When Melissa Sweet was asked to illustrate a book by Newbery Medalist Kwame Alexander months ago, she said no.
“I’ve said this before so it’s no big secret, but I declined the book at first because it was so beautiful the first time I read it and I couldn’t quite get a handle on how I would illustrate it,” she said by phone from her home in Maine. “I was just so intrigued and, of course, I adore Kwame and everything he does, but I didn’t know how this would happen.”
As fate would have it, though, the publisher came back to Sweet months later and asked her to reconsider.
“This time I said ‘Oh yes, I would,’ ” she said, laughing. “I had thought about the book over those months. I love a challenge and I thought you know what, this is just a chance to swing out and do something outside of my comfort zone.”
“And once I got going on it I had the time of my life,” she added, noting that she’s thankful Harper Collins allowed the book to be printed in six-color process to include neon colors.
That book, “How to Read a Book” by Kwame Alexander, hit bookshelves this summer. A poetic and beautiful journey about the experience of reading, reviewers and readers across the country have said it’s a good thing Sweet changed her mind as her illustrations are the perfect, whimsical match for the text. Sweet noted that people are always surprised that the author and illustrator work separately of each other when creating a picture book.
“But it’s a process that really works,” she said.
A two-time Caldecott honoree, Sweet came to writing and illustrating children’s books later in her life. But she hasn’t wasted any time making her mark in the children’s publishing world, having now illustrated more than 100 books. Originally a watercolor artist, Sweet is now best known for her collage work.
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“If I could collapse the process to explain it, I would say it starts with the story first and foremost. I also do some research so I have an idea for the setting. I’ve done my homework,” she said.
“The truth is that I don’t have well-formed pictures of the end product in my head,” she added. “I do have some materials I’ve decided on and the size of the book and that helps a lot. Then I just start to play and place the words on the page and then suddenly the book begins to have a mind of its own. As an illustrator it’s my task to make the story feel fluid and cohesive.”
When her work includes three-dimensional assemblages, they are photographed and then included in the book.
“Especially in non-fiction, I like to create (an assemblage) for the reader to get to know who the person was better,” she said.
The first book she wrote as well as illustrated, “Little Red Writing,” came out in 2005. She’s since written several of her own biographies, including one on E.B. White, who she is eager to talk about during her Iowa visit next week.
“I’m thrilled to be coming to Iowa,” Sweet said.
She is meeting with third- and fourth-graders in the Iowa City school district during the day.
“I love sharing my process with the kids and find out what they love about. And I wasn’t trained as a writer, so I tell kids we’re kind of on the same page.”
Going on school visits and doing readings is particularly rewarding, Sweet said.
“It’s a wonderful chance to leave the studio. Being immersed in a picture book is wonderful, but then going into the schools brings it full circle when I get to celebrate it with a big group of kids,” she said.
When a friend heard Sweet was headed to visit schools in Iowa City, she insisted Sweet visit Prairie Lights Books as well. Sweet said she’s excited to talk to whoever shows up that night.
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“We’ll have a fun event. It could be all adults or it could be some kids I’m seeing. Either way, there’s plenty to say for any age range,” Sweet said.
l What: Melissa Sweet will read from her latest book that she illustrated, “How to Read a Book,” by Kwame Alexander
l When: 6 p.m. Wednesday
l Where: Prairie Lights Books, 15 S. Dubuque St., Iowa City
l Cost: Free