The Joy of Tractor Mac

A couple of weeks ago, a children’s librarian asked me if we carried the “Tractor Mac” books at our bookstore. I hadn’t heard of this series, but tractor books for all ages are always a great seller in our area, so I did a little research. Unfortunately, these books weren’t available at our big wholesalers, so I gave a philosophical shrug and went about other business. Then, two more people made inquiries about Tractor Mac, in the same week, and separate from each other. Obviously, I needed to do a little more exploring.

What I found was a small bookstore owner’s delight. We love to support self-published authors, small presses, and regional authors who may not get the attention they deserve from the big, traditional publishing houses. In order to work with these smaller authors and presses, however, we need to see that they have a product worth selling, that they are doing a great job marketing their own book, that their books sell for a reasonable price. These factors don’t always come together, in part because many authors don’t know what they’re getting into when they enter the publishing and marketing world. When we find a new author who knows the ropes and is making great books, it’s a thrill. Anyone can sell a James Patterson book; it’s often the small presses who are the most exciting to endorse.

Author and illustrator Billy Steers, with help from his wife Julie, has created a darling series of books about Tractor Mac. The original Tractor Mac book, Tractor Mac Arrives at the Farm, was published by Golden Books in April 1999, and was popular enough to go into a second printing almost immediately. Tractor Mac Learns to Fly soon followed, also published by Golden Books, but when Random House Publishers bought Golden Books in August 2001, the terms for continuing the Tractor Mac books weren’t that great. The Steers decided to do it on their own.

Billy had served as a pilot in the United States Air Force – including in the invasion of Panama and in the first Gulf War – but was now retired from active duty and looking for work in commercial airlines. In the meantime, he put his artistic talents to work. He’d always loved drawing, keeping pictorial journals as a kid; majoring in geography with a specialty in cartography at the University of Utah; working as a regular cartoonist for the student newspaper. Waiting for a pilot job to open up at a commercial airline, Billy arranged an apprenticeship of sorts with a children’s author and illustrator who lived nearby. After Billy had contributed to over 40 successful books with other authors, he landed a job with American Airlines. At this point, he decided to work exclusively on his own series. On long layovers, in hotel rooms around the country and around the world, he draws storyboards for new Tractor Mac books. Tractor Mac, You’re a Winner followed Billy’s first two books, and then came Tractor Mac Builds a Barn.

At home in Connecticut, Julie bought Billy a 1948 Farmall Cub tractor. With some work on his body and a visit to the tractor doctor, the real Tractor Mac was born! When Billy’s not flying, he and Julie take Tractor Mac to county fairs, farmers’ markets, bookstores, tractor stores, libraries, schools, and festivals. Billy does a lot of research for each book, because he wants Tractor Mac to show the realities of the farming life. Stony Meadow Farm, where Tractor Mac lives, is inspired by the farms near the Steers’ home, where Billy grew up, in Roxbury. Billy’s colorful, detailed, cheerful illustrations have been a huge hit with children. When the Steers first began publishing the Tractor Mac books on their own, they had the books printed in China – like most publishers these days, color printing is usually outsourced, since it is considered a “cheaper” option. Eventually, though, the Steers realized it was less hassle for them, and therefore, for their customers, to have the books printed in the U. S. They found a printer in Wisconsin who gave them just as good a price as anyone overseas. The “made in the USA” is just one more reason to endorse these wonderful books.

The Tractor Mac books, and the Steers themselves, are a feel-good story all-around. Billy’s job takes him far from home sometimes, for days at a time, but his heart is never far from home and his wife. In a video Billy made, showing his planning process for the books, he reveals that he draws Julie’s name into each picture in the final book – something he has done since they first started dating. Talking to the Steers on the phone feels like talking to a friend from your hometown. They’re professional, and good at what they do, but the whole business has an intimate, friendly feeling that makes the Tractor Mac books an even better match for our area. Not only are the books terrific, but the story behind the story makes one want to cheer them on!

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