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 which garnered many awards including: the 2012 Sibert Medal, the NCTE Orbis Pictus Award, an ALA Notable Book, the Flora Stieglitz Strauss Award from Bank Street Books as well as the Cook Prize which honors a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) picture book; Tupelo Rides the Rails, and Carmine: A Little More Red, a New York Times Best Illustrated, 2005.
Melissa illustrated A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams by Jen Bryant, a 2008 Caldecott Honor book, an NCTE Notable Children’s Book and a New York Times Best Illustrated. Recent titles include: The Sleepy Little Alphabet by Judy Sierra, Rubia and the Three Osos by Susan Middleton Elya, Baby Bears Big Dreams by Jane Yolen and Day is Done by Peter Yarrow.
As a kid, I was always busy making paper dolls, playing with Paint by Number kits, Colorforms, a Spirograph. My first art lesson was watching Jon Gnagy on television in the 1960’s and I’ve been drawing ever since. Now I write and illustrate picture books in Rockport, Maine, a picturesque harbor town. My ideas come from everywhere—the landscape, something I hear on the radio or from a book I’m reading. When I’m not in the studio I love to ride my bicycle and hike with my two dogs, Rufus (who has a starring role in my book, CARMINE) and Nellie, a sheltie, who acts like a ninja in a ballerina costume.
Here’s a listing of blog posts and magazine articles that talk about me and my books:
Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast: Seven Questions Over Breakfast With Melissa Sweet
Susan Kapinski Gaylord: National Poetry Month/William Carlos Williams
Fairfield Writer’s Blog: A River of Words
The Classroom Bookshelf: Balloons Over Broadway
The Huffington Post: Balloons Over Broadway
Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast: Balloons Over Broadway
Bookends Booklist Blog: Balloons Over Broadway
The Horn Book: Five Questions for Melissa Sweet
Almost the whole shebang from the Ninth Book of Junior Authors and Illustrators:
Born and raised in suburban Wyckoff, New Jersey, Melissa Sweet received an Associate’s Degree from Endicott College in Beverly, Massachusetts, and studied art at the Kansas City Art Institute. She has worked at various types of commercial art, and has created posters, greeting cards, and one-of-a-kind handmade books. Since entering the world of children’s books with illustrations for the first of James Howe’s Pinky and Rex easy reading series, she has published over 60 titles. Her lighthearted, gentle cartoon illustrations have graced a wide range of children’s books from board books to series fiction to more serious nonfiction subjects, all very successfully.
Sweet’s signature style of whimsical watercolors is often enhanced by collage art when she finds objects and details that are appropriate to the story. The light, joyous quality of her illustration and the technical skill in its execution has led to many of her books being chosen for awards. One of her very first books,The Talking Pot, was named an American Booksellers “Pick of the Lists.” Llama in Pajamas received a Parents Choice Award and Bouncing Time garnered an Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Gold Award. The Dirty Laundry Pile won a Texas Bluebonnet Award and was named a Children’s Book of Distinction by the Riverbank Review. For Catherine Thimmesh’s The Sky’s the Limit: Stories of Discoveries by Women, Melissa created a notebook-like effect with watercolors and collage over lined paper to simulate a working researcher or naturalist. The result is a book in which the form perfectly matches the text, and this title was included on lists of both the Notable Social Studies Trade Books and the Outstanding Science Trade Books, as well as winning the 2003 Minnesota Book Award for younger nonfiction. Two other nonfiction titles were named Outstanding Science Trade Books: The 5,000 Year Old Puzzle and Girls Think of Everything. Leaving Vietnam, written by Sarah Kilborne, is a “Ready-to-Read” book about the harrowing experiences of Vietnamese boat people that was illustrated by Sweet with watercolors to emphasize the tender family bonds of the desperate refugees even while they are coping with difficult situations. This book was also named a Notable Social Studies title.
:: SELECTED WORKS ILLUSTRATED: The Talking Pot: A Danish Folktale, retold by Virginia Haviland, 1990; Fiddle-i-fee: A Farmyard Song for the Very Young, adapted by Melissa Sweet, 1992, 2002; Snippets: A Gathering of Poems, Pictures, and Possibilities, by Charlotte Zolotow, 1993; A House by the Sea, by Joanne Ryder, 1994; Llama in Pajamas, by Gisela Voss, 1994; Blast Off!, by Lee Bennett Hopkins, 1995; Naptime, Laptime, by Eileen Spinelli, 1995; The Bat Jamboree, by Kathi Appelt, 1996: Monsters in Cyberspace, by Dian Curtis Regan, 1996; Monsters and My One True Love, by Dian Curtis Regan, 1998; Bats on Parade, by Kathi Appelt, 1999; Love and Kisses, by Sarah William, 1999; Leaving Vietnam: The Journey of Tuan Ngo, a Boat Boy, by Sarah S. Kilborne, 1999; Bouncing Time, by Patricia Hubbell, 2000; Girls Think of Everything, Stories of Ingenious Inventions by Women, by Catherine Thimmesh, 2000; Bats Around the Clock, by Kathi Appelt, 2000; Charlotte in Giverny, by Joan MacPhail Knight, 2000; Dirty Laundry Pile: Poems in Different Voices, ed. by Paul Janeczko, 2001; Good for You!: Toddler Rhymes for Toddler Times, by Stephanie Calmenson, 2001; Now What Can I Do?, by Margaret Park Bridges, 2001; The 5,000 Year-Old Puzzle: Solving a Mystery of Ancient Egypt, by Claudia Logan, 2002; The Sky’s the Limit: Stories of Discoveries by Women, by Catherine Thimmesh, 2002; Welcome Baby!: Baby Rhymes for Baby Times, by Stephanie Calmenson, 2002; Charlotte in Paris, by Joan MacPhail Knight, 2003; My Grandma is Coming to Town, by Anna Grossnickle Hines, 2003; Giggle-Wiggle, Wake-Up!, by Nancy White Carlstrom, 2003; Moonlight: The Halloween Cat, by Cynthia Rylant, 2003; Peek-a-Book, by Lee Wardlaw, 2003; Spring is Here: A Barnyard Counting Book, by Pamela Jane, 2004; The Boy Who Drew Birds: A Story of John James Audubon, by Jacqueline Davies, 2004; Won’t You Be My Kissaroo?, by Joanne Ryder, 2004; My Grandma is Coming to Town, by Anna Grossnickle Hines, 2004.
:: SELECTED WORKS ILLUSTRATED: Pinky and Rex series, all by James Howe: Pinky and Rex, 1990; Pinky and Rex Get Married, 1990; Pinky and Rex and the Spelling Bee, 1991; Pinky and Rex Go to Camp, 1992; Pinky and Rex and the New Baby, 1994; Pinky and Rex and the Double-Dad Weekend, 1995; Pinky and Rex and the Bully, 1996; Pinky and Rex and the Perfect Pumpkin, 1998; Pinky and Rex and the Mean Old Witch, 1999; Pinky and Rex and the Just-right Pet, 2001.
:: My family lived in northern New Jersey, not far from New York City. It was a typical suburban neighborhood with small ranch houses and sidewalks lining the streets. My two brothers and I were part of a big neighborhood filled with kids of all ages. Afternoons during school and in the summer we were on our bikes all over town. I have a memory of screen doors slamming up and down the street as we were free to come and go. Nearly every day we rode our bikes down our street to Percy’s store for penny candy and Archie and Veronica comic books. On summer nights we played games like kick-the-can and sardines well into the darkness with fireflies everywhere. It seemed unfair when our parents called us in for bed. I had a third grade teacher, Mrs. Blockburger, an enormous woman in size and spirit. I was always — and still am — a small person, and she called me her “wee lassie.” In my hazy and distant memory of that year with her, I got a lot of attention for being pretty good at drawing.
At home my folks were always making things. My mom sewed clothes for me and knit tiny doll sweaters. My dad built us a playhouse and did construction around the house. There were projects going on all the time. In school I did okay, but I had trouble sitting still all day and I was not an avid reader. I always thought I’d be an artist — there was never any question for me. When I got to high school I wanted to be a potter, and at the time I had my own potter’s wheel. During my first year in art school I really fell in love with drawing and painting. My roommate had brought several children’s books with her and one was Little Bear with illustrations by Maurice Sendak. My dad had read that book to us as kids. When I saw Sendak’s art again I became really interested in book illustration and thought my style of art might work in children’s books.
After a few years at college I ended up taking classes in whatever interested me. I noticed one of the things that drew me to art was the process — learning how to use tools, keeping sketchbooks, figuring out how different materials work. I took classes in welding, blacksmithing, calligraphy, and papermaking. I loved learning all kinds of things, but books remained my primary interest. Hoping to eventually illustrate books, I began making greeting cards and hand-made books which got me drawing everyday.
Finally around 1985, I put together a portfolio and went to New York City to talk to art directors about getting published. During that trip I acquired my first job — illustrating the Pinky and Rex series by James Howe. It was incredibly exciting to illustrate my first books for such a fantastic author. I find that each book calls for something different and I spend a lot of time trying to figure exactly how I’m going to do my art and what materials I’m going to use.
When I received the manuscript for Moonlight, the Midnight Cat by Cynthia Rylant, I knew I wanted the artwork to be in acrylics so I could get the deep rich colors of a moonlit night. I kept the art simple by using a big brush for painting. Another book, Giggle-Wiggle Wake-Up by Nancy White Carlson is about a preschooler getting ready to go to school. I used old notebook paper in the collages to help give it the feeling of being in a school classroom. If I can, I like to travel to do the research for the nonfiction books. I traveled to Egypt to see the pyramids and research tombs for The 5,000 Year Old Puzzle by Claudia Logan. Recently I went to Kentucky and Pennsylvania for a book about John James Audubon, The Boy Who Drew Birds by Jacqueline Davies. I keep journals and collect a ton of stuff along the way because I never know what I might use in the books.
Even after working on all sorts of projects, I still find it’s the designing, research and experimenting that is the most exciting part of making children’s books. Now I live with my husband and step-daughter in a small coastal Maine village near a working harbor. Above my drafting table there’s a quote from the poet Mary Oliver: “To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.” That’s good, because I often find myself taking walks, gardening, biking, but I’m taking it all in and it somehow shows up in my books. We have a dog, Rufus, who plays a major role in a book I just finished, Carmine: A Little More Red, about Little Red Riding Hood. This is the first book I’ve written and illustrated. Now that I’m writing my own stories I feel like I’m starting all over again. It’s been 20 years, and I still can’t wait to get into my studio every morning.