Lisa Wheeler is the author of several picture books, including Jazz Baby (a Geisel Honor book), her Dino-Sports series, and The Christmas Boot, which won a Golden Kite Award for best picture book text. Illustrator Loren Long has collaborated with authors ranging from Angela Johnson, Julie Fogliano, and Matt de la Peña to Barack Obama, Frank McCourt, and Madonna. His bestselling Otis the Tractor series is in development as an animated TV show. Their first collaboration, Someone Builds the Dream, is an ode to the skill and tenacity of construction workers of all kinds. We asked Wheeler and Long to interview each other about the personal connections and artistic influences that served as the foundation for their new picture book.
Lisa Wheeler: Hey, Loren! I am so stoked about our new book! Hard to believe it’s been over two years since I came up with the idea for Someone Builds the Dream.
Loren Long: Time has flown. I’m curious: what happened back then that sparked your initial idea for our book?
Wheeler: A few summers ago, I found myself standing before a wall of unfinished shower tiles. My husband and I were renovating our bathroom. It’d been 20 years since the last time I’d attempted to tile on such a grand scale and I felt overwhelmed. (I may have cried a little bit.) I thought of the people who do this kind of work every day.
Then, I had a long-ago memory of when my husband—who worked at a prototype automotive shop, building car bodies—told me about a situation at work. He said that sometimes what the engineers and designers draw on paper doesn't always work in the 3-D world. When I asked what the prototype team would do about it he said, “Our job is to make it work.”
So I began to think of the folks whose job is to Make.It.Work.
That was the spark I needed.
Long: So did you stop working on the shower?
Wheeler: Ha! I finished the tiling, but with a new book in my head, the work didn’t seem so bad. Speaking of hard work, when you were asked if you’d like to illustrate this manuscript, what thoughts went through your head to make you say yes?
Long: I instantly fell in love with your manuscript because it so beautifully pays tribute to the quiet heroes in the skilled trades, the laborers who go to work every day to build dreams and improve the world we get to live in. As book creators for children, we want all young readers to see themselves in the books we make for them. I wanted them to perhaps glimpse what they might become one day and how important they will be, whatever their chosen pursuit. In Someone Builds the Dream, there was also an opportunity for children to see their parents, grandparents, an uncle, aunt, a cousin, or a neighbor whose work might not be celebrated elsewhere.
You told me that you come from a working-class family. How did that influence the book?
Wheeler: Being blue collar is totally a direct influence. It's all I know.
I grew up south of Pittsburgh. My grandfather and all my uncles worked at the steel mill, as did many of my friends’ parents. In my early years, my stepdad worked as a “garbage man” (what we now call a “sanitation worker”). He went to trade school to study welding and got a job on the barges that carried the steel down the river. Welding brought us to Michigan when the bottom began to fall out of the U.S. steel industry. I grew up seeing hard physical work and dedication first-hand. I’m proud of that.
I absolutely love the art in this book, Loren! Can you talk about your inspirations?
Long: Thank you, Lisa; I know how personal this book is to you, so your praise means so much to me.
My favorite period in art history is the work created in America in the first half of the 20th century, which includes the Ashcan School, American Regionalism, and hundreds of Works Progress Administration muralists. Their work, most notably the work of Thomas Hart Benton, will always be a part of my artistic heritage (see Otis the Tractor). The WPA was part of Roosevelt’s New Deal to get America working during the Great Depression. The vast undertaking not only created nationwide construction jobs building bridges and roads but also created jobs for artists, sculptors, mural painters, writers, and musicians all over America.
I designed many of the spreads in the book as if I were painting a large mural on a wall, in which you can portray lots of different stories and elements overlapping each other in the same scene. To me, those WPA murals have a strong sense of pride and hope. I tried to bring that same feeling to my art for this book. I think the WPA effort understood the essential value and self-respect a human being gets from putting in a hard day’s work.
Lisa, your text not only spoke to my artistic inspiration, but also to the hope that we all will see, respect, and honor one another and the work that we individually bring to the world. How did you choose which builds would make it into our book?
Wheeler: I wanted to visit the skilled trades and show the connection between them and STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math). Since we’ve done so many home renovations over the years, I’m a sucker for home construction projects, so the first scene in the book—building a cabin—got the ball rolling. Because of my Pittsburgh origins, I also knew I wanted to get steel workers in there. After those two, I wrote and rejected many ideas. At this point, I realized different materials and the people who work with them would be a better way to focus my choices. I came up with electricians and plumbers. I knew I needed more, but I struggled. I wanted to get a scientist in the book and show a connection, but there were so many options.
The answer came when you and I met at that diner, Loren. Breaking the book down into scenes was so helpful.
Long: Yes, Lisa, it’s worth pointing out that most often the author and illustrator don’t have any communication during the creation of a picture book. I’ve had that experience but for this manuscript, I wanted to meet you and pick your brain. I wanted to find out where this idea came from and why. You live in southern Michigan and I live in southern Ohio so we picked a diner somewhere in the middle, took a day and spent several hours talking and going over the manuscript and brainstorming ideas and sharing thoughts. It was incredibly valuable for me to be able to learn about your family history, where Someone Builds the Dream came from, and what it means to you.
Wheeler: I recall how we were breaking down each scene, and when we got to the scientist, the flow totally fell apart. The original scene featured a scientist using test tubes and microscopes. I wanted to somehow show glass-making. But there was a huge disconnect in the text. Right then and there we started brainstorming new ideas. It was exhilarating! I loved the windmill idea. I’m not sure which of us came up with it, but when I got home, I was so excited I started researching right away.
Long: Did you also research all the skills that go into making a roller coaster or building a bridge, for instance?
Wheeler: I did. I actually checked out lots of books from the library on the skilled trades. I chose nonfiction books written for kids because they give the basics along with great illustrative details. Then I tried to envision what would make the most fun, kid-friendly pictures for the book. I also used my husband as a sounding board. He’s worked with many materials over the years and is my resident jack-of-all-trades.
Long: If there’s one thing that you hope young readers will take away from Someone Builds the Dream, what would it be?
Wheeler: My hope is that they start making connections. When a kid looks at their “stuff,” I want them to realize that those things don’t just materialize. They begin and end with people. One person dreamed it up. More people had the skill to create it; even more had to make it available. The child holding that toy, wearing that shirt, or living in that building is a person in that chain. And each person has value. How about you?
Long: I love that takeaway, Lisa. I would add that I felt an opportunity for my art in the book to honor and lift up today’s American worker and, perhaps, instill a sense of awe in the young people reading it. Some of those kids may grow up to become engineers who design a very important bridge. Others may grow up to be the welders who build that bridge. We hope that those different children grow up to respect and appreciate each other and the important role each had in making that dream become a bridge.
Someone Builds the Dream by Lisa Wheeler, illus. by Loren Long. Dial, $19.99 Mar. 23 ISBN 978-1-984814-33-3