Melissa with Rufus and Nellie.
Friends, I’m tickled pink and over the moon, because our very special guest at alphabet soup today is 2009 Caldecott Honor Medal winner, Melissa Sweet!
I can’t think of a better way to top off National Poetry Month, than with the illustrator who so brilliantly rendered the story of how Willie Williams, a doctor from Rutherford, New Jersey, became one of America’s most influential twentieth century poets.
If you’ve seen Melissa’s masterful work in A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams (beautifully written by Jen Bryant), then you know the award was supremely well deserved. Her mixed media collages embody the very soul and spirit of the poet, who “walked through the high grasses and along the soft dirt paths . . . stretched out beside the Passaic River . . . watched everything,” took notes “about things he’d heard, seen, or done . . . looked at the words . . . and shaped them into poems.”
I learned from Melissa’s website bio that these words by poet Mary Oliver are posted above her drafting table: “To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.” Melissa says, “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.” Like Williams, Melissa is a keen observer, chronicler, and collector. She is constantly on the lookout for all manner of found objects and ephemera to use in creating her exuberant, charming collages. Quite amazing is the childlike spirit that always shines through in very sophisticated works of art. Her illos are endlessly engaging, radiantly fresh and winsome, like cherished one-of-a-kind objects that are handmade and “heart-made.”
Melissa has received countless awards and accolades for many of the 70+ books she’s illustrated for such luminaries as James Howe, Jane Yolen, Jacqueline Davies, Joanne Ryder, and Jacqueline Briggs Martin. She’s also published two self-illustrated titles, Tupelo Rides the Rails (2008), which celebrates her love for dogs, and the one book that makes me swoon every time I think about it, Carmine: A Little More Red (2005), which is my all-time favorite alphabet-themed book (complete with soup recipe)! Nobody draws letters like she does; they virtually sing with personality.
Today Melissa is chatting with us all the way from her home in Rockport, Maine, where she lives with her husband, stepdaughter, three cats, and beloved dogs, Rufus and Nellie. We focused on A River of Words, which, in addition to the Caldecott Honor, received a ton of other accolades, including 2008 Cybils finalist, 2008 New York Times Best Illustrated Book, Junior Library Guild Selection, and 2009 Lupine Picture Book Award.
Congratulations once again on winning a Caldecott Honor Medal for A River of Words! Please tell us all about THE CALL. Did you do anything special to celebrate?
Thank you! That morning I got set up in the studio as usual, but it was a gorgeous cold morning so I took my dogs for a walk. THE CALL came in via cell phone to my machine and I tried to call them back but it went to message, so I quickly called my husband, then tried them again, only to realize in my haste I had written the number wrong. Suffice it to say it was a comedy of errors and we spoke much later. I feel like I’ve celebrated at every opportunity, but the party in Portland in March was the best.
Of course there were cupcakes.
How did this project come to you, and what made you say yes to it? Did you know right away that you wanted to illustrate Jen Bryant’s text?
Gayle Brown, the art director at Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, had seen another nonfiction book I did, The Boy Who Drew Birds by Jacqueline Davies. I said “yes” pretty much right away. Though I didn’t know a lot about WCW, I wanted to do this book — it was a big challenge. I really had no idea how I would render it at that time.
In your Illustrator’s Note, you talk about going to Rutherford and Paterson, New Jersey, to research, take pictures, and sketch. What details about Williams’ life intrigued, excited and/or surprised you most during this discovery phase?
The few poems of his I had heard were the ones many people know: “The Red Wheelbarrow,” “This is Just to Say,” “The Great Figure.” When I went to Paterson, I thought about him making house calls there as a doctor, and saw the house where he lived and practiced in Rutherford. Somehow, going there, (going anywhere to do research), makes it more real. These were the streets he drove down, here’s the Passaic River, the library, etc. The research for a non-fiction book can be done from home, but I find I get more in touch with the person just by being where they were. Pictures can’t do that.
When I was working on The Boy Who Drew Birds, I went to Mill Grove, Pennsylvania, where the book takes place, and visited the house where Audubon lived. When I saw the attic room that was his bedroom and studio, I felt like I had the whole book. It gives me a sort of impression even if I don’t actually use the material I’ve gathered.
You also said that this book was a “true gift.” How did working on it stretch you as an artist? Was it the most challenging project you’ve ever done? How long did it take you to complete it?
It took one month to do the final art. When I finally decided how to do it, I just went for it. I didn’t know if I could pull it off. Gayle Brown loved a sample piece and was so encouraging. It was a wonderful project where the stars aligned. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt the kind of freedom I had from start to finish. It was one of the easiest projects on one hand, and the magnitude of his poems was a privilege to work with.
Do you have a favorite illustration from the book, a favorite poem?
The last image from the book, of WCW writing in his attic room. The poem is “11/1” (excerpt from The Descent of Winter), and he mentions the Pleiades. I spelled Pleiades wrong in the art a couple of times, and kept going over it to get it right. I could practically smell the night after reading that poem.
Using any one of the illustrations from the book as an example, briefly explain how you created it. What was your favorite part of the process?
I started by gathering images, typography, book covers, getting a pile of stuff nearby to work with. We can talk about “The Great Figure,” (the one in reds with the big FIVE).
I start with the background, add some paint, then begin to place the type and maybe do an overlay of the poem to get a sense of how much room it will take. I push the pieces around; at a certain point it becomes a design problem. How is this working as a piece of art? Is the emphasis where I want it? Then, if anything I’ve added feels wrong, out it goes. It’s intuitive. You know when it’s finished because nothing else needs to be done to it.
What do you think your love for collage says about you as an artist and person? What is the most unusual found object you’ve used in your work?
I’m not certain what it means about me, but collage has always made me weak in the knees. There’s a lot of chance and trust involved — trust that it will work out!
As far as the most unusual object, I have some pretty crazy stuff out here. This is it: a pencil about 2 inches long that I found in a button box. Someone had sharpened it to within an inch of its life, and the point is really long. That pencil was really used. I keep thinking I should frame it. My stepdaughter picked it up one day and I went into orbit: don’t touch that pencil! like it was the most valuable thing on the planet. The poor kid, but she’s used to me. I’m worried the point will break.
Overall, how would you describe your style for illustrating children’s books? How long did it take you to fully realize it, and what’s your preferred medium?
It took years, and each book is so different, my style really tries to reflect what the book is about. I feel like after 20+ years I’m just getting going. If I could only have one medium, it would be watercolors.
Who or what inspires you?
That’s a long list. People’s sketchbooks and studios for starters.
I absolutely love Carmine: A Little More Red, the first book you both wrote and illustrated, for its alphabetical twist and hand-drawn letters. How did you get the idea to use granny’s alphabet soup in your story? Do you often play with alphabet pasta?
That came out of the idea of making the book an abecedarian. When I thought about the granny’s character, I knew I didn’t want the wolf to eat her and that Carmine would go to her house for some great meal. I still associate my grandmother’s home with food. The alphabet soup came out of that — the perfect food for an alphabet book. Then the pasta letters help hammer it home.
What can you tell us about your new book, The Sleepy Little Alphabet (written by Judy Sierra), which will be out in June?
I LOVE this book. Judy wrote a wonderful, funny story about the alphabet letters (lower case) and their parents (upper case), who live in Alphabet Town. They won’t go to bed, and N is naughty, M is mopey, O and P upset the potty . . . it was a lot of fun to illustrate and make the letters into these little rascal characters.
What are you working on now?
I’m writing a biography and have a couple of other picture books for this year.
Favorite letter of the alphabet.
“N.” To be honest, I love all the letters for different reasons, but N can be upside down and still look good. It’s architecturally strong and makes for superb swirls. Plus, in The Sleepy Alphabet, N was “naughty” and gave me room for a bit of a sub-story. It’s always helpful to have a naughty character to play off of. N endeared itself to me.
Favorite childhood food-related memory.
The first time I ever had S’mores.
Food that inspires your best work.
Tea, black or green.
Authors and/or artists who’ve had the most influence on your work.
Something surprising about yourself.
I cannot sing, not one wit, not one note, it’s unbearable to hear me try.
You’ve illustrated several cookbooks, as well as the wonderful, My A-Z Recipe Box. Please share a favorite recipe with us.
This is adapted from the book, Cheese: Quick and Easy Recipes for Elegant Entertaining by Lou Seibert Pappas:
(6) 8″ flour tortillas
2 cups monterey jack cheese, shredded
1 mango or papaya, peeled and cut into small pieces
Heat a large skillet and lay down a tortilla, lightly browning one side. Flip it, then sprinkle some of the cheese and some sliced mango. Top with another tortilla and cook until cheese is melting, then flip to brown the other side. Transfer to a cutting board and cut into wedges. Serve while hot.
Make a salad, and as Carmine would say: “Voila!”
Read more about the book at Jen Bryant’s website, including a full list of all the awards AROW has received thus far.
Last September, Mary Lee at A Year of Reading interviewed Melissa, and they discussed both A River of Words and Tupelo Rides the Rails. At that time, Mary Lee voiced her strong support for A River of Words, saying she wanted to nominate it for the Caldecott!
For a look at Melissa’s home and studio in Rockport, Maine, check out this awesome blog post by Alison at Shelf Talker. At the time of Alison’s visit, Melissa was working on A River of Words, so there are some cool photos of the work in progress.
Have you been to My Dog is a Bonehead yet? This website is devoted to Tupelo Rides the Rails, and will have you yipping with joy. Did you know that a portion of the proceeds from the sale of Tupelo will go to support shelter dogs and rescue causes nationwide? And, for every dog who becomes a member of the pack (i.e., official Bonehead), Melissa will make a shelter donation! Go over right now and sniff out the site!
*Spreads from A River of Words posted by permission, text copyright © 2008 Jen Bryant, illustrations © 2008 Melissa Sweet, published by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers. Spreads from Carmine: A Little More Red (Houghton Mifflin, 2005) and Cheese (Chronicle, 1996), and all personal photos posted by permission of illustrator, copyright © 2009 Melissa Sweet. All rights reserved.