Interview: Loren Long talks about Sluggers!
The Children’s Book Review
Published: May 19, 2009
Summer is approaching fast, which means school will be out very soon. It also means it’s baseball season. What better way to entice our kids to read over the summer than by giving them a series of books that is based on a sport that they love — topic can be everything! SLUGGERS, a series about three kids who travel the country playing baseball, is sure to captivate its audience with mystery, fantasy, and even some historical fiction. Loren Long, one of my all-time favorite illustrators and the guy who thought up the series, has ever so kindly answered some questions that shed some light on his career and SLUGGERS.
Bianca: Can you tell us about your journey to becoming an illustrator?
Loren: My journey as an illustrator started with a confused college education from the University of Kentucky majoring in a number of different areas from Business to Communications to Architecture and finally to art in my senior year. Next came one year of art school at The American Academy of Art in Chicago which led to my first professional job as an illustrator at Gibson Greeting Cards in Cincinnati, Ohio. I worked at Gibson illustrating greeting cards by day and trying to forge a freelance illustration career by night. Left Greeting card land after almost 4 years to freelance full-time mostly working for magazines. I had become a student of the American Regionalist painters from the early 20th century such as Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood. This began to show up in my illustration samples and seemed to give me an identity of style on the national illustration scene. I began to get jobs from magazines like Time, Sports Illustrated, Forbes, Atlantic Monthly and Reader’s Digest.
This continued to shape my artistic direction as I began to have my work accepted into national juried illustration exhibits such as The Society of Illustrators and Communication Arts magazine. After some time, publishers began calling me to do book covers for the YA book market. I loved it. My very first book cover assignment was Gail Carsen Levin’s novel, Dave at Night. I remember the excitement of reading a manuscript for a novel that was yet to be published and the pride that I’d been chosen to create one piece of art that would be the face of the book on the bookshelf. It also helped that I loved the stories they were sending me.
After illustrating a couple dozen book covers I began to get calls to try my hand at chapter books (more art) and picture books (even more art). I was hooked. I fell in love with children’s publishing. I love the fine art of making a picture book and as my own son began learning to read chapter series, the idea for SLUGGERS hit me.
Bianca: How does illustrating picture books compare to illustrating chapter books?
Loren: There is a significant difference for me between illustrating a picture book and a chapter book. In simple terms, (in my opinion) art for a picture book is essential to help the text tell the story. The illustrations work in symphony with the words. They work together along with the voice of the reader and the imagination of the child to complete the picture book experience. The art in a picture book is vital.
In a chapter book, the overall design and art of the book is also important but in a different way. The packaging of a chapter series is vital. The jackets are important. The interior art is also important to help the story create mood, a sense of drama and to support the setting and character development. Especially in our series SLUGGERS, where a magical element creates quite bizarre occurrences on the baseball field such as magical horses thundering through the baseball diamond during the game or baseball bats going up in flames while the hitter is swinging at the ball. But the art cannot tell the story as significantly as picture book art can. In my mind, the art in a chapter book seems to “enhance” the book rather than in a picture book the art “is” the book. I do not mean to diminish the role of art for chapter books OR the role of text in picture books. Each component is vital for the audience. They each depend on another. The roles are just different.
Bianca: With it being baseball season, tell us about the series SLUGGERS and how you collaborate with Phil Bildner?
Loren: SLUGGERS is a baseball chapter series about three kids who travel around the country with a quirky band of barnstorming baseball players in the summer of 1899. It is part mystery, part drama, part historical fiction with a fantasy element in which the kids have possession of a very special, magical, mysterious baseball. And when the 3 children hold the ball at once, strange, bizarre and mysterious occurrences appear on the field during the baseball games. The children learn that they are being followed by an evil villain who wants what the children have.He wants more than one thing they have and he also has something that the children want.
Readers will learn lots of “vintage” baseball terms that were common in the old days of baseball such as calling a ground ball a “daisy cutter”, a fly ball a “rain maker” and the baseball bat a “willow”.
The initial “seed” idea for SLUGGERS came from my own experience playing on a vintage baseball team here in Cincinnati in which we wore 1869 uniforms and played and performed the game of baseball to the rules, practices, sportsmanship and vernacular of the day. It was such fun playing the grand old game that I thought it would make a wonderful backdrop for a chapter series for today’s young readers.
Being only a picture book illustrator at the time, I felt I needed a writer to make my dream project come true. This is where Phil Bildner came in. I was aware of his work from his picture book, Shoeless Joe and Black Betsy and I thought he’d make a good co-creator for SLUGGERS. I pitched my “seed” idea to Phil and together (by way of e-mail and phone) we concocted the entire arc of the 6 book series. In the early days it was great fun exchanging ideas, developing the characters, naming the characters and coming up with the story-lines of SLUGGERS. From the very beginning, Phil and I knew where and how we wanted the 6 book series to end. It was a blast. I would call Phil from Cincinnati to Brooklyn with all these crazy ideas. And let me make it clear that I may have pitched the initial idea for the project to Phil but he brought so many of his own ideas to the book series that together we shaped and crafted the books into what they are today. It has been an interesting collaboration and one that I am very proud of.
It is a co-creation collaboration where even though I am the chief artist and Phil is the chief writer, our roles are much more involved than the simple designation of one writer and one illustrator doing separate work. We weigh in at every step of the way on the work each of us are contributing.
Bianca: What was the decision making process behind changing the series name from Barnstormers to SLUGGERS?
Loren: To read more about the decision process that went into changing the name of the series from Barnstormers to SLUGGERS, please go to www.LorenLong.com. The main issue was that in large part, the title “Barnstormers” was not an easily identifiable “baseball” term and we felt that we were not reaching the audience we are trying to reach with SLUGGERS, the series that saved baseball. In short, if you write a book about baseball for emergent readers, you want your title to say “baseball” and many folks did not understand that “Barnstormers” was about baseball! It was a learning experience. Changing the title of our series was a decision that we did not take lightly. But ultimately, we feel that it was the right decision. Please go to my website for more scoop and visit Readsluggers.com to see more and even hear some SLUGGERS music written specifically for the books!
Bianca: Of all of your works, which has been the most rewarding for you on a personal level? Why?
Loren: I’ve been very fortunate that on most every level, all of my books have been incredibly rewarding. I’m perhaps most honored by the opportunity to have illustrated the classic, Little Engine That Could by Watty Piper because of what the book has meant to so many of us and in particular, what it meant to my mother and me and our lasting close bond.
It has now been very rewarding to begin writing and illustrating my own picture books such as the recently published DRUMMER BOY and the upcoming Fall ’09 picture book OTIS…because I never thought I’d be a writer.
And it is very rewarding to create a chapter series like SLUGGERS that I hope will ignite an interest in reading for that sluggish, reluctant young, emergent boy or girl reader. And with SLUGGERS, it may be because they simply like baseball or the idea of how three children help save their family with a magic baseball.
Bianca: Please tell us about winning the two Golden Kite awards.
Loren: I’m a big supporter of The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (the scbwi). My very first picture book, I DREAM OF TRAINS won the Golden Kite for picture book illustration. And later, WHEN I HEARD THE LEARN’D ASTRONOMER won the Golden Kite Honor for picture book illustration. I was over the moon to be recognized and those awards will always be a little happy place in my career in publishing.
Bianca: My favorite version of Watty Piper’s The Little Engine That Could is the 2005 edition that you illustrated. Do you have any plans to re-illustrate anymore classics?
Loren: I’ve been excited that my 2005 edition of Watty Piper’s THE LITTLE ENGINE THAT COULD has been accepted and well received by so many for young and old. What an honor, I’m pleased that folks are gifting it to graduating seniors and older kids and adults alike who are “struggling in medical school” and loved the book as a child. It’s been rewarding to hear those stories and to know that I’m a small part of the rich The Little Engine That Could publishing history.
It was digging into the classic Little Engine That Could as an illustrator that ignited my interest in creating my own books that I hope to have a classic feel such as TOY BOAT and I very much had my favorite classic books in mind as I created OTIS (Philomel, Fall’09).
Bianca: What should we expect to see from you in the near future?
Loren: I’m working on the last two books in the SLUGGERS series for Spring 2010 and I mentioned my newest picture book, OTIS coming this September 2009 about a little tractor who befriends a baby calf on the farm.
Bianca: If you had to illustrate a picture book which was about a well-known children’s author or illustrator, who would you choose and what story would the pictures tell?
Loren: Hmmm, if I had to illustrate a picture book about a well known children’s author I’d probably zoom in on Virginia Lee Burton and try to get to the heart of how she came up with Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel!
Thank you so much for your time, Loren!
Check out the SLUGGERS series (Ages 8-12) at www.lorenlong.com