John Deere, That's Who

It’s easy to spot a John Deere piece of equipment, even from a distance. The signature green and yellow color combination is a telltale sign of the brand.

But how well do you know the man for whom the company is named? Was he a farmer? The inventor of the tractor?

Children’s author Tracy Nelson Maurer, who is the author of a picture book biography of Deere, was surprised to learn that he was neither. Deere actually was a blacksmith, and he died decades before the tractor was invented, she noted.

Maurer spent years doing research for her book “John Deere, That’s Who!” and next month she will be in Washington to talk with children and families about all of that and more as the featured speaker at the annual Run to Read, organized by The Missourian and the Four Rivers Family YMCA and set for Saturday, Oct. 14, at Washington Public Library.

“I’m so looking forward to it,” Maurer told The Missourian.

“I’m so excited about your community and the (Book Buzz) literacy program,” she added. “I’ve already decided I just love your town.”

In addition to speaking at Run to Read, Maurer will make five classroom visits on Thursday and Friday before the run. Classrooms will be selected in a drawing of teachers who are signed up to participate in this year’s Missourian In Education program.

“When we picked ‘John Deere, That’s Who!’ as our Missourian August Book Buzz Pick, we knew Tracy would be a terrific author to share with our community,” said Dawn Kitchell, educational services director for The Missourian. “We’re thrilled to have her as our guest for the Run to Read and know, as a farming community, there will be a lot of interest in a book about John Deere.”

Maurer grew up in a farming community outside of Superior, Wis., but she wasn’t familiar with the story of John Deere until she worked on a children’s book about John Deere tractors with Rod Beemer in 2006.

“I learned a lot about tractors and was fascinated to learn here was this company with this tremendous legacy with John Deere’s name on everything, and he had nothing to do with tractors,” she said. “He died 30 years before the tractor was even invented. I thought, that is amazing because his name is all over the world, and most people assume he invented the tractor.

“So that sent me off to find out, well, what did he do then?”

Maurer began by doing a lot of research on Deere, and that included visiting the John Deere Historic Site in Grand Detour, Ill., where she saw a forge that is a replica of the one he used.

“I think that brings a lot more authenticity to the work,” said Maurer, of why it was so important to her to visit the places where Deere worked.

She spent a total of five years researching, writing and revising “John Deere, That’s Who!” before it was just right and ready for publication. It’s a long process, but the book contains a lot of information, and because it’s a children’s book, she had to keep the story short and simple.

“Children’s books are limited in the number of words so that is more challenging,” said Maurer, noting she also had to be watchful of her word choice, sentence length and structure.

In the back of “John Deere, That’s Who!” Maurer includes a bibliography listing all of her sources of information for the book. She found that Deere himself wasn’t much of a writer, but he did enjoy talking with people.

“Much of what historians have documented about this American manufacturing icon comes from the recollections of family and friends, notes in diaries, newspaper articles, letters and business materials,” Maurer writes in her bibliography.

One of the more fascinating and useful sources was a newspaper article, “A Stroll About Town,” from the Nov. 29, 1854, issue of The Moline Workman.

“It was written as if they were giving us a tour of the John Deere facility. So it talked about the sounds and what it looked like and the people who were working there,” said Maurer. “That helped a lot. Even though I didn’t have (Deere’s) exact words, I had words written about him and there were other people at that time who tried to write his story.

“He loved to talk to people. I think he was probably a pretty effective salesperson,” she said.

Has Written More Than 100 Books

Maurer has written more than 100 books, mostly nonfiction stories for children and young adults, but she didn’t start out as an author.

After earning a degree in journalism and a MFA in writing for children and young adults, Maurer started her career as an advertising copywriter.

In fact, as successful as she has been with books, she still does some writing for websites and brochures. It’s beneficial to the writing that she does for books — “I think that every type of writing informs the other types,” she said — and, also, she enjoys it.

“There are a lot of similiarities between advertisement writing and children’s picture books,” said Maurer. “It’s a limited amount of space to convey an idea, and a picture book is the same way. You have an image that you are working with, and limited real estate, and you are going to tell a story in that amount of space.”

Maurer enjoyed being an advertising copywriter so much that she wasn’t looking to change her career at all, but one of her clients was a publisher who was looking for someone to write a four-book series on dance.

“I was writing their catalog, and I was very happy writing their catalog, but along the way they said, ‘You know, we have four books on dance that we need an author for, and we like how you write; do you think that’s something you could do?’ ” Maurer recalled.

She agreed, thinking her mother, who was an English teacher, would love to have her daughter’s name on a book jacket. Yet, the transition from advertising copywriter to author wasn’t automatic.

“The first draft was really bad,” Maurer admits. “Most first drafts are bad, but it was really bad. My mother said I could throw it away.

“She made me realize I don’t like nonfiction, and I don’t like it because I think it’s boring, so that became my quest: To write nonfiction that was not boring. It was the turning point,” said Maurer.

‘Writing for Hire’

Maurer’s “John Deere” book and another that just came out, “Noah Webster’s Fighting Words,” about the man who wrote the American-English dictionary, are described as “picture book biographies.” She also has written fiction, like her book “Storm Codes,” which is historical fiction about the sights and sounds of Great Lakes shipping in the late 1960s told through 7-year-old Katy’s story of hope and determination.

But the majority of books that Maurer writes are informational books requested by schools and libraries. She describes these projects as “writing for hire.” A publisher contacts her to pitch a book project and give her the parameters for age and reading level.

The process goes a lot faster for these books, said Maurer, noting they usually have very specific formats to follow.

Began as Student Journalist

As a child, Maurer always enjoyed reading and writing. The very first thing she ever had published was an article in her community newspaper, the Superior Evening Telegram, now known as the Superior Telegram.

“There were two of us who were selected as student journalists, and we traded off weeks, so every other week we submitted an article about what was happening in our junior high school,” said Maurer. “It was really great training for journalism’s who, what, when, where, why . . .”

Today Maurer lives near Minneapolis, Minn., and works out of an office in her home. She spends time every day writing for one project or another.

“It’s my job, and I treat it as a job. I have my office here and get dressed every day to come to my office even though it’s just downstairs,” she said.

Two Visits Planned to Washington

Maurer is looking forward to the five school visits she’ll make here and the presentation she’ll give at Run to Read next month mostly because it gives her a chance to interact with kids.

“That interaction with young readers is inspiring and exciting,” she remarked.

Maurer plans to talk about her writing process and how a book gets made.

Following Run to Read, Maurer will give a second presentation at 11:30 a.m. on Saturday at Washington’s new bookstore, Neighborhood Reads, just across the street from the library. She will share a reading of “John Deere, That’s Who!” and will sign books, which are available at the bookstore.

“I love doing readings, and I try to make them very interactive and fun,” said Maurer.

Maurer plans to be back in Washington Saturday, Nov. 18, for a second appearance at Neighborhood Reads.

She will be bringing with her three author friends and faculty members from the Hamlin University Master of Fine Arts program and Writing for Children and Young Adults: Phyllis Root, Jacqueline Briggs Martin and Liza Ketchum.

The women are scheduled to be panelists at the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) national conference being held in St. Louis that week and offered to visit Neighborhood Reads during their trip.

“We are so grateful to Tracy for making not just one, but two trips to our community,” Kitchell said, “and for sharing her friends and their books with our local readers!”

Run to Read

The 2017 Run to Read will be held Saturday, Oct. 14, and will begin and end at Washington Public Library, 410 Lafayette St., in Downtown Washington.

Course options include a 5K (3.1 miles) and a 1-mile story stroll. There also will be a Baby Buzz Dash for children ages 5 and under.

Runners will take off at 8 a.m., followed by walkers at 8:05 a.m. The Baby Buzz Dash will begin at 8:45 a.m.

Members of the Washington High School cross country team will man the 5K race route, as they have done for several years; and members of the Washington Middle School Student Council will volunteer for the 1-mile story stroll, holding up enlarged pages of the story for people to read along the route.

Maurer’s presentation will be held at 9 a.m. in the meeting room at the library, followed by awards to the top runners.

There will be awards for overall winners, first-place finishers in each age division and medals to all students who finish the 5K.

Nine bee trophies will be awarded: to the school with the most participation, fastest 5K male and female teachers, overall female 5K in youth, teen and adult, and overall male 5K in youth, teen and adult.

Everyone who participates in the Run to Read will be given a free book.

“One of our motivations for starting the Run to Read about a dozen years ago was to share the review copies of books we receive through The Missourian’s book columns — Baby Buzz, Book Buzz and Novel Ideas,” Kitchell said. “We bring all of those books that have been published in the past year and share them with everyone who participates.”

To register for Run to Read, people can go to or stop by Four Rivers Area Family YMCA, 400 Grand Ave., Washington. All participants who register by Saturday, Sept. 30, will receive a free T-shirt celebrating the 15th anniversary of The Missourian’s Book Buzz project.

The cost is $12 to register to participate — unless you’re a librarian or educator.

“Run to Read is all about promoting reading,” Kitchell said, “and no one works harder at that than our educators and librarians. It’s just one small way we can thank them.”