Thursday, March 22, 2012

The 2012 Golden Kite Award Interviews: Melissa Sweet (Picture Book Illustration for BALLOONS OVER BROADWAY)

Melissa Sweet is the winner of the 2012 Golden Kite Award for Picture Book Illustration for a picture book that she illustrated and wrote, "Balloons Over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy's Parade."

Melissa working in her studio

Lee: Hi Melissa, thanks so much for taking the time!

Melissa: You are welcome!

Lee: As a writer/illustrator, can you tell us how "Balloons Over Broadway" evolved - did you start with the words, or sketches?

Melissa: That's a great question. I talk about this with kids all the time--which comes first? This particular project came out of a casual conversation about Tony Sarg, (the man who invented the parade balloons). He was a brilliant illustrator and artist and from the start of my research I wondered how I was going to pull this off. Would I use Sarg's art to illustrate the book? How could I make a book feel like him, yet not BE him. A daunting thought! So I wrote a bit trying to piece his life together and when I got stuck on the writing, or just weary of it, I made art. That kept it fresh and exciting. There were so many ways I could've done this book, but in creating toys, puppets and three dimensional objects, I became more informed about who he was as a marionette maker. In this case, doing both writing and illustrating simultaneously was really important.

The interior title page spread

Lee: You used so many techniques and styles in the book (graphic novel-esque drawings, cartoon style, photography, collage...) Were there multiple versions of certain pages, where you experimented with how to tell pieces of the story?
Melissa: Yes, finding the right materials is a big part of making a book like this. I try to limit my options and choose ways of telling the story that are repeated as design elements so the materials feel cohesive. In the end, the book is just a fraction of all the things I made. It becomes a process of editing, just like in the writing. It's hard to not put in every cool thing I made, but it has to have purpose. I shoot for a spareness--just enough to enhance the story.

A jacket sketch that was edited out
Lee: Can you talk about some of the visual punches you used, like the full silhouette for the epiphany, and the flip-the-book-on-its-side moment for the big parade reveal?

Melissa: Sure.

Once I decided this book would use the Macy's parade as the vehicle to tell Tony's story, I thought the book should be horizontal in layout to give me big, wide spreads for the parade scenes.
one of those amazing parade scenes

But then there was a scene, a big moment of reckoning where I needed a parade balloon to be VERY high in the sky. I had an 'aha’ moment where I turned the book vertically (artists have successfully used this technique before in picture books) to get the height I needed to make my point.

The silhouette
With the silhouette, there is a moment in the book where Tony realizes how he can solve his design problem of getting his balloons off the ground, so to speak--no pun intended! This is a quiet, yet dynamic moment and I wanted it to feel momentous. Basically he had realized that if he took a marionette and turned it upside-down, (filling it with helium) he'd have the kind of puppet he wanted for the parade. I played around with this for a long time but could not get his expression to pack a punch. I decided to strip the page of color using a silhouette, which allowed his body language to say everything. Plus, since it was the only silhouette in the book, the difference made it very important visually.

Lee: It's fascinating to see deeper into your process, thanks! What’s your suggestion on approaching a picture book biography – how do you best figure out where to start the story and where to end it?

Melissa: This is the first one I've written, but I think the beauty of a picture book biography is that we can tell a snippet of someone's life or an anecdote and still give a very round picture of their life. I think that wherever it starts and ends should be very kid-friendly. Often the author’s note in the back matter can fill in the additional details we'd like kids to know. It's a very flexible and exciting format.

Lee: I think the notion of not thinking you have to tell someone's ENTIRE life story in a picture book biography is really liberating.

Melissa: I agree! As a kid I could hardly bear to read biographies. I found in writing BALLOONS I had to remember that what was riveting to me as an adult, may not be interesting to kids.

Lee: Did you feel extra pressure or scrutiny after winning the Caldecott Honor in 2008 for "A River Of Words," and if so, how did you get past it to keep creating your art?

Melissa: It was incredible to receive the Caldecott Honor. For the first couple of decades of making picture books I went along my merry way working hard and always trying to grow as an artist. After “A River of Words” came out the pressure I felt was self-imposed. That year was a big year and it did take a little time to get back to my rhythm and routine which I love more than anything. My life is pretty simple outside of the chaos of my studio!

Melissa's studio looking rather organized
and fun!
Lee: How long have you been a member of SCBWI? Can you share how that's helped you on your career journey?

Melissa: I actually cannot recall, but I think it's been more than a decade.

Lee: *checking* My SCBWI sources (thanks, Liz!) tell me you actually joined in 1988!

Melissa: really? '88, yikes! where did 25 years go?!

I always dive into the Bulletin and learn what is happening all over the map, about new books, new authors and the industry. This is a very solitary work for many of us and I appreciate all that SCBWI does to keep us connected.

Many aspiring authors and illustrators contact me about getting started and to a person, I recommend them joining the SCBWI as the place to get accurate and up to date information--they can answer all your questions! I always tell them, if you're serious, go to an SCBWI conference.

Lee: Final question: Any advice you'd like to share with aspiring illustrators?

Melissa: Everyone always says, keep going, don't give up and I really believe persistence is as important as talent. By continuing to work we keep honing our skills and that's what there is to do. You have to go into the studio whether you feel like it or not. Inspiration and ideas generally happen inside of working, or playing-- call it whatever we want--but make sure you're having fun in the process.

Lee: Thank you so much, Melissa. And congratulations again on your Golden Kite Award for picture book illustration for BALLOONS OVER BROADWAY!

Melissa: Thank YOU!

You can find out more about Melissa and her books at her website here.


Ben Clanton said...

Great interview! I love Melissa Sweet's illustrations and BALLOONS OVER BROADWAY is AMAZINGNESS! Really fun to get a bit of an inside look at her process.

Lisa M Griffin said...

Big fan of her work and a great interview. Thanks for sharing.

Hazel Mitchell said...

Really appreciated this interview Lee. Melissa is so prolific and industrious and I love learning more about her process. And she's from Maine!

Anonymous said...

Thank you Lee! It was fun to speak with you and I'm looking forward to being at the summer conference in LA. See you then-

Julie Rowan-Zoch said...

I appreciate that Melissa shoots for spareness, but I hope Melissa finds a way to incorporate some of the other creations for Balloons into another great book! Cram them in!

Anonymous said...

I love Balloons Over Broadway. It is incredible. I won a copy earlier this year on Susanna Leonard Hill's blog. I was thrilled when I read it. What talent you have! Reading the interview makes the book even more special. Thanks to you and Lee for this peek into the creative process.