Loren Long began his children’s publishing career as the illustrator of books by authors with familiar names, among them Madonna’s Mr. Peabody’s Apples and Angela Johnson’s I Dream of Trains, Walt Whitman’s When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer, Watty Piper’s The Little Engine That Could and Randall de Sève’s Toy Boat. Winner of two Golden Kite Awards, Long quickly became a familiar name in the industry in his own right. His debut solo picture book, Drummer Boy, is out from Philomel, which will publish his newest picture book, Otis. Bookshelf spoke with Long about his latest book, which tells the story of the friendship between a caring old tractor and a needy young calf, and about factors that have influenced his work.

Otis has a classic, playful feel. What inspired the look of this art?

Well, to back up a bit, The Little Engine That Could marked a new direction for me, from the standpoint that this was the first book where I was obviously digging into a tried and true classic. I’m very proud of the books I did beforehand, but The Little Engine That Could opened up a new world for me.

In what way?

The approach I took in Mr. Peabody’s Apples and I Dream of Trains was more one of conventional realism. I am a huge fan of the American regionalist painters, the WPA muralists and N.C. Wyeth, and before The Little Engine That Could I never viewed myself as someone who would paint appealing trains with eyeballs and cute little purple elephants and toys. For the first time, I began realizing who my ultimate audience is: little children who would actually be holding one of my books. This was an epiphany for me. I suddenly realized that this is my career, that this is what I want to do for the rest of my life. And I started thinking about the classics that I liked as a child. The Little Engine That Could was a favorite, as was The Poky Little Puppy, The Story of Ferdinand and Virginia Lee Burton’s books. I began thinking about creating books that, like these, might someday become a child’s favorite, become classics.

So that led to the retro feel of Otis?

Yes, I know it’s a warm and fuzzy, maybe corny thought, but that is what I was thinking when I did Otis. I know you can’t set out to create a classic—only time will tell that. And who am I to think I can create a classic? It’s too assuming, too arrogant to think that. What I did was set out to do a book that has what I think of as classic elements—by those I mean warm, appealing characters and a fun reading experience not only for a child but for adults reading it to them. I want it to be an experience that not only entertains, but gives readers comfort, security and happiness.

And why did you choose to center the story on a tractor and a calf?

I’ve always kind of liked tractors, and I thought a tractor would make a fun character, one that is rambunctious yet noble. I think The Little Engine That Could inspired part of the book, since Otis, like the engine, is a living, breathing character with emotions. People have asked me why I paired up a piece of machinery with a little animal. I like the fact that this unlikely pair becomes best friends. I’m not attempting to make any kind of statement, other than to show what it means to be a loyal friend and to have empathy and care for another.

With your illustration background, did you first envision the art for Otis and then write the text, or did you create the two simultaneously?

The story and characters were in place before the art. I knew I had to nail the characters first and make them appealing and endearing. I didn’t think about what the landscape would be like before I had the story in place. After my editor, Patricia Lee Gauch, accepted Otis, we put it aside and decided to publish it down the road. I then turned my attention to other things, including Jon Scieszka’s Trucktown series, which I worked on with Jon, David Shannon and David Gordon. And after working with those knuckleheads—and I say that with all due affection!—I decided that there was a little bit more I could add to Otis to improve it. And that’s when I added more of the fun and feistiness.

Is creating your own book—words and art—a different challenge than illustrating stories by others?

I’d say I approach both enthusiastically. If I’m going to illustrate a manuscript that someone else has written, it’s got to be something that I love. I remember after getting over the jitters about illustrating a classic like The Little Engine That Could, I cleared off my desk and said, “OK, I love this story enough to do it and make it mine.” I hope that doesn’t sound overly egotistical. But I feel that the book becomes as much mine as the author’s, and as much the author’s as mine.

Several books you illustrated reached bestsellers lists and you’ve won numerous awards. Did that give you a boost of confidence right out of the gate?

Actually it did. It was a bit of a baptism by fire. Some people said I’d become an overnight hit or whatever, and I didn’t really have an answer to that. I’d worked for about a dozen years after getting out of school, doing illustrations for greeting cards, theater posters and magazines. But you never meet your audience when you do a picture for a magazine and it’s not really the product—you’re just decorating the product. But in book publishing, the book is the product. After illustrating my first book, I knew I loved children’s publishing right away. I discovered that people cared—teachers, librarians, booksellers and kids. And I got to meet my audience.

And that was gratifying?

Yeah! It was like, “Whoa!” The best compliment I ever got was from my nephew, Luke. He was 10 months old at the time The Little Engine That Could came out and he’d just learned to walk. At a family Christmas gathering, he kept taking the book from grownup to grownup, climbing from one lap to the next, wanting everyone to read it to him. I asked my wife, “He doesn’t know that I illustrated this book, does he?” It was very special.

Speaking of youngsters, have your own sons provided input into or inspired your work?

They definitely have. They’re 11 and 13 now, and I’ve always read them the texts I’ve written and read them manuscripts written by someone else that I’m considering illustrating. They are a good gauge of the fun element and are great sounding boards: is this fun or is this boring? is this character appealing or lame?

Were they on board with Otis from the start?

Actually, Otis started as a story my wife and sons made up as she took them to school when they were preschoolers. It was a homespun story that was more convoluted and took a totally different direction than my book. Now my 13-year-old teases me a bit and says I took their story, tweaked it and called it my own. But then I remind him that it’s good to be able to buy groceries and soccer cleats.

Not to mention future college tuitions…

Oh yes, there is college. Maybe it’s a good thing to contribute to Daddy’s work! If it’s a family effort, all the better. I’ll definitely take it!

Otis by Loren Long. Philomel, $17.99 Sept. ISBN 978-1-399-25248-8