Amiable, hard-working Tractor Mac first rolled onto the children’s book scene in Tractor Mac Arrives at the Farm back in 1999, where he pitched in to help Farmer Bill with his chores on Stony Meadow Farm. Originally self-published by author-illustrator Billy Steers and his wife and business partner, Julie Steers, that picture book spawned a number of sequels, all of which will be refreshed and rebranded by FSG. The program, which also includes all-new books, launches on May 5 with six paper-over-board 8 x 8 books; 12 additional titles are scheduled for release through fall 2017.
Tractor Mac first sparked Billy Steers’s imagination when the oldest of his three sons, who is now 25, was a toddler. The author, whose Connecticut farm is located just a few miles from the farm on which he grew up, made up a bedtime story about the boy’s miniature toy tractor, which led to his son’s demands for new Tractor Mac tales. A fortuitous job opportunity then paved the way for the stories’ eventual publication. “I was just out of the Air Force and was flying with the Air National Guard,” said Steers. “Trying to make some money on the side, I started ghost-illustrating for another illustrator in 1992, and taught myself inking and painting. From that experience, I learned how to formulate storyboards, and learned a bit about the book business.”
After creating rough dummies of his Tractor Mac stories and submitting them to publishers for several years, Steers had what he called “a lucky break” when Golden Books acquired and published the first two books. After Random House bought Golden Books, the rights reverted to the author, who sold Tractor Mac’s third and fourth adventures to a small startup publisher in the Midwest that not long afterwards went out of business.
The author and his wife, who offers creative input into the series and handles the business end of their Tractor Mac enterprise, then decided to publish and market the series themselves. “We lined up a printer, and we took a specialized approach as far as marketing,” Steers explained. “We sold books through some traditional bookstores, but also sold them at farm stands and markets, and at agricultural fairs and shows, where there weren’t a lot of books on display. We developed a nice following and the readership grew over time.”
Through these agricultural channels, combined with online sales and, more recently, sales through Scholastic book fairs, the couple has sold some 450,000 copies of Tractor Mac books. “We feel really fortunate, and farm stands have brought us some wonderful customers throughout New England and the Midwest, but Julie and I felt that we had taken the books as far as we could self-publishing them,” said Steers. “We wanted to find a way to find a broader market for the series – but a way that would keep the same classic feel of the books and maintain their tradition of offering life’s little lessons in barnyard stories.”
A Tradition Continues
In a fortuitous bit of happenstance, Joy Peskin, editorial director of Farrar, Straus & Giroux Books for Young Readers, stumbled upon a display of Steers’s books in the gift shop of a train and vintage farm equipment museum. “I had never seen the books before,” she said, “but I thought, ‘Wow, this series is really cool and seems like something I should know about.’ I was drawn to the nostalgic style of the art and the sweet, wholesome stories. There is something timeless and also fresh about these books – just looking at them makes me happy!”
Though Peskin noticed that the books seemed to be self-published and “I thought in the back of my mind that I’d pursue the series,” she had not yet done so when, a week later, she received an e-mail from Steers’s agent, attorney Brian Berlandi, asking if she’d be interested in looking at the series. “It was perfect timing, since the series was on my radar, and I was very excited about it,” she said. “I’ve been looking to develop character-driven picture books series, and I knew that this was a wonderful one that we could bring to a larger market – and grow.”
Peskin, who works closely with associate editor Susan Dobinick on the series, noted that the refreshening of the Tractor Mac books involved rescanning Steers’s original art and tweaking the colors to make them more consistent from page to page and book to book. The editor credits Kristie Radwilowicz, associate designer at Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group, for spearheading the redesign efforts. “Kristie completely knocked my socks off,” said Peskin. “She came up with beautiful patterns for the endpapers, created a new logo, and made subtle changes to the interior design to make the series look that much more polished – and more modern, but not too modern.”
Steers is very content with Tractor Mac’s new home – and new look. “Julie and I really feel that Macmillan is a great fit for these books, since they have the same vision as we do for the series and have done a wonderful job with the redesign,” he said. “We felt this was a logical next step for Tractor Mac, but it’s kind of like sending a kid to college: you hope they’ve picked the right school, and you hope they’re well prepared, and you hope they’ll learn to do great things. It was always so important for me to share these bedtime stories with my children, and I’m very happy that they’ll continue to be shared by more families in the future.”
Tractor Mac New Friend by Billy Steers. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $8.99 May ISBN 978-0-374-30110-1
Tractor Mac Arrives at the Farm by Billy Steers. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $8.99 May ISBN 978-0-374-30102-6
Tractor Mac You’re a Winner by Billy Steers. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $8.99 May ISBN 978-0-374-30104-0
Tractor Mac Parade’s Best by Billy Steers. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $8.99 May ISBN 978-0-374-30106-4
Tractor Mac Farmers’ Market by Billy Steers. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $8.99 May ISBN 978-0-374-30107-1
Tractor Mac Family Reunion by Billy Steers. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $8.99 May ISBN 978-0-374-30109-5