Little Tree and Me by Loren Long
I’m trying to recall my mindset when I first began working as an illustrator in children’s publishing. I was a picture maker. I never thought I’d write anything. I still consider myself much more of an illustrator than a writer, if I’m honest.
The first three picture books I ever illustrated all published the same Fall season of 2003 in this order… I Dream Of Trains by Angela Johnson, The Day The Animals Came by Frances Ward Weller and Mr. Peabody’s Apples by Madonna.
I didn’t know what I was doing but I was hooked.
I loved the art, the pursuit, the challenge, and the marathon of making a picture book. And I quickly learned of the vast and amazing audience we enjoy as people who publish for children.
But I admit at the time, I wasn’t thinking about that audience. I didn’t give much thought to the child on a lap who would be looking at my art. I was just trying to make the best pictures I could to tell the story I was working on. I suppose I was trying to show off. I was painting for myself.
This all changed when I was given the opportunity to re-illustrate the classic, The Little Engine That Could by Watty Piper. Diving into that famous text as an illustrator was both humbling and frightening. Re-designing the little blue engine and the rusty old engine and the clown was a completely new challenge for me. It changed the way I looked at my art. It changed what I thought the purpose of my art was. I still tried to indulge myself a little but for the first time, I genuinely considered the child that the book was intended for.
At the risk of sounding cheesy, I kind of dedicated my art to children from that moment forward.
I know of many incredible talents in children’s literature who proclaim to never consider the audience when writing and illustrating their books. They say they’re only trying to satisfy themselves. Who am I to argue this approach? I admire their work greatly. But it’s not me. When writing, illustrating or both, I like to think of the child who may experience one of my books long after I’ve finished creating it.
Until Little Tree…
Little Tree is the most personal book I’ve written and illustrated.
I was indeed, only thinking of myself, my life, my family and things going on around me.
I jotted the story down on a note pad with no real idea that it would ever become a book. It was my own little self-help book. I thought of it as a little fable. It came from inside me and it stayed with me in a comforting and inspiring way. If we don’t accept change and if we hold onto fear, we’ll stunt our growth. Like a tree that won’t let go of its leaves. It’s so simple.
I put it in a folder in my studio closet, a couple of years passed but the story stayed with me.
Until the day I said goodbye to my oldest son leaving for college. How could this be? I remembered all those years ago when he cried, gripping my knee, terrified, on his first day of kindergarten. It still felt like it was yesterday. I wanted to cry. There he was… moving out of our house. I wanted to grab him and hold on for dear life. It was harsh and cold. I hadn’t expected it and couldn’t change it.
I thought of the Little Tree story I had written. It made me feel better, and I knew it was a book I had to make.
Perhaps Little Tree will mean something entirely different from reader to reader. If it made me feel better through a difficult time maybe it will do the same for others. I think we can all see a little bit of ourselves in the character of Little Tree, no matter what our age.
I wanted the book to reflect a deep truth for young and old.
When Little Tree finally drops his leaves, he feels, for the first time in his life, the harsh cold of winter.
But in time…
Loren Long (www.LorenLong.com) is the creator of the Otis series of picture books, including Otis, Otis and the Tornado, Otis and the Puppy, An Otis Christmas, and Otis and the Scarecrow. He is also the illustrator of The Little Engine that Could by Watty Piper, Toy Boat by Randall de Seve, Mr. Peabody’s Apples by Madonna, and Of Thee I Sing by President Barack Obama.
Loren lives in Cincinnati with his wife and sons, all frequent visitors to his studio, where they see the art and hear the stories first.