As the illustrator for projects like Newbery Medalist Matt de la Peña’s Love (Putnam’) and National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman’s Change Sings (Viking), Loren Long has sometimes had to put his own story ideas on the back burner. During the pandemic, as he ran with his dog every day, he passed an abandoned school bus in the middle of a goat paddock. What was it doing there? An idea took shape in his mind about a school bus whose capacity to offer shelter to living beings “filled her with joy,” no matter where she found herself. A two-book deal with Roaring Brook’s Jen Besser gave him the chance to complete it. In The Yellow Bus, he traces the bus’s journey in a tale whose changing landscape tells a story of its own. PW spoke with Long from his home in Cincinnati about working with charcoal dust, complicating his characters’ lives, and representing the passing of time.

How did The Yellow Bus get to Macmillan?

I’ve been blessed and lucky, because I’ve always had a book in the works, or maybe a couple of contracts, and sometimes my ideas have been set aside because of opportunity. So my agent, Steve Malk, said, “You know what, you’ve got the stories. I think we should do an auction.” And I’m thinking, I’m glad he’s going to do it, because I wouldn’t have the nerve. But he sent it out to a number of publishers and it came across Jen Besser’s desk. Jen was the editor for Love, and she was head of Putnam [Books for Young Readers] at the time. I had lost track of her, but she went off to Macmillan—she’s the head of all of Macmillan children’s, now, and she’s the greatest, sweetest person you’d ever want to meet. And I got to talk to her again, and immediately she was bringing thoughts and ideas, and then she brought on this wonderful editor, Kate Meltzer.

The book is a departure for you, visually—all black and white except for that brilliant yellow bus. Was that the plan from the beginning?

I was doing the book dummy, so it was several months of just drawing and pacing. And it hit me. I had to pitch it to the team. I had to convince them that I could focus on yellow as the iconic color, working in charcoal, very gritty and textural and scratchy, and then fusing in the acrylic. The bus would jump off the page. I didn’t even know how it would look. I’d never tried drawing with dust and then painting into the same scene.


It’s charcoal dust [holds up a jar of black powder]. I most often use a Q-tip to rub it onto the surface. And then I draw with charcoal pencils. This is all stuff you can get in any art store. I love doing charcoal. I put the dust on the paper and then erase it. It can be really dynamic, and also very subtle and nuanced. So I was really enjoying this, but the deadline was starting to come into the picture. So Jen and Kate and [art director] Beth Clark said, “Could you show us one? Before we give you the green light?” So I did one of my favorite scenes, and I think I just took a photo with my phone and emailed it to them. And they said, “Go for it!”

So many creators, if they read this, are just going to laugh, because I’m doing things like I did when I was in seventh grade. I could be doing work digitally—I still might! At the same time, the stuff I’m showing you is fun to work with, and dirty. It makes me feel like I’m in junior high art school class.

In the author’s note, you explain the genesis of the story—that it grew out of the abandoned school bus you passed every day. But then the story deepened for you. Can you talk about finding your way into it?

It was probably almost a year of seeing that bus in all different kinds of weather. And, one day, the goats were climbing inside. And oh my gosh, there was one on top of the bus! It was me thinking, wondering, how the bus got there. It started out bright and shiny, and how dismal it seems now. But then it struck me: she doesn’t seem sad. She seems happy!

Was the bus “she” from the beginning?

That feeling came quickly, from the third line. The first line, I wrote “his/her/its.” Then the second line I wrote “he.” And from that point further, it was “she.” I think it was the right decision.

So then I came to the logic that she’s “filled with joy.” It seems like she’s in hard places. It doesn’t matter if she’s not carrying the children that she was in the bright and shiny beginning of her life. I knew that this bus was going to end up at the lowest possible place I could come up with. I was like, I want to surprise the reader, and this character. Patti Gauch, my editor at Philomel, once told me, you take your character and you get it stuck up in a tree. And then you throw rocks at it.

How was it, working with the team at Roaring Brook?

I really felt connected to them. They were intuitively picking up on things that I felt about the story. I love collaborating. It’s a very isolated venture, making a book. You’re sitting there by yourself, and you’re trying to make a drawing work. It’s nice to know that you’ve got these brilliant people up in New York that have your back. And they did!

What were some of the notes they had for you?

Well, the first low point, the first valley in the book, is when [the bus] is abandoned under the bridge. And I did the sketch where all you see is the empty bus. I had set up these rules of the colors; any person or thing that steps on the bus or into her world is going to be in color. And I said, “Okay, so for this one, it’s just going to be a silhouette of the shape of the bus. And it’ll probably just be really muted, yellowy colors,” and Beth said, “Loren, what if we broke our rule here, and you made this beautiful sunset? And then inside, she’s in charcoal—basically, gray.”

Some readers will pick up on all these details. Many won’t. But you do them anyway, because they inform the whole story.

The author’s note describes the three-dimensional model town you built for the story, so that you could see and draw it from every angle. How did you use the town to show the passage of time visually?

If you really look at the art from the first page, you’re seeing the entire setting of the book—that little town. At the top left, you see the rolling hill down to a lower farm, then a bridge through a mountain, then a lower farm, and a river running through it like a little gorge. And I knew that three, four, or five times in this book, my readers are going to see an overhead view of this setting.

So in the middle of the book, when the tow truck comes to tow the bus to the farm, readers can see that the lower farm has changed. They’re building houses. You can see there’s a little cemetery, and some readers may notice how that changes. There’s some construction in the back of one of the scenes, and they’re building an overpass right through the city. Because there are so few words, I want readers to read those pictures, and slow the pace of the story. Because it does span a long time. Quickly.

I figure the book spans about 60 years. My sketches originally had the children climbing in with backpacks. And then I thought, “I never had a backpack. We just carried our books.” And we had bell bottoms and those Moon shoes; there’s a little girl with Moon shoes on.

How about the writing—did it come easily?

I was able to keep it minimal, because I know who’s going to illustrate it. I’m going to be able to show it. The writing came out with a certain voice, which is rare for me. I think there is a little bit of The Giving Tree in it, but maybe more hopeful. And then I also love Virginia Lee Burton; I love that kind of sensibility, the passage of time. And so that’s in there somewhere, too.

What are you working on now?

The Yellow Bus comes out June 25. And I just finished art for a book called Home, written by Matt de la Peña. It’s a poetic reverie about the word “home,” just like he did with the word “love.” That will publish, I believe, in spring of ’25. After that I have a follow-up book with the team at Roaring Brook, but it won’t be related to The Yellow Bus. I think the Macmillan team is turning me into a writer.

The Yellow Bus by Loren Long. Roaring Brook, $19.99 June 25 ISBN 978-1-250-90313-6