The first helium-filled creatures to bob through Manhattan on Thanksgiving morning were brought to being by master puppeteer Tony Sarg in the 1920s. Now master illustrator Melissa Sweet, a prolific artist and winner of a Caldecott Honor for A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams by Jen Bryant, has created an effervescent picture book biography about the man who believed work and play should mix. In Balloons over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy’s Parade, Sweet shows young readers how Sarg’s early penchant for inventiveness — as a boy he figured out a way to feed the chickens without leaving his bed — carried through to his eventual career as a marionette artist, designing window displays for Macy’s. Sweet also channels Sarg in the book’s whimsical collage artwork, which includes puppets and toys she made herself from household scraps. Is being an illustrator really as much fun as it looks?
1. The Macy’s parade and the giant balloons are so firmly tied to our image of Thanksgiving, it’s like they’ve always existed. How did you become interested in their origins?
Melissa Sweet: Growing up, my family always watched the parade on TV and it was a big part of our holiday. Tony Sarg’s life is intimately entwined with the balloons, so the parade was the perfect vehicle to tell his story. Though all the details of the balloons — from their construction to how they’re selected for the parade — are fascinating, it was Sarg who led me down parade path.
2. You and Tony Sarg seem like kindred spirits in that you both exude playfulness in your artwork. You say in your afterword that Sarg’s story reminds you of the importance of having fun while you work. Does that attitude come easily to you or is it, um, work?
MS: I certainly feel like a kindred spirit in many ways. Sarg and I share an attitude toward making art: let’s just try this and see what happens. There were times when I was stumped as to how to go forward and I asked myself, what would Tony do? Am I having fun? It can feel like work to keep at it, to keep going when nothing seems to be happening. But persistence may be more important than talent, and in hindsight everything I did led to the end result. After a time, all the miniscule decisions add up to a body of work.
3. I love how Balloons over Broadway shows readers that problem-solving is part of an artist’s job, as when Sarg had to figure out a way to manipulate the aloft balloons from the ground. What kind of problems did you have to solve in putting together this book?
MS: One of the biggest challenges was whittling away all the amusing stories about Sarg that I wanted to include but that didn’t contribute to the story at hand. What drew me to him in the first place was his process. But how could I make that interesting to children? I had to break down the process into a simple concept.
With the art, I was emphatic that some of it be three-dimensional in order for the book to feel like Sarg’s studio with toys and paraphernalia everywhere. I tip my hat to everyone involved at Houghton. To meld photography with paintings in the same book is a feat and they did with aplomb. Once the book went to press, I think we all inhaled for the first time in months.
4. What have you done with the toys you made for the illustrations, and are you still making toys now that the book is finished?
MS: They’re keeping good company with all the old toys I’ve bought and others I’ve made. That’s another thing Sarg and I have in common — we’re both happiest when art is kinetic. (I was over the moon the first time I saw Calder’s “Circus”). When I first figured out how to make an axle turn a wheel and in turn make something else move, it was ecstasy.
5. Jerry the Pig, Andy the Alligator, The Colicky Kid: all Sarg-designed balloons that are no longer in the parade. Did you find out what happens to a Macy’s balloon when it retires? Is there a pasture where they’re all floating around together?
MS: I love that image! In Sarg’s day, at the end of the parade the balloons were released into the sky. (The balloons had tags sewn onto them for reward if found and returned to Macy’s). But today, they retire to the Macy’s Parade Studios in New Jersey. Sometimes they’re used to teach new balloon handlers the ropes, so to speak.
From the November 2011 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.