SOUP’S ON: Melissa Sweet in the Kitchen Interview and Book Giveaway!

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.

Melissa signing books at her Caldecott party in Portland, Maine, March 2009.

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.

“The river’s music both excited and soothed Willie. Sometimes, as he listened to its perfect tune, he fell asleep.” (A River of Words, 2008).

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.

Spread featuring “Pastoral,” by William Carlos Williams.


Spread featuring “This is Just to Say.” 

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.

Melissa’s favorite illo from the book.

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). 

Spread featuring “The Great Figure.”

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! 

The famous pencil

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?

Carmine character studies

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.

Carmine sketches


Carmine finished art

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.

  Melissa at about age 4 (awesome gloves)!

Food that inspires your best work.

Tea, black or green.

Authors and/or artists who’ve had the most influence on your work.

David Hockney.

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!”

Spread from the cheese cookbook


Visit Melissa’s
official website and new blog!

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.

Tracie Vaughn Zimmer has created some great teacher guides for Tupelo Rides the Rails, A River of Words, and Carmine: A Little More Red.

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!

Melissa, a little more red, considers an object for a future collage.

*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.

41 thoughts on “SOUP’S ON: Melissa Sweet in the Kitchen Interview and Book Giveaway!

  1. I liked the text of A River of Words a lot, but I LOVED the art and book design. I’m fortunate to have a copy signed by Melissa (it was a gift from a lovely and talented friend), plus another unsigned copy (a Chanukah gift from hubby).


  2. OH SQUEE! as Kelly F. always says. I can hardly stand it all. I love this interview (and all your interviews, I feel like I must constantly say). She had me at Mary Oliver. No, she had me at that opening photo. What great questions, Jama! What a perfectly delightful interview and so detailed, as always, and all the great art….Squee again! Do you know I STILL HAVEN’T SEEN A River of Words? Must. fix. that. It looks like a book I must must must see. Must hit my library online NOW and get all of her books they have (though my girls and I read and enjoyed CARMINE last week, thanks to your recommendation, Jama).

    Thanks to both of you!


  3. Woah, it only took one month to create the final art! I wonder how long sketches and research took? I adore that last blue spread too. The Sleepy Little Alphabet looks fun – I’ll add that to my list of books to check out. Thanks for the interview!


  4. Lucky you! Being an alphabet freak, I was totally blown away by all the drawn letters and typefaces she incorporated in her collages. And how brilliant to include old book covers! She took every letter and word of WCW’s poems and made them into new works of art that deepened my appreciation of the poems themselves.


  5. It was such a pleasure to work with Melissa on this interview, Jules. She’s just so generous and a kindred spirit when it comes to the alphabet!

    I haven’t seen every book she’s done, but the ones I have — whoa! The James Audubon book is outstanding, as are her Baby Bear books, and though I haven’t read any of them yet — the Charlotte series she illustrates for Chronicle Books (written by Joan MacPhail Knight) looks really charming, too. Each one is a travel journal to some of my favorite places, like London, Paris, and New York. The design and layout of these books is lucious and basically gets me right where I live.


  6. Thanks for the kind words, Susan. The art in the book is brilliant, no doubt. Have you seen The Boy Who Drew Birds? With your love of nature and wildlife, I’m sure you’d enjoy it.


  7. OH!!!

    on everything. All the gorgeousness of words and pictures is making me tongue tied. I don’t know if I could pick a favorite between The Boy who Drew Birds — Carmine — and River of Words. And those just among the more recent.

    thanks for the super interview!


  8. Yes, I was surprised to hear it only took a month. In Mary Lee’s interview, Melissa talks a little more about having some false starts before finally latching onto the concept of using the old book covers. I guess once the fire was lit, it was full steam ahead!


  9. My thoughts exactly. I love love love all three of those titles — each has its own brand of awesomeness. Now, I’m really anxious to read Charlotte in London!! I think it sounds like something you’d love, too :).


  10. How sweet!!! I’m heading right over to link this on my blog. Then coming back to read all the juicy details. (Have to admit I was skimming and looking at the pictures this go-around. OK, drooling over the pictures!) “A River of Words” is gorgeous. Love Jen Bryant’s work too. I had the pleasure of going to Melissa’s workshop in LA a while back, she is a very cool lady. Thanks for the link to her blog.



  11. Oooh, how I love that crazy pencil.

    Just had to say that, but don’t put me in the drawing, ’cause I OWN this lovely book. But you can beat me with a found object because I haven’t read it yet. (I’m slowly making my way through my TBR stack as a reward for finishing my manuscript. Must. Read. Faster.)

    I looove that last picture of Melissa. And that image of WCW writing—oh, my, oh my, oh moon-filled sky. Marvelous.


  12. Well, you can put me in the drawing for River of Words because I’ve seen it – ADORED the ART – but don’t own it. I’m glad that it was recognized by the Caldecotts and I hope that award puts it in more classrooms, libraries, and little readers’ hands.


  13. When I read through Melissa’s answers, and learned about the pencil, I had to ask her for a photo of it! I’ve never seen a point so long!

    And Melissa’s childhood photos are so adorable. I think red is her favorite color!


  14. giveaway

    What a great interview! You asked wonderful questions and I can’t wait to get the book! I have to say that I adore your blog mostly because you combine books and tasty treats! Yum! Thanks for all you do. I will post a link to this on my blog as well.
    Jen W.


  15. How fun to meet Melissa again through your interview! (Thanks for the linky love!!) I am still a bit prideful of the fact that I picked a winner this year!! There are spreads in this book whose beauty just makes me ache with longing to be an artist or a poet.

    Leave my name out of the drawing — my copy is autographed by BOTH Melissa Sweet *and* Jen Bryant!!!


  16. You have every reason to be proud. Wow, I know exactly what you mean about beauty that makes you ache with longing! Lucky you, to have a copy autographed by both author and illustrator. What a treasure!


  17. I know you will simply love it! It definitely is the perfect blend of words and pictures, words as pictures, pictures as words. Faboo all around :).


  18. I would love to have tea with Melissa someday. I am so in awe of her creative spirit!

    And as always, Jama, your own creativity sparkles in this interview. What an amazing collage of ideas and images!


  19. Sweet Contest

    What a great interview! This is just to say that I would love to win either book. Thanks for the chance.

    Stephanie Reed
    stef dot reed at gmail dot com


  20. Re: Sweet Contest

    What a lovely, lovely title. And those cupcakes look absolutely delish!



  21. Melissa’s artwork is fabulous! Love her collages! And thanks so much for this interview with her!


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