Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Melissa Sweet

h1 January 21st, 2010 by jules

Melissa Sweet and RufusIf you saw Jama Rattigan’s April 2009 interview with author/illustrator Melissa Sweet (pictured above with her dog, Rufus)—or if you’ve visited Melissa’s site—you know that these words by poet Mary Oliver are posted above Melissa’s drafting table: “To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.” And when you see Melissa’s work, you know this is an artist who pays careful attention, indeed. Her mixed-media collage illustrations are detailed and exuberant, always visually appealing; her watercolors, luminous. Full of graceful details for young children and picture book aficionados alike, they clearly mark the work of an illustrator with a keen eye — for nature and for children, in particular. In fact, one of the many images Melissa sent for this interview is this below:

Having explored her books, I’d say this captures well how Melissa succeeds in her writing and illustrating: There is a refreshing child-centeredness to her work that draws readers. She know her child audience and knows it well. We see her illustrations, our imaginations are stirred, and we’re on our way.

Speaking of that success . . . Melissa has illustrated over seventy books, and she’s both written and illustrated a couple of her own. Early last year, she received the Caldecott Honor for her illustrations in Jen Bryant’s A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams (Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2008). “Sweet’s mixed-media collage and primitive watercolors flow seamlessly with Bryant’s prose to reveal the important bits and pieces of Williams’ ordinary, yet extraordinary, life as a doctor and poet,” wrote the Caldecott committee.

This past Fall, Melissa brought to verdant life the words of folk singer Peter Yarrow in his picture book adaptation (published by Sterling) of the folk classic, “Day is Done.” She’s here to discuss that a bit, as well as talk about her new projects and forthcoming 2010 titles. Her breakfast-of-choice this morning? “Here in Maine,” she told me, “it’s blueberry-land, so I have ‘blues,’ as we call them, in some form — smoothie, pancakes, on yogurt. And tea — PG tips, to be exact.”

Let’s set the table for our breakfast chat and get the basics from Melissa in the process. I thank her for stopping by, especially for her generosity in sharing her art this morning.

* * * * * * *

7-Imp: Are you an illustrator or author/illustrator?

Melissa: Author/Illustrator.

7-Imp: Can you list your books-to-date?


{The below images are from Melissa’s Caldecott party in Maine, 2009.}

The collage room

7-Imp: What is your usual medium, or––if you use a variety—your preferred one?

Melissa: Watercolor is where I began and, no matter what else I do in a book, watercolor is there.

7-Imp: If you have illustrated for various age ranges (such as, both picture books and early reader books OR, say, picture books and chapter books), can you briefly discuss the differences, if any, in illustrating for one age group to another?

Melissa: There’s a difference from one book to another because of the content, and the age range is in the back of my mind. I think a lot about what materials will best convey the spirit of the book.

This past year was a big range from the quirky alphabet characters in The Sleepy Little Alphabet; to two boards books—Christmas Tree and Hanukkah Lights, both by David Martin—that were simple but rich in tone, using colored tissue papers; and Day is Done, a large and luscious format that I did primarily in watercolor to convey the quiet mood of the song.

Spreads from Peter Yarrow’s Day is Done

7-Imp: Where are your stompin’ grounds?

Melissa: Rockport, Maine.

Photos from the Carmine publication party in Rockport

7-Imp: Can you briefly tell me about your road to publication?

Melissa: While I was sending out work to publishers, I started making one of a kind and limited edition books. And during those years, waiting to get published, I made a zillion greeting cards for various companies. All of that kept me busy; meanwhile, I was honing my portfolio.

After a number of years of rejections, I made a trip to NYC with my portfolio and saw about twelve publishers in a few days. It was during that trip that I was offered the Pinky and Rex series by James Howe and Into the Night by Deborah Heiligman.

7-Imp: Can you please point readers to your web site and/or blog?


7-Imp: If you do school visits, tell me what they’re like.

Melissa: It’s really fun to leave the studio and go to schools. The kids say things I will never forget. Recently, a third-grader (who weighed in at about eighty pounds) told me he wanted to be a sumo wrestler and a writer. I hope he does.

The visit: We talk about how a book is made — from when I receive the manuscript to the printing process. Then I show a video of me working in the studio and the process of making one title. (I have a few books to choose from.) I read aloud from the book on screen. Each student gets a small sketchbook and we draw together (that’s the part I would’ve wanted as a kid), lastly, wrapping up with Q+A.

7-Imp: If you teach illustration, can you tell me how that influences your work as an illustrator?

Melissa: I don’t teach, but I take classes every year in anything that seems remotely interesting. From making a telescope, bookbinding, blacksmithing, tin toys from old cans — I’ll try anything. It helps me think differently and be facile with divergent materials. I often go to a place called Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Deer Isle, Maine. I like working three-dimensionally, which is really what a book is.

Melissa’s drawing from a recent class of Aretha Franklin at Obama’s inauguration

One of Melissa’s class sketches

7-Imp: Any new titles/projects you might be working on now that you can tell me about?

Melissa: Easy As Pie (by the wonderful Cari Best) features Jacob, a budding chef, and his trial-and-errors at making a peach pie. Those of us who’ve tried know making a pie is not so easy. And Rubia and the Three Osos, a version of Goldilocks and the Three Bears with a Spanish twist, by Susan Middleton Elya.

From Cari Best’s Easy as Pie

Sketch from Rubia

Our table’s set now for six questions over breakfast this morning, and we’ve got our blues and tea all set. Let’s get a bit more detailed, and I thank Melissa again for visiting.

1. 7-Imp: What exactly is your process when you are illustrating a book? You can start wherever you’d like when answering: getting initial ideas, starting to illustrate, or even what it’s like under deadline, etc. Do you outline a great deal of the book before you illustrate or just let your muse lead you on and see where you end up?

Melissa: It’s quite different writing and illustrating my own work from illustrating someone else’s story. Starting with the latter:

From the minute I get the contract, I start thinking about the project, and it stays in my periphery all the time. I always have my antennae up for something that might be useful.

Over the years, most family vacations have been to wherever I need to go to research a book. I do research more for non-fiction books, but I’ll travel for a picture book, too. I think of it as a job perk.

(One of the best trips we took was to the Lousiana bayou and New Orleans for Chicken Joy on Redbean Road. Somehow, we found ourselves dancing to a zydeco band at 8 a.m. at breakfast one morning.)

When I get down to where the pencil meets the paper, I draw on tracing paper and play with the characters, setting — just letting whatever happens be fine. My dummies are very cursory. Once I get a sense of the flow, it’s like a mini movie where you get thirty-two frames to tell the story. My studio has a wall where I view the dummy all at once, so I can see how the book is working as a whole.

Sketches and final spreads from Jen Bryant’s A River of Words
(Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2008)

From there, after however many dummies it takes, I begin making the art, which tends to happen fairly quickly, usually one to two months for the final art.

When I write, suffice it to say, whatever I’m working on all day pretty much consumes me.

Sketch from Tupelo Rides the Rails (Houghton Mifflin, 2008)

Talking about the process reminds me of when I first went to New York with my portfolio. I met with Susan Hirschman at Greenwillow. She looked at one of my dummies, and I told her I knew it was rough, worrying I hadn’t done it right. She told me she wouldn’t want a dummy any more detailed. She suggested I let the final art be where I put my attention. I think that was advice I wanted to hear, but it also rang true for me as a painter. The art will dictate what it needs, and part of the fun is not knowing what it will look like in the end.

(Click to enlarge.)

Sketches and illustrations from Carmine: A Little More Red
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2005)

2. 7-Imp: Describe your studio or usual work space.

Melissa: My studio is a separate building from my house. It’s about fifteen feet away, but it might as well be fifteen miles. My theory is, no matter what, if I’m in the studio, even if it’s drinking tea or reading, I’m working.

View from studio

Melissa’s alphabet wall in her home

3. 7-Imp: As a book lover, it interests me: What books or authors and/or illustrators influenced you as an early reader?

Melissa: Maurice Sendak and the Little Bear series, Golden Books, and Miss Flora McFlimsey’s Easter Bonnet. In that book, the main character has a hatbox full of ribbon and notions to make hats for her friends. I wanted that hatbox bad. I’m pretty sure I’ve recreated {it} now with the insane amount of paraphernalia I have.

4. 7-Imp: If you could have three (living) illustrators—whom you have not yet met—over for coffee or a glass of rich, red wine, whom would you choose?

Melissa: Maira Kalman, Lisbeth Zwerger, David Hockney — he’s a painter, but there’s a hazy line between illustration and painting.

Some of the products, including nesting blocks, Melissa has illustrated for eeBoo

5. 7-Imp: What is currently in rotation on your iPod or loaded in your CD player? Do you listen to music while you create books?

Melissa: When I’m writing a book (as I am right now), I can’t listen to anything.

Illustration for a Judy Blume jacket

6. 7-Imp: Is there something you wish interviewers would ask you — but never do? Feel free to ask and respond here.

Melissa: I wanted to share this article that writers and artists will appreciate: “The Eureka Hunt,” which was a New Yorker article that helps explain a little more those moments in the creative process where a solution seems to come from nowhere:

* * * The Pivot Questionnaire * * *

7-Imp: What is your favorite word?

Melissa: “Rapscallion.”

7-Imp: What is your least favorite word?

Melissa: I’m stumped with that question.

7-Imp: What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?

Melissa: Taking a class from someone whose work I admire, keeping a routine, yoga, riding a bike all day. Often, I fuss around with something to want to make, which sometimes is a procrastination tactic. Once I’m done, I can get back to work.

7-Imp: What turns you off?

Melissa: Dentist appointments.

7-Imp: What is your favorite curse word? (optional)

Melissa: I grew up in NJ, and we said them all. They all come in handy at the right time. I swear way too much.

7-Imp: What sound or noise do you love?

Melissa: The moment when night becomes day and the birds begin chatting.

7-Imp: What sound or noise do you hate?

Melissa: Screeching brakes.

7-Imp: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

Melissa: Any job using this:

7-Imp: What profession would you not like to do?

Melissa: No job that uses this:

7-Imp: If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

Melissa: “The dogs are here. They’ve been waiting for you.”

Melissa’s dog, Nell

* * * * * * *

DAY IS DONE illustrations reprinted with permission from Sterling Publishing Co., Inc. Day Is Done, © 2009 by Peter Yarrow, illus. by Melissa Sweet.

All others images used with permission of Melissa Sweet. All rights reserved.

The spiffy and slightly sinister gentleman introducing the Pivot Questionnaire is Alfred. He was created by Matt Phelan, and he made his 7-Imp premiere in mid-September. Matt told Alfred to just pack his bags and live at 7-Imp forever and always introduce Pivot. All that’s to say that Alfred is © 2009, Matt Phelan.

65 comments to “Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Melissa Sweet”

  1. Ahhhhhhh, THE HAT! She hath drawn THE HAT!!!!!!!!

    It’s a good thing that most watercolor is non-toxic; the stuff here is so beautiful that I’m not surprised by the urge to eat the paper and drink the paint. All the subtlety of shades is dazzling. And the collage stuff — man. I *WANT* that hatbox. I love the idea of taking craft and hands-on classes to put you in a different frame of mind about THINGS, and how to see them.

    And that art studio. Oh, wow. It’s childhood art projects made more awesome by getting to do them again.

    Melissa Sweet is brilliant.

  2. *Died and gone to heaven*

    An alphabet wall? Recipe for a cup of joy? EASY AS PIE? Have mercy! ♥ ♥ ♥

    Her work feeds me, fills me up. I want to live in her studio!! thankyouthankyouthankyou.

  3. What a beautiful trip into the art and process and home of Melissa Sweet! She is one of my favorite favorites! It was so great to see her bird alphabet cards (they are up in my studio too). And yes, Aretha’s amazing inaugural hat! Exquisite work and design. This interview was an inspiration, many thank yous! Now I want some “blues”….

  4. I am in love. thank you so much for another awesome illustrator. you rock!

  5. Everything is so beautiful. I’m speechless. Great interview. I’ll be back to look again & let it all settle into my brain. Thanks for this post & thanks to Melissa for sharing.

  6. It’s my birthday today and what a gift this was! I can’t think of a more inspirational way to start the new year. Pure delight! Thank you, Melissa!

  7. Dear Melissa —

    Are you okay with me coming to live in your studio? And while I’m there, could you please illustrate one of my books? And then we can go on a bike ride?

    Thank you kindly.

  8. Thank you so much for this window into your world. Your talent mixed with color and quirk make me so happy. The mold was thrown away after you were made, sister. Keep on truckin’

  9. Melissa is a treat–both visually in books and in person. She looks a lot like her books, cute, sparkly, colorful. But like them, she also has wonderful deep currents, hidden depths, a sense of the lyrical–and occasional jagged rocks.

    I adore her work and I love getting to know her even more here on your pages.

    Oh–and if there is ever a chance to do more books with her, I am there!


  10. What a wonderful treat! I will be making many trips back to visit – lovely lovely interview and images – I’m inspired for miles and miles and miles…Thank you!!!!

  11. That was a long breakfast and still not long enough. I will come back the way I like doing with Melissa’s books: there’s always more to find, and I never get tired of looking. Thank you both!

  12. Oh, such eye candy! I had to laugh b/c I bought those bird counting cards & stacking animal blocks just b/c of Sweet’s art, and they’re also in my studio. My son plays with them while I draw.
    Thanks for featuring such a wonderful artist!

  13. What a wonderful interview. I love Melissa Sweet and her work. She makes the whole world a more beautiful place.


  14. I read this at percisely 4PM and will now have a lovely cup of tea on the couch, with my book, with a sigh and a thank you.

  15. Thankyou so much for this, I enjoyed the quotations, especially about riding a bicycle to the library. Sweet indeed! Eye sweets! XXXX oooo

  16. Beautiful and inspiring, thank you!

  17. Man, do I love her work. That collage about afternoon breaktime seems particularly awesome to me today, not that I don’t find all of her work completely impressive and beautiful and swoon-worthy.

  18. Eye candy, inspiration, and food for the soul… Thank you!

  19. o sweet melissa, how you color our worlds!
    truly if the dogs are waiting, it’s been a good day
    a good life
    a good painting
    paper flowers and waving grass
    what more can one ask?
    thank you 7 impossible things!

  20. 7Imp, you give us the most wonderful interviews with the most wonderful creative folks around. This has to be one of the most beautiful pieces I’ve ever read/seen. Melissa, you were so generous to share all this with us.
    thank you.

  21. you both have completely inspired me! thank you

  22. So inspired, thank you. I feel like I just bathed my mind in fresh sights.

  23. Well, we knew you were brilliant and now we see more evidence of the work behind the mastery.
    “Amazing” doesn’t begin to cover it . . . and now you may have to deal with tour busses stopping by to peer into your work space!
    But seriously–what a gift to have met you and to have the chance to work with you (further proof that good things DO come from NJ!). If you are reading this, I’m interrupting your work day, so I will sign off and let you get back to –as Miss Rumphius would say– that which “makes our world more beautiful!” With gratitude for who you are and what you do. X0–Jen

  24. Jules,

    Thanks for this interview with Melissa Sweet. I am such a big fan of her work!

    Melissa was the featured speaker at our fall reading council dinner last November. She did a fabulous presentation!!! She was one of the best speakers we have ever had–and our council has hosted dozens and dozens of the most accomplished children’s authors and illustrators over the years. I give Ms. Sweet my highest recommendation. She’s the best!

  25. Melissa Sweet is a genius. And I think she has the studio that every illustrator dreams about. Wow.

  26. Thank you for this wonderful post. Melissa, thank you for your wonderful illustrations. I will forever cherish the day, looking for inspiration that a sat on the library floor scanning children’s books and discovered yours. What fun!

  27. Wow. I think I have to say that this was MY FAVORITE feature so far! Melissa provided so many wonderful images. Her studio is no less than amazing! Melissa’s illustrations have inspired me for some time, and I have LOVED her books. But what I think I loved most about this interview, is that it revealed how creative Melissa is in EVERYTHING she does. thank you!

  28. Hi, Melissa. What lovely work! I especially like the weather chart and the map of your day, and the photographs with vivid colours and captivating angles, such as the collage room image. Kudos!

  29. Thank you Melissa Sweet! What a lovely way to celebrate life! I love your quote from Mary Oliver… paying attention… is the key for a writer as well. I tell students that at every school visit.

  30. What an interview.


    What a treat to sneak inside a true artist’s workplace and headspace. Thank you 7 Imp.

    I want to make my own alphabet wall.

  31. Hi Melissa, what a wonderful interview and peek into your wonderful world. I am such a huge fan of your work. You hold a light up for other artists and illustrators that says, “this way”. Thanks for sharing.

  32. As much as I loved Melissa’s work in A River of Words, seeing her original work at the Art Institute in Chicago just blew me away. I think of all the Caldecottians on display, her original work is so much better than the ability of a book to capture (and our committee awarded this very same book a Caldecott Honor). While all of the artists had excellent work on display, Melissa’s work was the work that took my breath away. I know all of the books and all of the artwork on display. Melissa’w work had that extra oomph that had me going back to it over and over in the hour I spent looking at this exhibit.

    This is a fabulous interview/art show. Thanks so much!

  33. So beautiful, joyful and inspired — thanks, Melissa and Jules!

  34. Your pictures, thoughts and words strike a deeply familiar chord in the hearts of so many…quite an accomplishment! Thanks for sharing so generously. I am looking forward to sharing this website with my high school art students. I know they will be inspired beyond words by your refreshing and passionate creativity.

  35. I am even more inspired than I was before – Melissa is extraordinary and humble.

    This interview is fantastic and I think you for sharing your “chat” with one of the greats!


  36. I adore Melissa’s work, especially her designs for Eeboo. What a treat to see inside her studio, and WOW! What a studio! I think anyone who negotiates drinking tea as work must be very clever! 🙂

  37. […] This interview with the talented author/illustrator Melissa […]

  38. Another fantastic interview! I got a chance to hear Judy Sierra speak at a conference recently, and that’s where I first saw Melissa’s work–Judy talked about working with her on The Sleepy Little Alphabet.

    Thank you, and thanks to Melissa for sharing so many incredible images. Those Day is Done spreads made me tear up just a little.

  39. Wow- thank you for this inspiring story! So glad I found it.

  40. […] Julia: Wine please — with Marc Simont, Lauren Child, Melissa Sweet. […]

  41. […] A River of Words by Jen Bryant), you can visit her website. You also can read this interview at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast or this one with Jama […]

  42. You had me at … PG Tips!!

    Wonderful interview!

  43. […] interview with her at the wonderful blog on children’s books and illustrators, ‘Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast‘ with so many lovely images attached, and another at ‘Reading Year‘… This […]

  44. Good morning I’m a student from Guatemala City, I need to contact Melissa Sweet, can you help me to do that,

  45. LOVE LOVE LOVE. Wow, Melissa, blueberries and PG Tipps tea, too. You are probably in my ALL TIME top 5 illustrators. I hope I get to meet you some day.

  46. […] sketch from Melissa Sweet’s Balloons Over […]

  47. […] Diane Goode, Shaun Tan, and Melissa Sweet. I’m a huge fan of all three, and grabbing coffee with them would be neat — except […]

  48. Loved the interview and all the photos!! I can’t get enough of behind the scenes photos of artists working. This interview is so informative, I must share it! Thank you!

  49. So happy to discover this inspiring interview and pictures of your artwork and studio, your colors, words and your beloved dogs! I do believe I was sitting nearby as we drew with John Nagy… Saturday’s mornings back in like ’64.
    I look forward to being in your collage class at the Spring conference in Seattle next month!

  50. […] Share examples of how authors and illustrators go through the creative process: For example, David Wiesner talks about how he get the idea for Art & Max  and  An interview with Melissa Sweet […]

  51. […] over at Kirkus, I’ll have a Q&A with author/illustrator Melissa Sweet, in which we’ll discuss two of her brand-new picture book titles, as well as a bit more. That […]

  52. The range of these illustrations is phenomenal. And, I really appreciate any adult that can acknowledge the child’s superiority 🙂

  53. […] week over at Kirkus, I had a chat with author/illustrator Melissa Sweet about her latest projects. Those include Michelle Markel’s Brave Girl: Clara and the […]

  54. […] then I stumble across an interview of author/illustrator Melissa Sweet and she says, “…I take classes every year in anything that seems remotely interesting. From […]

  55. I’m teaching a preschool art & lit series over the summer featuring Caldecott winners & honorees, and before each story I want to show a brief video clip of the illustrator(s). I chose Balloons Over Broadway for one of my classes, and I’d love to be able to use the video Melissa mentioned (which she uses during school visits). Where can I find that?

  56. Erin, I’m not really sure, but you could ask her at the “contact” page at her site. If the video is available to educators, I’m sure Melissa will get back to you. Good luck!

  57. Well, we are stumped with the E card from the All around the Land Alphabet Cards. Could you please tell us if there is anything other than the elephant? LOVE the cards.

  58. […] this gem of an interview with Melissa […]

  59. […] BookPage of Joan Holub’s Little Red Writing (Chronicle Books, September 2013), illustrated by Melissa Sweet. And since that review is up over at their site, I thought I’d link to it and share some art […]

  60. […] column also included Jen Bryant’s The Right Word: Roget and his Thesaurus, illustrated by Melissa Sweet and coming to bookshelves in September from Eerdmans, but I will have some images (preliminary […]

  61. […] column, I mentioned Jen Bryant’s The Right Word: Roget and his Thesaurus, illustrated by Melissa Sweet, coming from Eerdmans in September. It’s such a superb picture book, and today Melissa visits […]

  62. Oh I should have known you would have a fabulous interview with the amazing Melissa Sweet! What colors – and that studio – and I love the way she often answers questions with a little drawing! Thank you!

  63. […] Cece Bell, Melissa Sweet, and Sophie Blackall.     5. Jules: What is currently in rotation on your iPod or […]

  64. […] “In the morning, Mommy gives us wake-up kisses and says,‘Good morning, little one. Can you hear the sounds of our world?’ Listen! …”(Click to enlarge spread)   I’ve got a review here over at BookPage of Bill Martin Jr and Michael Sampson’s Listen to Our World (Paula Wiseman Books, March 2016), illustrated by Melissa Sweet. […]

  65. […] me the shivers. I’m in awe of the way this generation of women artists, like Isabelle Arsenault, Melissa Sweet, and Rovina Cai imagine their illustrated worlds. Lately, I’ve been looking just as much at comic […]

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