Author Interview: Melissa Sweet discusses the role of illustrations in non-fiction picture books

When I heard we would be discussing Balloons over Broadway in my Nonfiction and the Common Core class, I contacted Melissa Sweet to see if she would be interested in sharing her thoughts on the importance of illustrations in youth non-fiction, with a focus on Balloons over Broadway. She happily agreed and also offered to share about her new book, The Right Word: Peter Roget and His Thesaurus.  Thank you for shedding light on this topic, Melissa!

How do illustrations enhance non-fiction books for children?

In researching Tony Sarg for Balloons Over Broadway, there was a vast amount of material that would never fit into a picture book.  The illustrations helped to tell the story, give the book depth and, with attention to design, the art could show many things there wasn’t room to say.

In thinking of the book like staging a play, (especially because Sarg performed with his marionettes on Broadway), the story starts on the endpapers. There,the Tony Sarg Marionettes book is placed open (with a little collaging so it said just what was important) which explains his love of toys and his childhood a bit more than I had room for in the body of the book. The idea to design the endpaper that way didn’t happen right away.

The art was created out of sequence so this was one of the last decisions. There’s a lot of trust in making a book that every detail will find it’s way, like the last piece of a jigsaw puzzle. This was the perfect placement and I loved it was in Sarg’s words.

On the title page we see puppets, toys, then the book opens with him playing with his toys and marionette, making it move– another theme in that Sarg’s art was all about movement. Some of those toys show up later in the book in his studio. He kept those toys his whole life. That doesn’t have to be stated in the text since it’s in the art. The three dimensional objects were the best way to convey that this was part of Tony’s process in making art. In some of my collages there are Sarg’s drawings from his marionette books, (it’s a long story as to why I used this old book I valued). The reader doesn’t need to have that pointed out, but to my eye his drawings add texture to my collages and feel different from my art which is the point of using collage.

The idea of the parade itself and how it changed each year was easier and more fun to show, rather than talk about.
There was a lot of information on the history of the Macy’s parade, but this book was not meant to focus on that parade. The Macy’s parade was my vehicle to tell  Sarg’s story and any details that dragged down the story had to be left out. In using the vintage street map of New York City alongside the art I was able to show the parade route from start to finish. That was a minor detail in that the long parade route tired the live animals. It wasn’t  imperative to the story, but a fun detail to know. Turning the book vertically when the elephant rises exaggerated the difference between that and the first parade which was low to the ground.

Then there is the defining moment, when Sarg discovers he could make upside down marionettes. How can an idea, concept, a thought be illustrated? After many sketches showing his facial expression– surprised, curious, wondering– none of that was working because it was more about Sarg’s reaction than him having an AHA! moment. The silhouette makes us see his body language and his concept. We can feel what he is thinking. Also, that page is in neutral colors, where the rest of the book is in full color, again giving emphasis to the silhouette. It helped to contrast Sarg alone in the quiet of his studio to the raucous riot of movement and color in the parade scenes.

In the back matter, (which is becoming one of my favorite parts of crafting a book) I had found the Macy’s advertisement and we got permission to use it.  That photo is, in essence, an object of proof. (A primary source?) Here is a real newspaper and the photo of the balloons alongside the people gives the sense of scale.

Truly, every square inch of the page is considered and the book as a whole needs to work with these details so it feels cohesive.  Keeping the text as spare as possible is part of integrating the words and pictures.  Most important, every decision needs to show and tell Sarg’s story reflecting all the verve and fun he had doing what he did, and convey the impact he had on the world of puppetry. As an illustrated book, we get a visceral and visual glimpse into Sarg’s life.

In my newest book, The Right Word: Peter Roget and His Thesaurus, the process was similar in that every word I drew had to point to Roget’s obsessive list making and how the Thesaurus came to be.

Melissa, thank you so much for sharing with us about your process.  Here’s a link to the book trailer for The Right Word:



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2 responses to “Author Interview: Melissa Sweet discusses the role of illustrations in non-fiction picture books

  1. Thanks for this interesting interview with one of the best illustrators EVER. Her work is inspiring and packed to the gills with information that children can tease out of every drawing, every collage (which is her signature style). There will never be anyone like Melissa.

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