long’s favorite character on The Andy Griffith Show, Otis was inspired by both Long’s experiences working on a farm in Lexington and stories that Tracy told their sons while she drove them to preschool. It took 27 sketch versions to get the tractor right. “I remember the tractor itself,” Gauch says, “and how human he made it. It was just magic. Almost as if he blew life into this usually lifeless machine and where the eyes were, where the nose was, it just was a lovely, lovely character. His beautiful pencilwork just resonated.”

Long had always loved black and white artwork, and he suggested producing the Otis book in limited color. Gauch and Megged were on board, enlisting the support of Penguin’s vice president for children’s publishing, Doug Whiteman, who was also from the Midwest. “It was like the four of us were plotting to create an amazing book,” says Gauch. “I was plotting, Semadar was plotting, Loren was plotting, and the company’s vice president was approving some of the aberrant side trips we did to create this book. There were these four little team members, but the heart that was beating was Loren’s. It was a very special experience.”

Long’s sons were also part of the process. He read the story aloud to them to make sure it sounded right, a tradition he’s continued with every picture book he’s written since.

Otis landed on the bestseller list, and the lively tractor has now starred in more than half a dozen picture books as well as two seasons of an Apple TV television series. “Loren’s generosity with the world is unique,” says Gauch. “He has this amazing soul that’s just rooted in Cincinnati and in Midwest.”

In 2010, Long was asked to illustrate a picture book by President Obama, Of Thee I Sing. “That was my biggest challenge,” he says. “I was really nervous, even freaked out about it. I knew the world would see this book.”

Written as a letter to Obama’s daughters, the book presents the stories of 13 Americans with the kinds of admirable characteristics he hopes the girls will see in themselves. The first featured American, Georgia O’Keefe, is introduced thusly:

Have I told you that you are creative?
A woman named Georgia O’Keeffe
moved to the desert and painted petals, bone, bark.
She helped us see big beauty in what is small:
the hardness of stone and the softness of feather.

Each subsequent profile follows the same rhythm: a guiding question and characteristic directed to the children followed by a short, poetic description of the American who embodied the characteristic. Long found Obama’s descriptions eloquent, but he wasn’t sure how to get started. Portraits of the 13 people should be incorporated, of course, but he thought using just portraits would make the text feel sterile, almost like a textbook. Long says he also wasn’t overly confident about his portrait ability. “Any illustrator could do portraits,” he says. “Maybe they wouldn’t do it exactly like me, but there are many people out there who could illustrate a better Albert Einstein or Abraham Lincoln.”

Obama’s poem was one of many challenging illustration assignments Long would face. The approach he took with that project anticipated what he’d do with later books by Matt de la Peña (Love) and Amanda Gorman (Change Sings). He printed out Obama’s text and read it repeatedly, “studying it and getting in it so deep,” he says. He focused on particular words and made notations about what small images they brought to mind—every thought captured without concern for winnowing them down to what was really workable. Ultimately, it was a fairly innocuous phrase in Obama’s first stanza, the one written to his daughters before he dove into the profiles, that gave Long his breakthrough:

Have I told you lately how wonderful you are?
How the sound of your feet
running from afar
brings dancing rhythms to my day?
How you laugh
and sunshine spills into the room?

“Spilling sunshine” prompted Long to think about light and shadow. “I thought, OK, we’ll open with these two girls who spill into the book and spill into Georgia O’Keefe as a child, because she was once a little girl, just like you are. I’ll have little Georgia O’Keefe on the left side, looking up at what she becomes. And you turn the page, and Georgia joins the girls.”

Long imagined each hero as a child joining the Obama girls and the previous heroes, lining up spread by spread to form a crowd that “builds and builds and builds.” The final image would feature all the children, both historical and contemporary, smiling together on risers as though they were about to perform a school concert. He felt relief and confidence. “I thought, OK, this is my contribution to the book, this is my idea, and I think the editor is going to dig it.”

“Someone Builds the Dream”

Illustration courtesy Loren Long.

Of course Of Thee I Sing was a No. 1 bestseller. Reviewers complimented Long’s illustrations, such as then-UK Children’s Laureate Anthony Browne, who wrote in The Guardian that Long had made Obama’s text “a real picture book where the pictures sometimes tell us more than the words.”

Obama’s inclusion of Sitting Bull was panned by Fox News and by Native advocates, most notably Sitting Bull’s grandson. Long’s portrait was likewise scrutinized. It featured Sitting Bull’s face emerging from the landscape, with buffalo for eyes, to reflect what Long saw as a theme of his leadership: The people and the land are inextricably connected. Some critics, in turn, regarded this theme as a stereotype and criticized Long’s decision to represent Sitting Bull in a disembodied form. “When you do this work and many people see it, you can’t please everyone, and someone will be critical,” says Long. “If I’m professional enough to take all of the accolades and pats on the back and compliments, then I have to be professional enough to absorb some criticism.”

Creating a picture book involves 1,000 different decisions, Long says. Each book contains 20–25 pieces of art, and there’s also the medium to consider. Long has used gouache paint, acrylic paint, colored pencil, graphite, charcoal, and monotype prints. The process varies by project. For his current project, for example, he’s built a three-dimensional miniature village in his home studio to inspire his two-dimensional paintings. He’s relied on loved ones, including his sons, to “give me feedback on any piece of art on my drawing table at any given time.” Trying to achieve unity across the book, paying attention to how each page anticipates the next, and making sure all the images are relatable to a young reader can be a tall order, especially depending on what type of book he’s illustrating.

Long says there are two main categories: narrative and poetry. Narrative, like the Otis stories or his recent Never Forget Eleanor (2023), which embraces the topic of Alzheimer’s disease from a child’s perspective, are generally easier. With narratives, he says, “you’re just trying to be like a film director and to figure how to best convey emotion and bring the movie to life.” With poetry, in contrast, “you’re having to make so much of it up and it’s coming from your own thing.”

Some poems are easier than others. Obama’s book was one of the easier ones, because the established context (the Obama daughters as the primary audience) and content (13 famous Americans) grounded the text and informed every decision Long made, right down to the portrayal of Obama’s dog on the cover flaps. Likewise, Someone Builds the Dream by Lisa Wheeler (2021) had a tangible theme: celebrating the people who build and, as Long puts it, “work hard every day and don’t often get light shed on them.”

Illustrating more abstract and lyrical poems, such as Love or Change Sings, is more challenging. “Who is the narrator of this and who are they talking to,” Long says he asks of those poems. He’ll need to answer those questions in a way that makes sense to a young person, breaking the poem up into visual spreads that progress in sequence.

For Change Sings, Long imagined a singular narrator, an African American girl who could be (but doesn’t have to be) the author, the Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman. In his visual story of the book, the young girl “becomes a pied piper in a way,” gathering children from different corners of her community who dedicate themselves to positive social change. Focusing on the words “humming” and “strumming” from the poem’s first and last lines, Long imagined the girl holding a guitar—and then decided to provide an instrument for each child in her growing band.

Loren Long’s main character in “Change Sings.”

Illustration courtesy Loren Long.

He represented different regions, styles, ethnicities, and socioeconomic groups through the featured children. “It’s so incredibly easy to be inclusive, and it means so much to people,” says Long. Like all the projects he takes on these days, he felt a deep connection to the message and theme of Gorman’s words.

Gorman wrote, I scream with the cries of red and blue streamers / I dream with the cries of tried and true dreamers. During the brainstorming phase, Long wrote lots of words by these lines—fireworks, Fourth of July, and Star-Spangled Banner. But it was ultimately the phrase “tried and true dreamers” that made him want to visually feature Martin Luther King Jr. In a spread that ultimately became his favorite of the book—partially inspired by ArtWorks murals around Cincinnati—Long painted a mural of King on the side of a city building as the child narrator, this time tiny and gazing upward at the Civil Rights hero, is joined by her first follower, a Jewish child wearing a kippah and carrying a trombone.

This early mural sequence is, as Long puts it, “bookended” by an echoing mural at the end featuring the children themselves on the wall, accompanied by the text You are the change you are waiting to see. In a moment akin to the culminating spread of the Obama text, Long invites the child to find his or her place in the larger social world as equals with American giants of our past.

On a Thursday afternoon in January 2021, as Long worked on one of the interior spreads of Change Sings, he got a call from the editor. The book was slated to be released in the fall. “I was confidentially informed that Amanda had been chosen to speak at Joe Biden’s inauguration,” he recalls. He was asked if he had any ideas for the book cover, which the editor wanted to display during Gorman’s moment in the spotlight.

Long suggested featuring the narrator holding out a guitar, which echoed his final illustration, and to put the title in lettering that evoked the interior murals’ style and color. The editor said it sounded good and asked how soon he could have the painting ready. Long worked feverishly for 36 hours and snapped an iPhone photo of the image, still wet, on Sunday afternoon.

Two days later, as the inauguration began, Long was back working on the book’s interior paintings. But he put down his brush and stood up in the studio when Gorman began her poem. “I watched her deliver the poem feeling this connection, knowing I’d been studying her first picture book for months,” he says. “And she really did move the world with that poem. Watching her brought me nearly to tears.”

Long has been doing picture book work full-time now for 20 years, and he has no plans of slowing down. Still, he knows better than to take himself too seriously. One time, he remembers, he was in Middletown for an art show. He was supporting a student who was eagerly taking him around and introducing him to the folks there. Moments later, Cincinnati Reds catcher Eddie Taubensee walked in. “The entire tenor of the room changed,” he recalls with a smile in his voice. “That’s fame. People don’t feel like that about a children’s book illustrator.”

Facebook Comments