This post originally appeared on the Engage/Teacher to Teacher blog in November 2011. Melissa Sweet has illustrated nearly 100 children’s books from board books to picture books and nonfiction titles. Her collages and paintings have appeared in the New York Times, Martha Stewart Living, Madison Park Greetings, Smilebox and for eeBoo Toys, which have garnered the Oppenheim and Parents Choice Awards. She has written and illustrated three books: BALLOONS OVER BROADWAY: THE TRUE STORY OF THE PUPPETEER OF MACY'S PARADE, TUPELO RIDES THE RAILS, and CARMINE: A LITTLE MORE RED, a New York Times Best Illustrated, 2005. BALLOONS OVER BROADWAY: THE TRUE STORY OF THE PUPPETEER OF THE MACY’S PARADE is a biography of Tony Sarg, the originator parade’s trademark giant balloons. How did you first become interested in writing about the Macy’s Parade?
My interest was in Tony Sarg, who I learned about through Mia Galison, the art director I work with at eeBoo Toys. She described him as a brilliant illustrator and the inventor of the Macy’s Parade balloons. I was completely intrigued.
Tony’s life was so intertwined with the Macy’s Parade from its onset that the parade was the perfect vehicle to tell his story. How difficult was it to convey the more complex elements of the story—such as the technical challenges Tony Sarg faced—in a way that was easy for young children to understand?
Once I knew that this story would concentrate on how Tony invented the character balloons, I had to investigate every minute step along the way so I could understand his process. What happened was not complicated, but it was about design solutions and it needed to be very clear and interesting to children. I found these details riveting and I hoped readers would too. But it did take five years to research the book since there was no one place to find the information. You create your illustrations in a variety of media. How did you choose which medium to use for BALLOONS OVER BROADWAY?
My studio is full of old toys, fabric and found objects I've collected. I started making small toys and papier-mâché puppets using the materials I had on hand. I knew I wanted a three-dimensional aspect to the art to give the feel of what Tony's studio might've been like.
I made so many things that didn’t make it into the book, but in this case, making these objects taught me about Tony's creative process. That helped me figure out an angle to tell the story. You have illustrated over 100 books and written three. How does your process differ when you’re wearing both your author and illustrator hats?
It is a very different approach. When I illustrate someone else’s manuscript, whether it’s a picture book or nonfiction title, I still do a lot of research—it’s a wonderful part my job. I work with so many brilliant authors on projects I would never have thought of, it gives me a range of stories and ways to approach them.
People often ask me which comes first, words or pictures, and when I write, I play with words and images along the way to gather information. The process of a book unfolding is incredible, but it takes persistence to see it through. In the end, it’s worth every nanosecond. As an accomplished illustrator and writer, do you have any tips for teachers seeking to link art and literacy?
There are as many ways to interpret a story as there are readers. As a kid who preferred doing a shoe-box diorama rather than a written book report, combining literacy and the arts is an opportunity to have fun utilizing all the arts—dance, music, poetry and visual art in response to a book.
Alexander Calder said, “Art should be happy and not lugubrious,” and those are good words to live by. For a fun activity kit, visit Houghton Mifflin Harcourt's website here.
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