Tuesday, September 30, 2008

You Must Meet Melissa Sweet

Actually, you probably already know her! She has written and/or illustrated more than 70 books. Here are a few you might have seen:

Carmine: A Little More Red
The Boy Who Drew Birds: A Story of John James Audubon (by Jacqueline Davies)
The Pinky and Rex series (by James Howe)

Check out Melissa Sweet's website for a more complete list of her works.

The two books I want to focus on here are her newest, Tupelo Rides the Rails and A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams (by Jen Bryant). These are the two books that grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me and made me write to Melissa Sweet out of the blue and ask her for a blog interview, to which she graciously agreed!

Tupelo Rides the Rails
by Melissa Sweet
Houghton Mifflin, April 2008
review copy provided by the publisher

Tupelo is a dog who, despite being dumped off by the side of a road with her sock toy, Mr. Bones, believes "Everyone belongs somewhere." She looks and looks for a place to belong, eventually hooking up with a pack of dogs who call themselves "the BONEHEADS, the Benevolent Order of Nature's Exalted Hounds Earnest And Doggedly Sublime" and a hobo named Garbage Pail Tex. The BONEHEADS and Tupelo ride the rails with Garbage Pail Tex until they get to a town where Garbage Pail Tex's hobo friends find homes for all the BONEHEADS but one. Tupelo. She makes the ultimate sacrifice in order to wish upon the dog star, Sirius, and it turns out to be worth it.

Stars are important in this book. You know that from the minute you see the star chart endpapers, and then again when Tupelo hears the dog myth of how the constellation Orion came to be leading Sirius the dog star through the sky in the constellation Canis Major surrounded by other constellations such as Canis Casa, Rubbish Canis, Great Fetching Ball, and the Seven Bones. And again, of course, when she makes her wish.

Dog heroes are important in this book. You know that from the minute you open the first of several fold-out pages and find a continuation of the star chart on the inside cover and front end paper on one side, and a time line of dog heroes throughout history on the other side.

The illustrations are sometimes in panels, giving the book an almost graphic novel feel, and sometimes in gorgeous single-page paintings like the two above. There is a hint of multi-media, when Timmy and Lassie make a photographic appearance during Garbage Pail Tex's story time on the train.

Tupelo Rides the Rails is a sweet and powerful story that makes tears come to my eyes every time I read it. I see something new in the illustrations every time I read it, too.

A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams
by Jen Bryant
illustrated by Melissa Sweet
Eerdmans Books For Young Readers, August 2008
review copy provided by the publisher

"Picture book biography" just doesn't do this book justice. Jen Bryant's poetic telling of the story of Willie Williams' life and her use of the literal Passaic River of his childhood and the metaphoric flow of his words and poems, and Melissa Sweet's multimedia illustrative interpretations of Williams' poems mesh PERFECTLY. I'd like to take this opportunity to nominate this book for the Caldecott Medal!

This book also has important endpapers -- all of the poems that are mentioned or excerpted in the text or the illustrations are found there.

In the Illustrator's Note in the back of the book Sweet writes about her "inadvertent" connection to William Carlos Williams, and about her research. She writes this about the media she used for the illustrations:
"These pictures needed to convey his era and the modern art of his time that was so influential to Williams. There were a lot of false starts -- nothing I did seemed powerful enough to match his poems. Then I looked to a big box of discarded books I had from a library sale. One of the books had beautiful endpapers and I did a small painting on it. Then I took a book cover, ripped it off, and painted more. The book covers became my canvas, and any ephemera I had been saving for one day became fodder for the collages."
This book could have so many uses in the classroom -- as a mentor text for students writing biographies, in an art class to explore the visual interpretation of poetry, in writing workshop to reinforce the ways writers use their notebooks to capture small moments they can go back to and write about later.

Besides being used, it needs to be pored over. The details and layers of meaning in the illustrations are simply astounding. You just can't get tired of looking at this book!

Enough of my babbling. On to the interview.

Me: First, some questions about Tupelo Rides the Rails. You explain on the back flap how you came to combine stars, dogs, and trains in Tupelo. Could you tell a little about how the hobos fit in?

MS: The idea to include a hobo came when I realized the dogs needed someone to help them get to their homes. I made a list of everyone who might ride a train and that’s when the hobos came into play. An added benefit was the thought that, without regular baths, a hobo might smell mighty good to a dog. I could imagine hobo who appreciated dogs and stars as well.

Me: Tupelo seems almost multi-media, with the fold-out pages, the star chart endpapers, the time line of dog history...could you talk a little about your design process for this book, and how it fits in with all the books you’ve illustrated?

MS: It’s a very different process illustrating a story I’ve also written. It took a few years to get this story right and I thought about it constantly. I don’t have that luxury when I’m under deadline for other books—my time with the manuscript is limited. The design was shaping up to be a 40 page book, but we needed just a little more space to tell the story, yet a 48 page book seemed too long. The gatefolds allowed me to extend the story in certain places. They also reminded me of a train schedule unfolding, or a map. I didn’t want this book to be read fast, I wanted it to move along, but more chug along (like the train!) and to feel like a journey, which it is.

I tell students that making a book is like making a movie and there are about 32 frames (pages) to tell the story. How we utilize that space is big part of my job. Using the comic book device of breaking up pages into panels helps give more space. Tupelo is a simple story on one hand, but multi-layered because of the addition of the celestial legends and the dog hero information.

Me: Some of the pages of Tupelo are illustrated in panels. Have you ever considered writing or illustrating a graphic novel?

MS: Yes, and all I can say is stay tuned. I grew up with comic books and love how a story is told in panels of all kinds. I need about five lifetimes to do all the books I want to do.

Me: Tell a little about the dogs in your life. Did you grow up with dogs? And what makes your brother Sandy a “legend among border collies?” (from the acknowledgments in Tupelo)

MS: We always had a dog, or three. There were all kinds of terriers that were hard to train little devils. Then when it was time to get a dog with my own family, we decided it would be a shelter dog. Maine has an incredible placement rate for rescue dogs. It’s safe to say my family is completely embarrassed by all the gushing I do over our two dogs. But I find I never get bored of watching them. My brother has adopted border collie rescue dogs. They are notoriously smart and watch my brother as if waiting for his every move and command. He is their leader and hero, to be sure.

Me: Please share with our blog readers a little about your MY DOG IS A BONEHEAD website and your work with shelters and rescue dogs.

MS: After the book was done it felt like a natural segue to have some sort of shelter support come out of the book. The website was designed so kids, and adults, could join the BONEHEADS Pack online by filling out a form about their dog and downloading a picture of them. It doesn’t cost anything to join. I put the dogs up on the site and for every dog that joins I give a shelter donation. A portion of the sales from the store on the site will go to rescue causes, and a portion of my royalties as well. In addition I offer a signed print from the book for shelters to use in their auctions. We’ve got a pretty good-sized pack now on the site now and I’ve found people write hilarious things about their dogs. The very best thing that’s happened regarding the shelters was at the launch party I had here in my town. The local shelter was there with information and they brought a beautiful rescue dog who was adopted that day. It doesn’t get much better than that.

Me: Now let’s hear about A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams, by Jan Bryant.

First of all, thanks for the artist’s note in the back of the book. It’s always nice to learn about the materials/media that were used by the artist. Would you tell a little about the “ephemera” you’d “been saving for one day” and how you created the collages?

MS: This book had a woefully skimpy dummy and not many sketches. Although I had done extensive reading about WCW and visited his town, I was beginning to panic. I didn’t have a handle on how to render this book. The deadline was on the heels of Tupelo and I was feeling almost out of gas. I had saved some beautiful end boards from an old book with a subtle print and a good quality paper. I tried painting on it and it worked great. Then I tried using book boards as my canvases instead of starting on paper. It was just the thing I needed to propel me. It was new and fresh and I had such momentum from it. I’ve been buying old books, notebooks, atlases for years and for this project I used whatever I wanted—nothing was saved for another project. The collages are done like a painting. I start with a background, then add more objects and push things around until I feel it’s done. I approach it as a design problem so I’m considering the colors, composition etc. When I collect or buy collage materials I don’t necessarily know how I’ll utilize them. I just know I have to have them.

Me: Again from the artist’s note, it seems that you had an unusually strong connection to this book. Can you tell us about that?

When I was seven I went with my brownie troop to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NY City. I came home with a souvenir postcard of a painting by Charles Demuth, The Great Figure. It is an abstract painting of a fire engine racing the city on a rainy night. I loved that painting and was pretty pleased I understood the imagery and could feel the urgency of the fire truck. Fast forward 40+ years and Eerdmans calls me about this biography of William Carlos Williams. The working title was The Great Figure, from his poem that begins: "I saw the figure five in gold." I had seen this poem and I wanted to know if WCW had written the poem after seeing the painting. It turned out the poem had been penned by WCW one night on his way to Marsden Hartley studio, where he then he gave it to Demuth. It was serendipity, and I thought, I’ve come back to this painting! I think this goes under the category of: You never know what will influence your child along the road of life.

Me: How did you come to be the illustrator for this book? Had you worked with Jen Bryant or Eerdmans Books before?

MS: No, this was my first time with both. I believe they chose me because Gayle Brown, the art director, had seen the book I illustrated, The Boy Who Drew Birds about John James Audubon. Gayle was wonderful to work with and really trusted my process, for which I am extremely grateful.

Me: Some general questions next. What was your formal art training?

MS: I have an Associates Degree in Art from Endicott College and attended the Kansas City Art Institute as well as the Museum School in Boston. After that, I went anywhere there was a course I wanted to take, or I took classes wherever I was living. I still love to take classes in anything. Blacksmithing, papermaking, tin toys, you name it, I’m there.

Me: Can you describe your typical workday? (If such a thing exists!)

MS: My work day is from about 8am to 2pm or 3pm , five days a week. I’ve stuck to this for the last 20 years and it’s been a good discipline. I never make appointments during that time. It’s all mine. It allows a lot of work to get done and even if I’m just drinking tea and reading in the studio, I consider myself working.

Me: A River of Words and Tupelo Rides the Rails are both 2008 books. Were you working on them at the same time? How did they influence each other? (I see they both have star charts, for instance.)

MS: Thank goodness for color Xeroxes…Those star charts have served me well. Tupelo took a good deal of time and consideration to make all the elements work together. It really absorbed me. As soon as it was done, I had to jump in and begin the art for this book. I went wild with the collages for A River of Words. I don’t think I would’ve had the same freedom had I not poured my soul into Tupelo. I needed a sense of abandon, and thought of all the soirees Williams attended in New York, all the modern art he loved. I tried not to censor and trust my hunches. One thing I’ve learned after many projects is that the process is not a function of time. I’ve found I work best with a deadline and the proverbial gun to my head. It forces me to make decisions and everything we do in a book is a decision. Artists have to make marks to have something to respond to, and it’s the same with writing. The early writing I do for a book looks pretty sorry, but it gives me a starting point. I have William Stafford’s quote that talks about “ lowering one’s standards in order to write” and I find that’s very helpful with art or writing. Not every day is going to be extraordinary.

Me: What are you working on now (if you can say)?

MS: I can’t say. I heard Richard Russo once say his next book is about 350 pages, so mine is about 48 pages.

Me: What is your all-time (or current, you pick) favorite medium for your art?

MS: I love using gouache. I’m not sure life would be worth living without it.

Me: What is your favorite book out of the 70+ you’ve written and/or illustrated? (Again, if such a thing exists!)

MS: In the spirit of diplomacy, I love them all for different reasons. But Carmine was so much fun, and I never dreamed I’d get to use the word “nincompoop” in a book.

Me: And now, some questions just for fun:

Coffee or tea?
Tea, PG tips to be specific.

Vanilla or chocolate?

TV, DVD, or movie theater?
The movies, so long as it’s not a megaplex. We don’t have TV but I download Project Runway on YouYube religiously.

Classical or jazz?
Jazz or Leonard Cohen.

Beach, mountain, or forest?
All the above and maybe back-road bicycle ride too.

Early bird, or night owl?
Early bird.

Hardback, paperback, or magazine?
The New Yorker, or whatever I’m researching next.

Thank you, Melissa, for agreeing to this public sort of chat! I've...or shall I say, we've enjoyed getting to know you and we look forward to your next books!

For a tad bit more information, see Kids Q & A at Powell's.

All illustrations courtesy of Melissa Sweet. Posted with permission. All rights reserved.


  1. Thank you for this wonderful interview! The layers and depth to Melissa's artwork are fascinating. She's one of my top favorites.

  2. Great interview!
    The Jen Bryant book will be a must for me to read and enjoy the illustrations. My favorite book of hers is The Trial.

  3. Woo hoo! What a great interview, and these books look so great. Thanks for this.

  4. Fantasitc interview! I must get that WCW book right now.

  5. Nice interview! I love the artwork in William Carlos Williams.

  6. Anonymous9:51 PM

    Oh, this interview is so delicious. And the artwork??? Lusting after this artwork...


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