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Melissa Sweet to the third power

Well, I hardly know where to start. Brave Girl Melissa Sweet is making a particularly big splash (and not just A Splash of Red, either). She has sharpened her Little Red Writing instruments and illustrated three books this year. She is not only a prolific illustrator, but one who loves research and creates stunning books that have been admired for years. (For instance, she has Sibert Award for Balloons over Broadway and a Caldecott Honor for A River of Words under her belt.) And there’s more! She illustrates both nonfiction and fiction books, serious books and humorous books, and even writes some of her own books, too!

Rather than go on and on about her amazing collage work and how it is created, I am going to assume you know her work. (If not—get to the library, right now, and get to know her books! Here is a timeline of her work.) In today’s post and then another on Monday I am just going to briefly mention some of the qualities of each of her current books—two picture book biographies and an imaginative story book—that make them distinguished. No reason to limit the committee to just one Sweet book (or two…or three)! Starting with the nonfiction:

A Splash of Red 

  1. Artist Horace Pippin’s life is one worth knowing, and Sweet’s art, paired with Jen Bryant’s gentle, accessible words, is the perfect introduction. A Splash of Red
  2. Incorporating Pippin’s words in hand-lettered quotations helps the reader to know his ideas better.
  3. The silhouettes of Pippin, working at the feed store, rail yard, farm and the like, demonstrate the challenges he faced in a clear, honest, unflinching way without being too grim for the intended readership.
  4. The World War I pages are serious without being scary. Sweet’s use of collage here is especially poignant with the old maps showing the US and Europe.
  5. The double-page spread showing Pippin’s arm hit by shrapnel is dark, scary, and pulls no punches. It’s not always easy to swing from one emotion to the other in a book for children. but Sweet walks that tightrope well here.
  6. Showing Pippin teaching himself to write with a red and orange hot poker says more about Pippin than a zillion words ever could.
  7. The endnotes and bibliographic information, complete with the source notes for the quotations, elevate this from mere picture book biography for little kids. Using the sources will allow researchers of any age to find just what she or he is looking for.

Brave Girl

  1. Young labor leader Clara Lemlich, a little-known historical character, is a perfect subject for Sweet to illustrate in this second picture book biography (this one written by Michelle Markel). Not only does Sweet love paper collage but quilters will recognize fabric in many of her books. And in this one, she gets to show her love of stitching and fabric.
  2. Most pages have a bit of fabric stitched right to the paper. Sweet leaves the edges of the fabric fraying, adding texture and depth to each page.  The factory scene, with the birds’-eye view of the 240 girls at their sewing machines, took my breath away. It’s hard to capture that claustrophobia, but she does.
  3. When the garment workers go on strike, Sweet’s choice of old checks and ledger paper is perfect for symbolizing the wealth of the companies employing them.

Take a moment to think about these two offerings by the same illustrator. How do they compare to each other? Do you have a preference at this point?

On Monday, we will take a peek at Little Red Writing (written by Joan Holub), Sweet’s fiction picture book for 2013. Her productivity is astounding, isn’t it?


Robin Smith About Robin Smith

Robin Smith is a second-grade teacher at the Ensworth School in Nashville, Tennessee. She is a reviewer for Kirkus and The Horn Book Magazine and has served on multiple award committees.



  1. I’m definitely a BRAVE GIRL man (that sounds weird), but they’re both fabulous. And now I’m going to have to revisit SPLASH OF RED thanks to this post – I recall being very impressed by the shrapnel-in-the-arm spread, but I can’t remember some of the other things you mentioned.

    The thing about Sweet’s work that really impresses me most is the thematic links she uses in each of her books. That’s another reason I want to revisit SPLASH – you mentioned some of the things that I love so much about BRAVE GIRL (the stitching, the old ledgers) and I can’t remember what she did in SPLASH. Anyway, until this year I wasn’t a gigantic fan of hers – I appreciated her books, sure, but I wasn’t blown away or anything – but with BRAVE GIRL especially I’ve come to really admire what Sweet does. She’s a real librarian nerd’s dream come true when it comes to illustration, with all of the details and research she incorporates. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts on LITTLE RED WRITING!

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