Billy Steers Discusses the Lovable “Tractor Mac” Series
By Bianca Schulze, The Children’s Book Review
Published: April 1, 2013
Billy Steers has been using his artistic talents since childhood. After serving as a pilot in the United States Air Force, he began apprenticing with a well-known children’s book author and illustrator to learn the process of writing and illustrating. During this time he contributed to over forty titles in a variety of formats as a contract artist. In April 1999, Steers introduced the first children’s book that he both wrote and illustrated, Tractor Mac Arrives at the Farm—originally published by Golden Books. Publisher’s Weekly called it a “bright, spirited read aloud” and after only five months the book was in its second printing. Steers has continued to create and self-publish more children’s books in his Tractor Mac series. We talked to him about the inspiration behind the lovable Tractor Mac and why kids so readily embrace books about “things that go.”
Bianca Schulze: At what point in your life did you decide that you wanted to become a children’s book writer and illustrator? And what inspired your Tractor Mac series?
Billy Steers: I have always been a compulsive doodler. Since I was young, I have always enjoyed drawing and rendering. I like storytelling and putting drawings to words. It wasn’t until I had children of my own that the stories and the pictures began to emerge as what you would call a children’s book. The Tractor Mac series had its roots in bedtime stories and short stories that my boys and I would make up together when they were young.
BS: Your first book Tractor Mac Arrives at the Farm was originally published by Golden Books. Can you tell us a little bit about taking over the publishing of your book and how this has helped you to continue to grow the series?
Billy Steers: I was very fortunate that, in 1998, Golden Books decided to reprint many of their classic Golden Book titles in a series called ‘Family Story Time’. At the same time they were looking for some new titles that had the same vintage feel of those earlier titles. I am still flattered that they saw the merit of my Tractor Mac story and the editor at the time, Margery Cuyler, loved the book and the concept of a series. Long story short, Golden published the first two titles of Tractor Mac (1999, and 2000) and then was bought out by Random House, which discontinued the ‘Family Story Time’ series. They were not interested in doing a series of Tractor Mac books. We printed briefly with another start up publisher who then went out of business. My wife and I then decided to self publish the books when that company failed. The first book we printed ourselves was Tractor Mac Harvest Time. It was daunting and scary to self publish at first but we had built a nice readership following from having been published by others. Julie and I now enjoy the freedom and flexibility of being the publisher, though we’ve had to learn a lot along the way.
BS: Essentially, your series hits on a very popular theme among kids, especially boys: things that go! Why is it, in your opinion, that kids love books that embrace big metal objects with engines?
Billy Steers: I write and draw about stuff that I liked as a kid: tractors, old cars and trucks, planes, trains, old barns, etc. My favorite books as a kid were ‘Go Dog, Go’, ‘Are You my Mother?’ and ‘Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel’, because they all had machines in them. To me there’s something fascinating about a machine with all its parts in motion. Every machine, whether it’s a tractor or a jet fighter, has a fascinating evolution throughout their own history of invention and technological improvement and it’s fun to see the changes in design and usage over time.
BS: Tell us about the character of Tractor Mac, himself. What is it about him that you think children find relatable?
Billy Steers: Tractor Mac is a positive, ebullient persona. He has his ups and downs but tries to look on the bright side of things. I think it’s the situations that Mac finds himself in that children find relatable: having to go to a stranger to get fixed up when he breaks, being happy in his own skin rather than trying to be something he is not. The situations that Mac faces are ones that my kids and most kids have had to face at one time or another.
BS: There are some supporting characters throughout the books that have a lot to offer and really help Tractor Mac to shine. Which of the characters throughout all ten of your Tractor Mac books seems to spark the biggest reaction?
Billy Steers: It’s really fun that every person that reads the Tractor Mac books have their own favorite characters that appear in the stories. Some of Mac’s farm friends are named for family members of mine and tend to carry over characteristics they might share. Many of the supporting characters appear throughout the series and are there to help Mac solve a particular dilemma in each book, but Sibley the workhorse, who is Tractor Mac’s best friend, appears or stars in every episode. Sibley is the constant sounding board and confidante for Mac.
BS: As you progress with the development of the characters from book to book, does the writing process become easier or harder? Which of your Tractor Mac books are you most proud of?
Billy Steers: The books do become a little harder to write to ensure the characters and settings remain true to the series–character personalities have to be consistent and the series is set in a definitive time period when family farms were very common. The question of which books am I most proud of has to be dealt with in two different ways, as an author or as an illustrator. The challenge for me is to write the best story that I can and create worthwhile, complimentary illustrations for the stories. I feel that in the later books in the series my illustration style has improved but I think my strongest story line is in Tractor Mac You’re a Winner where the theme is that losing not being the end of the world and that you have other talents to share.
BS: Should we expect to see more Tractor Mac books from you? Or maybe even a new series?
Billy Steers: I’m always asked: “When is the next Tractor Mac book?” but at some point I feel I might be competing with myself with additional Tractor Mac books. There will probably be one or two more and I have many spin-off story ideas… so we’ll see where the journey will lead.
BS: After serving as a pilot in the United States Air Force, you left the active duty service and began apprenticing with a well- known children’s book author and illustrator to learn the process of writing and illustrating children’s books. What would you say are the three most important things you took away from this fabulous learning experience?
Billy Steers: I was incredibly fortunate to apprentice with a marvelous children’s book author and illustrator when I started out. I have had no formal art training so all that I learned about book layout, design, and composition was from that experience. I learned the importance of illustrating from a child’s vantage point, techniques for bringing the reader through the story by means of artwork design and story structure, and by observance, much of the business end of creating children’s literature.
BS: During this time you also contributed to over forty titles in a variety of formats as a contract artist. How would you describe the difference between creating artwork for someone else’s writing and creating artwork for your own?
Billy Steers: Working as a contract artist was rewarding in that it helped pay the bills, and it was a rich learning experience. You can’t be thin-skinned or afraid of negative critiques working like that, and you improve every time you might fail. I learned much from that period of on the job training. With the skills I could not master, I would try to learn from books or research. It made me a better artist and writer, and I find myself always trying to improve those skills.
BS: From creating pictorial diaries of your daily experiences to cartooning for the student newspaper at the University of Utah while you majored in Geography, art has always been an important part of your life. Do you think you were just born loving art or were there some pivotal moments in your life where you embraced art and then made it your hobby and, of course, eventually your job?
Billy Steers: I still keep a pictorial diary. It’s something that I began in college and have been doing for 34 years (I’m on volume 32 right now). I’m unfortunately the kind of person that can’t remember what happened two days ago let alone two months ago and the doodle books are ways of chronicling the past. My kids like to look at them because it covers when they were born, silly or momentous things they did growing up, (like the time Nate ate a bloated tick as a toddler or the countless times Trip and Willy tormented each other as kids). Doodling in the books lets me practice drawing techniques and record family history at the same time. You never get bored with a good pen and cheap paper. Drawing for me has always been a release and has always been something I could fall back on if I couldn’t achieve other things that I’ve set out to do. I am just very fortunate in that I have employment in doing things I love to do, flying airplanes as a commercial airline pilot and sharing my artwork for others enjoyment. The two jobs dovetail nicely in that much of the artwork is created and completed while in hotel rooms on international layovers. Because the paintings are watercolors, I pre apply paint from the tubes to plastic trays and let them dry, then reconstitute the paint with water once in my hotel room. This way TSA doesn’t end up confiscating tubes of costly paint when going through security, (yes, pilots get screened too.)
BS: As a parting note, is there anything you would like to share with your readers?
Billy Steers: I try to make my books as enjoyable for adults as they are for young readers and my goal is to be somebody’s favorite bedtime story, (that, and see Tractor Mac as a balloon in the Macy’s Day Parade someday). I could not have created the Tractor Mac books without the continued support from my wife and business partner, Julie, and my family, who have all helped out as sounding boards and reviewers, book-box schleppers, and fair booth sitters at one time or another.
Official Tractor Mac website: http://www.tractormac.com
Buy Tractor Mac books and more: http://www.tractormac.com/shop/index.php
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