When author-illustrator Loren Long was a student at the University of Kentucky, he spent a couple summers working on a horse farm off Newtown Pike.
The field crew spent a lot of time with weed-whackers, clearing out the dips next to the roadway. Their day started at 7:30 a.m. — which might as well be the middle of the night to a college student.
Crew members spent a lot of time on a wagon, being shuttled around by an ancient but reliable Ford tractor.
Long really loved that tractor.
He also worked in the young men's department of McAlpin's at Turfland Mall, thereby completing the double play of growing up cool in Lexington in the 1980s.
"It did strike me, even then, not even knowing what I was going to do with my life, that this tractor was the coolest thing in the world to drive," says Long, a children's book author who grew up in Lexington. "It had a job to do. It had value to the farm."
The tractor stuck in Long's mind as he started the career that would make him one of the nation's most prominent writers and illustrators of children's books. He has illustrated books by President Barack Obama (Of Thee I Sing) and Madonna (Mr. Peabody's Apples).
Eventually he decided to make a plucky little tractor the hero of a series of his children's books, which he writes and illustrates. Otis has lights that are "eyes" (the moving gleams inside them show expression), moving "eyebrows" that are pieces of metal and a mouth that is a pure piece of whimsy. His button nose is perched on what appear to be vents.
In the Otis books, the tractor has adventures on the farm with his friends, which include cows, a floppy-eared mixed-breed puppy, a flock of geese and a horse.
Leonardo da Vinci's favorite thing to draw was a horse. Long is the same.
He remembers going to Keeneland and stationing himself in the paddock just to watch the powerful musculature of the horses as they were led through.
"These enormous horses, three feet away from you, you look up in awe at that awesome specimen," Long says.
But that old tractor has been his muse.
Long is coming to Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Lexington and to Coffee Tree Books in Morehead for his new book in the Otis series, Otis and the Scarecrow (Philomel, $17.99).
In the new book, Otis and his farm friends are initially wary of a scowling scarecrow that is brought to their cornfield, but Otis eventually shows a glimmer of empathy for the scarecrow. He and his friends flock around the lone figure, offering it friendship without conditions.
Whether the scarecrow reciprocates is left vague. Even children's books sometimes leave readers wondering with a thoughtful little cliffhanger.
"It's a book about having empathy, a simple thought, to think for a second about the other person, no matter if you're a little kid in school or a grown-up," Long says.
He remains grateful to his art teacher at Lafayette High School, Nancy Clifton, for being a mentor and showing him the work of other artists.
"She was very tender with me and very encouraging with me and singled me out in a way that gave me a lot of confidence about being something special," Long says.
He has tried to contact her, just to say thanks: "All I would want to say is, thank you for impacting my life."
Long says the Otis books strike a balance between the text and artwork to convey an emotion, such as the contemplative look in Otis' headlight eyes when he begins to consider the lonely plight of the scarecrow.
"I want these children and their parents — but mainly the children that are my audience — I want them to feel my art," Long says. "I don't want them to just look at a drawing. I want them to feel the drawing. You can't just draw a tractor. You want to draw a tractor that has a warm beating heart."