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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Bibliophile Read-a-force member interviewed on WABI

One of our members of the Bibliophile Read-a-force, Lilja, was interviewed yesterday about why she supports the library.  Check it out!


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To ban or not to ban, that is the question!


As Banned Books Week 2014 comes to a close, The Bibliophile Read-a-force (our book club for grades 6-8) met to discuss censorship.  I’ve worked as a librarian for 4 years and each year during Banned Book Week I’m always amazed at the list of banned books and the reasons why they have been banned or challenged.  This year was the first time I took a minute to really think about our right to information and the effect that banning a book could have.  The bibliophiles had a great discussion exploring potential reasons why people would feel the need to challenge a book, as well reasons why banning books could be detrimental to individuals and society as a whole.

It wasn’t all serious, of course:


Many of the bibliophiles also worked on logos for our upcoming Rainbow Readers Race color run (more info about that coming soon!)


How did you celebrate Banned Books Week?


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Crazy Hair Day

The kids have read 1250 books so far this summer.  Today was Crazy Hair Day at the Ellsworth Public Library to celebrate this accomplishment!  Here’s my take on a bird’s nest:

DSC04886To be honest,  I was surprised that more patrons didn’t comment on or mention our crazy hair.  Maybe they thought this was our usual look at and didn’t want to offend us…


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Things I thought I’d never do: Be interviewed on TV

Before I started working at the library, I had somewhat of an idea of what the job would entail.  I pictured myself helping patrons locate materials and then checking those materials out.  I thought about shelving, organizing, and building the library’s collection.

Almost 4 years later, this is a true representation of my job, but it’s definitely not the whole story.  There have definitely been some unexpected responsibilities…but these are often the most memorable and fun.

For example, today I was interviewed on Channel 5.  Ellsworth Public Library is hosting a 5k “color run” to benefit the library and we are looking for a name.  For me, it was definitely nerve-racking to be interviewed, but it was a good experience and at least I know what it’s like.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about these “out-of-the-blue” things that happen in a librarian’s day. Next Monday I’ll share a few more unexpected job responsibilities for librarians, but in the meantime, I’d love to hear what you have to say about this topic in the comments!


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How does John Green reach his audience?

John Green as a YA author is difficult to extricate from John Green as an online presence.  Some of his online persona is for the purpose of self-promotion and selling books, but a lot of his projects have little to do with his own work.  For instance, John posted videos on his website directed to his brother Hank as part of a project that started as Brotherhood 2.0.  Brotherhood 2.0 was a challenge between the two Green Brothers to cease all textual communication in favor of daily videos for an entire year (2007).  “The videos spawned a community of people called nerdfighters who fight for intellectualism and to decrease the overall worldwide level of suck” (Green, n.d., John Green’s Biography).

Nerdfighters participate in The Project for Awesome, a yearly collaborative fundraising activity aimed to improve the world.  During the two-day event, people donate money and also upload videos advocating for a non-profit organization of their choice.  Participants then vote for their favorite charities and the money is divided between the winning organizations.

Since 2007, John and Hank have gone on to collaborate on a variety of online projects, including:

Crash Course-an instructional series on YouTube featuring lessons about U.S. History, World History, Literature, Chemistry, Biology, and Ecology.

Vlogbrothers-Brotherhood 2.o evolved to become Vlogbrothers.  The brothers post videos about twice a week on a wide variety of current event topics.

John is also the creator of the Mental Floss videos.

Discussion Questions

Do you think YA authors should strive to have a strong online presence?  Why or why not?

Do you think John Green’s online presence is an integral part of his writing persona or do you think it detracts from his work as an author?



Green, J. (n.d.). John Green’s Biography. In John Green:  New York Times Bestselling Author. Retrieved May 8, 2014, from,



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What does John Green contribute to YA Literature?

With only four independent works to his name, John Green is certainly not the most prolific YA author, but his work is very important to YA literature.  He published Looking for Alaska in 2005, An Abundance of Katherines in 2006, Paper Towns in 2008, and The Fault in Our Stars in 2012.  He has also collaborated on another book entitled Will Grayson, Will Grayson with YA author David Leviathan in 2010.  Looking for Alaska, Green’s first novel, won the Printz Award in 2006.  Green won the Edgar Award in 2009 for Paper Towns (Green, J., n.d., John Green’s Biography).

John Green’s body of work impressively has the ability to be challenging, intriguing, and relevant to teens.  Aside from stylistic merit, his work is important because it introduces teens to literature in an accessible way that empowers them.  The author believes that “a book is something that happens in conversation between a reader and a writer.” (Green, n.d., Movie Questions).

When asked about how to interpret or read the metaphors and symbols in his book, Paper Towns, Green gave his standard reply:  “a book belongs to its reader” (Green, n.d., Questions about Paper Towns).   This is an amazing way to present the concept of reading to (possibly reluctant) teenage readers.  Instead of feeling pressure to conform to the author’s point of view and try to decode the novel to determine the author’s intent, Green’s philosophy allows for the possibility of open conversation.  Green stresses the point that every reader brings something different to the interpretation of a book and this point of view is important and valid.  Validating everyone’s points of view also encourages a culture of acceptance when it comes to book discussions.  Teens who only read for assignments and are accustomed to reading books to find key facts or to regurgitate a particular viewpoint would certainly benefit from hearing that they have something valuable to contribute.


Green, J. (n.d.). John Green’s Biography. In John Green:  New York Times Bestselling Author. Retrieved May 8, 2014, from,

Green, J. (n.d.). Movie Questions. In John Green: New York Times Bestselling Author. Retrieved May 9, 2014, from

Green, J. (n.d.). Questions about Paper Towns (SPOILERS!). In John Green:  New York Times Bestselling Author. Retrieved May 8, 2014, from



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