by Zack Smith
"I think people are surprised when they learn we just met a few days ago," says Agee, whose new book Little Santa (Dial, $17.99) tells what happens when the young Claus rebels after his family moves from the North Pole to Florida. "We’re getting along famously. It’s easier to go on a book tour together—you might not have that many people at a bookstore appearance and need a shoulder to cry on, though we’ve had plenty of people so far.”
Long, who's promoting An Otis Christmas (Philomel, $17.99), the latest in a series of top-selling books about a lovable little tractor, agrees. "The kind of books we make are different, but it’s fun for me to learn from Jon, not only from talking to him about the books and artists he loves and have influenced him, but I’ve gotten a real kick from watching him draw in our presentations," Long says.
In a phone call with the two authors during down time between visits to school libraries in Austin, the chemistry between them is apparent, though their books for children could not look less alike when put together on a bookshelf. Long's Otis tales are gentle stories of perseverance and friendship with a detailed, richly colored look. Agee's stories, meanwhile, take their style from such classic New Yorker cartoonists as Syd Hoff (Danny and the Dinosaur) and William Steig, along with a wry, biting sense of humor. (Ellsworth is about a pet dog who is secretly a professor of economics; Terrific is about a grumpy middle-aged man who stumbles through an adventure while sarcastically muttering the title phrase.)
Long says that Otis came from his childhood experiences growing up in Lexington, Ky. "I worked on a horse farm in college, and I drove this old tractor filled with mowers all over that farm that summer," he explains. "It was a rickety, small little tractor—not exactly like what Otis is, but that tractor was so old and ancient, and it still had a job to do, and it still had a part on the farm."
Years later, he was inspired to write a book about a tractor from making up stories with his children. "It made sense to me that the farm animals would be friends with the tractor, because they would all be part of the farm family," he says. "I had just illustrated The Little Engine That Could, so I had fun giving vehicles human traits." That instinct paid off: The Otis books have hit No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list, and stuffed Otis toys are also popular items at bookstores.
Agee feels that while Long's work is "more personal," his own work is "more conceptual." "I did one about a boy who owned a rhinoceros as a pet, My Rhinoceros—that wasn’t a personal experience!" Agee says with a laugh. "All of my books are based on taking some offbeat idea and trying to turn it into a story, and hopefully make it entertaining at the same time."
Little Santa, he admits, is a little "warmer" than his usual work. "Let’s face it, the Santa story is so overworked and so overdone," he says. "So if I was going to tell this story, it had to be unique and faithful to my sensibilities, which are very different, but also true to my humorous point of view."
For Long, the trick to a good children's story is that "you’re asking the audience to take a leap with you. As long as you don’t go jump the shark too much with something that is completely implausible, the audience uses their imagination and has fun right along with it." Though both authors admit that it can be a challenge telling new stories, they're enthusiastic about their work: "It's great getting paid to do something you loved when you were just 4 years old," Long says.
Jon Agee and Loren Long appear at Quail Ridge Books & Music at 5 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 14. Those unable to make it to the signing can request an autographed book by calling 919-828-1588 or 800-672-6789.