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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Tag Archives | Melissa Sweet

Some Writer!

I had the wonderful good fortune of hearing Melissa Sweet talk about her work last week. It was a fascinating presentation about her process, her research, her art. I left inspired, and with a hankering to find scissors and a glue stick and do some collage myself. (Let’s be clear, things would not turn out at all like Sweet’s gorgeous works of art….)

I’ve been carrying around her book, Some Writer! The Story of E. B. White, in my purse ever since. It’s signed now, which gives me an extra “zing” of joy every time I pull it out. I’ve read it several times. I’m to the point now, as I’ve been with Charlotte’s Web since I was a child, that I just open it wherever and start reading.

Which is what I did in one of the dreariest waiting rooms known to humanity a few days ago. Before I’d finished reading the quote that begins chapter five, the whining child across from me stopped pestering his mother for two seconds and called out to me.

“Hey! Is that a kid book or an adult book?” His tone was challenging. 

“Well, technically, it’s a biography written for kids—” I said, and before I could add that anyone could read and enjoy it he interrupted.

“Then why are you reading it?”

“It’s a really good book,” I said.

“Do you read other kids’ books?” he demanded. His mother tried to hush him.

“Yes, I do,” I said. “Lots.”

Why?”

“They often tell the best stories,” I said as his mother tried to shush him again.

And then I took a chance…. “Would you like to look at it with me?” I asked.

“Naw, I don’t like books,” he said, and he sat back in his chair in a huff.

“Oh,” I said. “I’m sorry about that.”

I didn’t know what else to say. I wasn’t going to burden this grumpy waiting child with any didacticisms about how important and joyful reading is, and how perhaps he might not have found the right book yet etc. So I went back to reading.

But the questions continued.

“Is that a man or a teenager petting that pig?” he asked squinting at the cover from where his Mom held him to his chair. So I told him it was E.B. White—pointing to White’s name—as a young man, and before I could tell him who E.B. White was he said, “That’s not a name—E.B.! Those are just…letters. What’s his real name?”

“Elwyn,” I said.

He laughed uproariously. I went back to reading. But it wasn’t long before he managed to cross the waiting room aisle and sit beside me, all nonchalant-like. I opened the book wider, rested it on my right leg, closer to him, and started a game of I-Spy.

“I spy a ruler,” I said. He found it immediately. He also found the birchbark canoe and the small box of paperclips. Sweet’s collaged illustrations are packed with various and sundry things.

He spied a mouse. I told him about Stuart Little. We turned the page. I read him the letter White wrote to his editor Ursula Nordstrom. He commented that “E.B.’s” writing wasn’t very neat and confessed his wasn’t either. We laughed about eating 100,000 stalks of celery and 100,000 olives, which is what White suggested as a celebration for the 100,000 copies of Stuart Little that had sold—and which my young friend declared “nasty.” So we thought of better things to eat in celebration and agreed that 100,000 of most anything was too much.

We continued looking through the book. I didn’t read it to him so much as we enjoyed the illustrations together. He loved the rough sketches of Charlotte done by Garth Williams. I told him a little about Melissa Sweet and her art studio. He declared this information “cool,” so I was glad I had it.

Eventually, the boy and his mother were called in, and then I was, too. When I came back out, the waiting room was empty.

I think there’s a decent chance my young friend will check into Stuart Little if he remembers the title. I’m sure he’ll remember that the author’s first name was “E.B.”, and any librarian or bookseller worth her or his salt should be able to help him out.

I do hope so.

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Melissa Sweet

In this interview with Melissa Sweet, illustrator of A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams, our Bookstorm™ this monthwe asked six questions and Melissa kindly took time from her busy days of visiting schools and creating art.

A River of WordsDo you recall the first time you encountered a William Carlos Williams poem?

My first introduction to William Carlos Williams was when I was seven years old and went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I saw a  painting by Williams’s  friend Charles Demuth, based on Williams’s poem “The Great Figure.” I loved both the painting and the poem.

The Great Figure

Do you have a list of Most Favorite Poets? Was William Carlos Williams on that list before you began the research for this book? Is he on that list now?

My short list is Mary Oliver, Billy Collins, and, yes, William Carlos Williams is now on that list.

When you begin to illustrate a book like this, what is your very first step? And what do you do next?

William Carlos Williams prescription padFirst I decide how and where to research. I’m looking for clues as to what to draw to inspire the illustrations. For this book I read biographies about Williams, his poetry, and newspaper articles about him. It was important to travel to Rutherford and Patterson, NJ, to see where he lived and worked. At the Rutherford Public Library, I saw his bowler hat, his manual typewriter,  and the prescription pads he used as a doctor. All those things became inspiration for the art. Then, back in the studio, I make a dummy placing the words on the page and begin to sketch to out the paintings or collages. Lastly, I make the final art.

A River of WordsIn the book, we see handwritten bits of poetry in several different styles of handwriting and we also see typeset scraps of paper as well as intriguing bits of type. Do you create these by hand? By computer? With friendly help?

All my art is created by hand—I don’t use the computer to make the illustrations. I cut up old books and use lettering from wherever I can find it. Incorporating calligraphy and hand–lettering into the art makes the piece more fun and lively. A typeset font would look very different, maybe somewhat static. In A River of Words I recreated Williams’s handwriting in places, and hand–lettered his poems within the art. The content of the poems became the inspiration for what to draw.

A River of WordsAre there entire spreads you prepare that don’t make the final cut of the book? When you send the illustration in for review by the editor or art director, do you leave things unglued so they can be moved if requested? And what do you use to affix the parts of your collage? 

Sometimes spreads need to be redone, but rarely. The editor and art director see the dummy, but typically they don’t see the art in progress, just the final art. It’s difficult to plan or sketch a collage–it happens as you go along adding and subtracting elements to make it work visually. (Even I don’t know exactly how the art will look in the end!) I use stick glue, white glue, and depending on the materials, I might need something strong like epoxy. Kids often ask how my arts gets “in” the book. My work is generally photographed since there is too much dimension in the pieces to scan them. Those photos are downloaded to the designer and the text is added digitally.

If you had met William Carlos Williams, what question would you have asked him?

I have two questions: Where was the red wheelbarrow? What did you think when you first saw it?

illustrations in this article are copyright © Melissa Sweet

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Jen Bryant

In this interview with Jen Bryant, author of A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams, our Bookstorm™ this month.

A River of WordsDo you recall the first time you encountered a William Carlos Williams poem?

I was in high school—and it was part of an anthology reading that we did for English class. I had disliked/not understood/ been unmoved by all of the other poems in this assigned reading (I recall that the language in those poems was archaic and flowery, and the forms very, VERY traditional)—and then—whooosh—like a breath of fresh air, here were a few selected W. C. Williams poems, which used little punctuation, were freeform in structure, and focused on everyday scenes and real life. They were the first poems I enjoyed and felt “welcomed” into.

Do you have a list of Most Favorite Poets? Was William Carlos Williams on that list before you began the research for this book? Is he on that list now?

He’s definitely on the list—and there are too many others to name here, so I’ll just start by listing a few of them: Emily Dickinson, Mary Oliver, Yusef Komunyakaa, Wendell Berry, William Stafford, Rita Dove, Marge Piercy, Robert Frost, Lucille Clifton, Phillip Levine, Marilyn Nelson, Gary Soto, Galway Kinell, Eamon Grennan, Jane Kenyon … (see? way too many!)

When you turned your manuscript in to your editor, did you envision how the book might be illustrated? What do you think when you first saw Melissa Sweet’s ideas for illustrating Williams’ life?

Melissa and I did not know each other before Eerdmans paired us for this book. Gayle Brown, the art director at EBYR, chose Melissa as the illustrator—and I believe that this single act has influenced my writing life ever since! I’d already written three picture book biographies on creative people (O’Keeffe, Messiaen, and Moore) and I had never met ANY of those illustrators. All of their styles were very distinct, very different from one another’s—so, no, I had no clue what an illustrator would do with this text. You can just imagine my reaction when I saw Melissa’s art for this book … I wept with happiness. She’s truly amazing.

A River of Words

How did you find information about this poet’s younger years?

I had to piece scenes together from many different sources: forewords and prefaces to poetry collections, a few audio recordings, an old film, some archival records, etc. The key, though, was to keep the river as the central image around which the rest of the story could spin. Once I had made that decision, the rest became a bit easier.

A River of WordsDid you have to cut much material from your original concept of the book? Did you go through a few revisions with the editor or many revisions with the editor?

I always prefer to give the editors more than they need—then let them give me feedback on which scenes/stanzas are more compelling and which are redundant or less compelling (and thus can be cut.) Yes, there were on-going revisions with this manuscript—but if I recall correctly, the originally-submitted version was the one that was sent to Melissa and she got started from that text. We didn’t make HUGE changes to this story, but we tweaked wording here and there—and then the back matter was added later on.

If you had met William Carlos Williams, what question would you have asked him?

“If you had been able to quit your day-job (as a physician) and could support your family full-time by writing, would you have done that? OR, did your daily rounds—with all kinds of patients and in many different settings—feed your art so much that you needed to do both in order to write well?”

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Jen, thank you for sharing your answers with our readers. Your style of writing biographies is so unique, and so well researched, that it’s valuable for us to know more about the process of this book’s creation.

For use with your students, Jen’s website includes a discussion guide that you’ll find useful as you incorporate this book into your planning.

illustrations in this article are copyright © Melissa Sweet

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Bookstorm™: A River of Words

 

Bookmap for A River of Words

A River of WordsAuthor Jen Bryant and illustrator Melissa Sweet have teamed up on a number of picture book biographies about creative artists. We’ve chosen to feature their very first collaboration during this month in which poetry takes the spotlight. By telling us the true story about poet William Carlos Williams’ childhood and growing up, with his clear poetry surrounding the pages, they awaken interest in young people who may think this no-longer-living, ancient (he was born in 1883 and died in 1963) poet is not within reach. They’ll be surprised by how his poetry will touch them. And he made a career for himself as a poet while he was being a country doctor! What an interesting fellow.

We trust you will find this month’s Bookstorm useful for teaching poetry, teaching writing, units on nature, talking about nonfiction and biography … and enjoying the quieter moments when reading poetry is one of life’s pleasures.

For more information and discussion guides, visit Jen Bryant’ website.

You can learn more about Melissa Sweet, the illustrator

Downloadables

 

 

BOOKSTORM TOPICS

Picture Book Biographies of Poets. From Shakespeare to Woody Guthrie, from Dave the Potter to Pablo Neruda, you’ll find top-notch biographies of poets with whom kids find connection. Several of these are excellent mentor texts as well.

Biographies of Poets for Older Readers. If you’d like to use A River of Words with older grades, we’ve included a few biographies that pair well. For instance, you’ll find Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People (Monica Brown and Julie Paschkis) on the picture book side and Pam Muñoz Ryan’s Dreamer, also about the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, for the more comfortable readers.

Revolving Around William Carlos Williams. We’ve recommended a biography written for adults, a collection of Mr. Williams’ poems for children, and a book that was inspired by his poem, “This is Just to Say.”

Kids and Nature. Nature-deficit disorder is on many educators’ minds. William Carlos Williams had a significant connection to nature. He wrote about it often. We’ve included books with terrific ideas for enthusing children about going outdoors, both unplugged and plugged-in.

Collage and Mixed-Media Illustrations. Do the types of illustration confuse you? We’ll have an interview with Melissa Sweet this month that we hope will make you feel more comfortable discussing the art in A River of Words. We’ve suggested a few books that also use a mixed media style.

Let us know how you are making use of this Bookstorm™. Share your ideas and any other books you’d add to this Bookstorm™.

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Lowriders in Space Companion Booktalks

 

To get you started on the Bookstorm™ books …

13 Planets13 Planets: The Latest View of the Solar System, by David A. Aguilar. National Geographic Children’s Books, 2011.  Grades 2-6

  • Report material galore, beautifully organized
  • Illustrated with a combination of photographs and digital art
  • Includes several hands-on activities

Car Science coverCar Science: an Under-the-Hood, Behind-the-Dash Look at How Cars Work, by Richard Hammond, DK Books, 2008. Grades 3 and up

  • Key physics concepts as they relate to how cars run
  • DK’s signature exploded diagrams, cutaways, and high-interest visuals
  • Material is divided into intriguing sections: Power, Speed, Handling, and Technology

Chato's Kitchen coverChato’s Kitchen, by Gary Soto, illustrations by Susan Guevara, Penguin, 1997. Preschool through Grade 3.

  • Mouse family vs Chato, a very cool cat
  • Good story for “prediction”
  • Spanish and English vocabulary

Draw 50 Cars coverDraw 50 Cars, Trucks, and Motorcycles: The Step-by-Step Way to Draw Dragsters, Vintage Cars, Dune Buggies, Mini Choppers, and Much More, by Lee J. Ames, Watson-Guptill, 2012.  Grade 1 through Adult.

  • From a Disney studios artist
  • Variety of drawing projects suitable for range of experience
  • “Step-by-step” is really layer-by-layer, showing how a drawing is “built”

Girls Think of Everything coverGirls Think of Everything: Stories of Ingenious Inventions by Women, by Catherine Thimmesh, illustrated by Melissa Sweet, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2002. Grades 3 and up.

  • Sibert-winning author, Caldecott-winning artist
  • Inventions from exotic to familiar
  • Inventors and inventions going back to 3000 BC

If I Built a CarIf I Built a Car, by Chris Van Dusen. Dutton Books for Young Readers, 2005.  Primary grades.

  • 2006 E.B. White Read Aloud Award
  • Classic Van Dusen illustrations: bold colors, cartoon-style (look for hidden references to a few other Van Dusen books)
  • Great discussion starter for all ages: What kind of car would YOU design?

Mr. Mendoza's Paintbrush coverMr. Mendoza’s Paintbrush, by Luis Alberto Urrea, illustrated by Christopher Cardinale, Cinco Puntos Press, 2010. Grades 7 and up.

  • Graphic novel about a graffiti artist and Mexican village life, with some magic realism
  • Narrative is a non-linear reminiscence—bold flashes of story to match the art
  • Richly-colored woodblock-style art

My Little Car coverMy Little Car, by Gary Soto, illustrated by Pam Paparone, Putnam, 2006. Preschool and primary grades.

  • Child-grandparent story
  • English and Spanish vocabulary
  • Just how do you make a car dance?

NicoVisitsNico Visits the Moon, by Honorio Robledo, Cinco Puntos Press, 2001. Preschool and primary grades.

  • Vivid, imaginative, art
  • Crawling baby, balloons, the moon—each page turn delivers a fantasy surprise
  • Bilingual in Spanish and English

Norther Lights coverNorthern Lights: The Science, Myth, and Wonder of the Aurora Borealis, by George Bryson, photographs by Calvin Hall and Daryl Pederson, Sasquatch Books, 2001. Grades 3 and up for looking at the photographs, grades 5 and up for the science.

  • Beautiful photographs that can be looked at again and again
  • Discusses the many myths and legends inspired by the lights
  • Concise explanation of geophysics behind the phenomenon

Remind coverRemind, by Jason Brubaker, Coffee Table Comics, 2011. Grades 5 and up.

  • Graphic novel with a great cast: Sonja, a young woman who is a mechanical genius; Victuals, her cat that may have received the brain of an exiled lizard man; an underwater colony of lizard people
  • Wonderful array of mechanical inventions (Discuss: what kind of gizmos would you like to invent?)
  • Crisp, uncluttered illustrations—at times suitably creepy

Shark King CoverShark King, by R. Kikuo Johnon, TOON Books, 2012. Grades 1 and up.

  • Child-friendly version of a Hawaiian myth
  • Clean, highly readable layout—no sensory overload from text or illustrations
  • Includes discussion material for teachers and parents

 


Zita coverZita the Spacegirl, by Ben Hatke, First Second, 2010.  Grades 3 and up.

  • Graphic novel with a Wizard of Oz storyline: young girl is transported to a strange world
  • Though Zita is trying to save an abducted friend, and though the planet is about to be destroyed, the text and art are more about fun than fear
  • How many weird creatures can you find?

 

 

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bk_look.jpg

Approaching the last day of kindergarten …

Kindergarten. It’s not peculiar to the USA, but the States took up the movement toward early childhood education after Friedrich Froebel introduced the concept in Bad Blankenburg, Germany, on June 28, 1840. “Children are like tiny flowers; they are varied and need care, but each is beautiful alone and glorious when seen in the community […]

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