Monthly Archives: November 2013

I Think I Need to Go Back To the UK Soon

There are many reasons, one of them being this (if it is —fingers crossed —any good):

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Africa is My Home is a NYTimes Notable Children’s Book!

Yesterday evening, a publishing friend and I were just heading out into a rainy New York City for a quiet pre-Thanksgiving dinner when I learned that Africa is My Home is a New York Times Notable Children’s Book of 2013. It was great to get the news with her as she knows just how big deal it is.  I’m still floating on air amazed that this happened and to be among those other distinguished book creators.  Just…well…wow….



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Rewind: A Great Kids’ Book on the Creation of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade Balloons

Melissa’s Sweet is on a glorious roll this year getting a lot of well deserved attention for her illustrations for  A Splash of Red,  Brave Girl, and Little Red Writing.  So I thought I’d republish this interview from a couple of years back about her delightful book about Tony Sarg and the Macy’s Parade balloons.

Just in time for the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade comes Melissa Sweet‘s picture book biography, Balloons over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy’s Parade. That puppeteer is none other than Tony Sarg, a remarkable man indeed. Author/Illustrator Melissa Sweet has done a bang-up job focusing in on the man, directing young readers toward the activities that led him to his epiphany — why not float creature balloons over the parade? Why not indeed?

Sarg being a unique man, Sweet’s story is a fascinating one. But it is really with her illustrations that she, an already much lauded illustrator, has truly outdone herself. Mixing primary sources, toys she made herself for the book, collages, assemblages, comics, drawings, paintings, and more, she has created a picture book biography like no other. Through her text and art the brilliant Sarg bounds to life in this book as do his ideas, his creations, and his stories. Balloons over Broadway is a book that will be enjoyed by everyone in the family — be sure to have your copy on hand when watching this year’s parade!

Thinking that many would enjoy knowing more about how this book came to be I asked Melissa if she’d be willing to answer a few questions and provide a few images. She did all that and more as you will see.

So everyone in America it seems spends Thanksgiving morning watching the Macy’s parade and those incredible balloons. But I have to say it never really crossed my mind to consider how they came into being so your book was quite a revelation. What inspired you to do it? Was it the balloons first or Tony Sarg?

It was Tony Sarg that intrigued me first and I had the same response–how did this brilliant illustrator and puppeteer invent the character balloons? I knew there was a story there. The Macy’s parade and Tony’s life are so intertwined that parade was the perfect vehicle to tell his story.

Tony Sarg seems like such a larger-than-life figure. Did that make it a bit hard at times to write the book? I mean, did you have to pick and chose stories, winnow the text down a lot to get to the essence of his life in terms of the balloons? Was there anything you found especially hard to put in or leave out?

It’s true, with a character like Tony Sarg, every story seems worth telling. In this case, the essence also had to be something that children could relate to. There were many stories I wanted to tell–how he sat in a theatre watching a puppet troupe perform for 50 nights in a row to learn their trade. And how at the end of the Macy’s parade he released the balloons into the sky with a reward for their return.

But my favorite story is when a “sea monster” was sighted off the coast of Nantucket, (where Tony had a house). Luckily, Tony and some friends “captured” it and brought it onto the beach as everyone Nantucket watched. He had a great humor and was a bit of prankster. (The image of this event below is courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association.)

I’m curious about your research which was clearly extensive. You seem to have traveled, interviewed, made things, and read and read. Any especially memorable moments along this journey?

A few years into the research I was in touch with a man in his nineties who worked for Sarg at the 1939 World’s Fair. It was remarkable to hear his stories of that time. Another was when I was visiting Nantucket for the first time (where there is a great collection of Sarg’s work at the Nantucket Historical Association), I went to the public library which is in a gorgeous old building on a cobblestone street. It started to snow as I was looking through old newspaper clippings about Sarg and it was dawning on me what a legend he was. The whole place seemed magical.

Tell us a bit about creating the art. You mention it at the end of the book, but HuffPo readers might enjoy learning a bit about how you went about making it. Just a little bit, perhaps?

My studio is full of old toys, fabric and found objects I’ve collected. I started making quirky toys and paper-mache puppets using the materials I had on hand. People often ask which comes first, words or pictures, and in this case making these objects taught me about Tony’s creative process and helped me figure out an angle to tell the story. I knew I wanted a 3-dimensional aspect to the art to give the feel of what Tony’s studio might’ve been like. I recently made some fun Christmas ornaments based on the book for the Martha Stewart show with instructions on her website. They’re miniature parade balloons.

What are you working on now?

I have a wonderful mix of non-fiction and picture books I’m working on and next year I have a picture book biography coming out: Mrs. Harkness and the Panda By Alicia Potter and Spike: The Mixed Up Monster by Susan Hood, about an axolotl which is as funny as its name.

Melissa, thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions and providing the following movie of Sarg in action as a puppeteer.

Also at the Huffington Post  (along with a slide show with more images of Sarg and some interior art from the book).


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Philip Pullman’s Jeffrey

@PhilipPullman Jeffrey our resident fly is the most polite insect I’ve ever met. He leaves our food alone but sits on my shoulder to read the Oxford Times.

Philip Pullman is now tweeting and mixed in among his remarks on various issues are occasional reports about Jeffrey.  This gentlemanly insect seems to have mixed feelings about others of his sort — he reacted poorly to a spider, but has fallen headlong in love with a ladybird.  Highly literate it seems in multiple languages, he has already expressed strong reactions to Sartre and Baudelaire. It reminds me of don marquis’s archy and mehitabel, but with punctuation and capitals as it isn’t Jeffrey doing the writing in this case.

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My NCTE 2013

Wow.  It was amazing to be at NCTE as a children’s book author.  As I wrote in my previous post I’ve been a member of the organization and attending conventions (at one time there was a second spring conference as well) for many years, but always as an educator.  So this was a very special NCTE for me.

First of all, on Thursday, I visited my publisher, Candlewick Press. They are housed in a beautiful building and it was so kind for the executive director of school and library marketing, Sharon Hancock, to take the time to show me around.  It was wonderful to finally meet my book’s fantastic designer, Heather McGee, and terrific copyeditor, Hannah Mahoney.  A special thrill was reading to Candlewick staff in the kitchen, a tradition for authors who visit.  All in all, a wonderful experience.

The historical fiction session with M. T. Anderson, Rita Williams-Garcia, and Gene Yang chaired by Teri Lesesne was great and I hope that  there are opportunities for further explorations about the nuances of writing about the past for young people. In a future post, I plan to go into more detail about the session and what we discussed.


I did a book signing and Candlewick had my book on display with one of those cool star bookmarks (for the one it got from SLJ)!


After a family dinner with just Candlewick folk, including Gareth Hinds and Burleigh Muten I stayed up way past my bedtime at the Nerdy Book Club gathering. As my friends know I’m very much an early-to-bed-early-to-rise sort of gal and not much for crowds, but I ended up having a fantastic time at this event.  I mainly went to celebrate my book’s publication with Jenni Holm who had been there way back when I was just beginning to work on it and who was very supportive as I tried to figure out just how to tell the story.  So, thanks for that, Jenni, and the champagne! (And, thanks also to Louise Borden who took this photo.) But I also met many other friends and made new ones too. It was a great event so thanks, Nerdy Book Club for setting it up.


Saturday morning I switched hats to my critic/educator one and attended the ALAN Breakfast as a guest of Random House. Jennifer Burhle’s tribute to Judy Blume was so moving as was Judy Blume’s acceptance of her award.  And then there was the one and only Walter Dean Myers who spoke passionately about economic diversity.

Arguably the best speaker I heard at the convention was Temple Grandin. Certainly she was the most unique, funny, blunt, and practical.  A few of my tweets:

  • “Too much emphasis on deficit, not enough on creativity.” Temple Grandin #NCTE13
  • “Need different kinds of minds.” Temple Grandin #ncte13
  • “Need to touch in order to learn.” Temple Grandin #ncte2013
  • Keeps saying they’ve got to put hands-on stuff back. Temple is awesome.#ncte13
  • She wants to do a show called “Undercover Legislature.” Fox, you listening? Temple Grandin #ncte13

Then I attended the Books for Children luncheon as an author. Among other things, that meant sitting at a table with my books and attendees and talking to them about my book. I also was thrilled to see my old friend Leda Shubert receive the Orbis Pictus Award for her book Monsieur Marceau.  Here’s her editor (another old friend of mine) Neal Porter with a book that is not hers.


The keynote speaker was Steve Jenkins who was outstanding. I’ve always admired his books, but he is a terrific speaker too. I especially enjoyed his dry deadpan wit.  One example: “I must say I find the creatures much easier to work with when they are stuffed.”

That evening I met Jen and Lisa of the excellent blog, Reads for Keeps, for drinks and we stopped by the Stenhouse party so I could see the wonderful editors of my two books on teaching history,  Philippa Stanton and Bill Varner. It was a special treat to then run into some several other old friends as well. I then went off to a dinner as a Candlewick author which was very, very cool indeed. It was at the Forum restaurant which had been the site of last year’s Boston Marathon bombing and that was moving too. My table mates and I had a splendid time talking books — pretty much exclusively adult ones for a change.  

All in all it was a glorious few days! Thank you, Candlewick for my beautiful book and for a wonderful conference.

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NCTE and Me

I’m off to Boston tomorrow for the National Council of Teachers of English convention. With rare exceptions I’ve been attending yearly since I joined the organization way back in the 1990s. This year will be markedly different from all my previous times as I will be attending in a new and different capacity: as a trade book author.  And so, in addition to attending sessions, visiting exhibits, and talking to like-minded educators as a teacher, I will also be attending events as an author. Hope to see some of you at these or elsewhere around the convention!

  • Friday, November 22, 11-12:15 Inventing the Past: Historical Fiction Comes Alive with Teri Lesesne, M. T. Anderson, Rita Williams-Garcia, and Gene Yang. Hynes Convention Center, Hynes Convention Center/Room 204, Level Two.
  • Friday, November 22, 1-2 Signing Africa is My Home. Candlewick Booth #703.
  • Friday, November 22, 5-7 Great NCTE Kids/YA Lit Tweetup. Trident Booksellers and Café, 338 Newbery Street.
  • Saturday, November 22, 12:30-2:3o Books for Children Luncheon.

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Susan L. Roth and Cindy Trumbore’s Parrots over Puerto Rico

One of my perpetual concerns is how we help children understand the complicated interrelated ways of wildlife and people, especially when it comes to endangered animals. My longtime experience in a school is that too often animals in places where lives are significantly different from those of my students are attended to at the expense of the people.  That is, I fear that they will inadvertently develop a negative view of the people native to an area where animals are in danger rather than develop a deeper understanding of the complexities of the situation. So what a delight to read Susan L. Roth and Cindy Trumbore’s Parrots over Puerto Rico where the intertwined histories of animals and people are thoughtfully, intelligently, and beautifully presented.

To begin with there were the birds — striking green and blue parrots with the distinctive flight call, “Iguaca! Iguaca!”  There were evidently hundreds of thousands of them all over Puerto Rico when people started to arrive around 500 BCE.  Among them were the Taino people who hunted the parrots and kept them as pets. After Christopher Columbus’s “claiming” of the island for Spain in 1493 the island became full of Spanish settlers and a century later enslaved Africans were brought there to work the sugarcane. These new arrivals also brought new life with them: ships’ rats and honeybees  that managed to get to the parrots’ nesting holes and  attack their eggs.  Others needed timber and so the forests where the parrots lived were cut down.  And even as their homes were in peril, so were the birds themselves as people continued to hunt them and keep them as pets.

For the first half of the book, Roth and Trumbore do a splendid job providing young readers with a history of the island, intertwining the birds’ history with its human inhabitants along the way. In the second part they indicate the awareness by Puerto Ricans that the birds are almost gone and then their efforts to bring them back.  The book ends with a very informative afterward with photos as well as a timeline and a list of sources. Their research appears to be impeccable.

Of course, it must be said, that what brings this book to a level I might term “awesome”are Susan L. Roth’s remarkable paper-and-fabric collages. Elegantly designed, the book’s vertical orientation allows for her spectacular double page spreads throughout, increasing the sense of the birds’ habitats and movement as well as the way humans affect them.

I can’t say much more than that this is a fantastic book — I recommend it highly.

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Coming Soon: Karen Foxlee’s Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy

Poking around Netgalley not long ago, I came across Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy and, intrigued by the description, began reading and was quickly hooked. It is a lovely, moody contemporary reworking of Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” set in a museum, no less. I find books set in museum to be tricky things — sometimes the setting seems more important than the rest of it. Fortunately, in this case, it totally works. Our heroine, Ophelia, has arrived in the never-identified city with her older sister while their father works on a blockbuster exhibit of swords. They are all mourning the loss of the family’s mother in their own ways: the father throws himself into work,  the older sister becomes eagerly distracted by the exhibit’s fashionable female curator, and Ophelia gloomily wanders the museum, counting the days and hours since her mother’s death. In her wanderings she comes across the Marvelous Boy of the title and so her adventure begins.  Ophelia is a winning heroine as she fights fear to do what needs to be done (just…you know..saving the world and stuff),  the Boy sad and stalwart (his own back story meanders through the larger story taking place in the museum), the writing elegant, and the plot compelling.  There are creepy creatures, ghosts, a deliciously evil villain, magical things, and plenty more to keep middle grade readers engrossed. 

Recently the publisher sent me a print ARC along with a key and a tiny tube of super glue (a particularly clever if — for those who haven’t yet read the book — enigmatic touch), all of which made me smile.

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Africa is My Home: Speaking and Signing in Farmington

Yesterday I had a splendid time speaking and signing at an event organized by the Farmington Historical Society and the First Church. It was held in the church’s Amistad Hall and the attendees were so well-informed about the Amistad affair and Sierra Leone that it was very special experience indeed. My great thanks to all those who organized this so beautifully.



Speaking with an attendee who was originally from Sierra Leone.



They brought a Mende Bunde Mask that looks very similar to the one on the cover of the book and a footwarmer that might have been used in the church when Margru was there.



Before and after the event my friend and I revisited some of the Amistad sights we’d seen during our previous research visit so many years ago and finally found the grave of Fone, one of the Amistad captives who died during their time in Farmington. 

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Africa is My Home in the New York Times Book Review

So cool to see Africa is My Home in an Africa Bookshelf in this week’s  NYTBR complete with slide show.  Even cooler to be there along with the latest Anna Hibiscus and some other very beautiful books.

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