A Conversation with Melissa Sweet, Author of Balloons Over Broadway

In Balloons Over Broadway, Melissa Sweet introduces readers to Tony Sarg – the puppeteer of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. I was thrilled to get the opportunity to ask Melissa Sweet a few questions about how she became fascinated with Tony Sarg, how she created the collages for Balloons Over Broadway, and what it was like for her to watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in person after writing this book.

When I first read Balloons Over Broadway’s subtitle – “The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy’s Parade” – I was skeptical about whether Tony Sarg was a worthy subject for a picture book. I had never heard of Tony Sarg, and the balloons in Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade have historically been my least favorite part of the parade. But, Melissa Sweet had me hooked from this page:

Melissa Sweet’s collages include wonderful homemade toys and puppets that Sweet created in styles she could imagine Sarg creating as a child.

Melissa Sweet appears to have been obsessed (in the best possible way) with Tony Sarg and his puppets. This is reflected in the details about Tony Sarg that she includes in the book — perfectly selected quotes from and photographs of Tony Sarg, original New York Times advertisements for the Macy’s Parade, a lengthier bibliography than one generally finds in a nonfiction picture book… Melissa Sweet’s fascination with her subject is infectious.

Melissa Sweet not only introduces readers to Tony Sarg. She also tells a great story — a story about a clever and creative man who solved a series of problems that came his way. Sweet first introduces readers to Sarg by describing how Sarg rigged up a pulley system when he was a boy to feed chickens without getting out of bed. Sweet then explains the creative challenges Sarg faced as a puppeteer and Sarg’s innovative solutions.

Recommended For: Balloons Over Broadway will appeal to a wide range of kids ages 4+, including creative kids and kids who like to solve problems and figure things out.

A few questions for Melissa Sweet…

1. How did you first become interested in Tony Sarg?

An art director I work with at eeBoo toys mentioned him to me. It took me all of five minutes to become completely smitten with him, and it seemed implausible that no one had written a children’s book about him. Within days of that initial conversation, I began researching him in Nantucket where there is a wonderful collection of his work.

2. Which balloons that Tony Sarg helped create can we still see each year in Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade?

Well, there are some that might be inspired by him, like the dachshund, but the balloons get old and tired and I doubt there are any balloons that are still around from his day. Plus, new character balloons are introduced every year. But, I hope (and I’ve talked to a few others who concur) that one day some of Sarg’s balloon designs will come back to parade. It would be a wonderful acknowledgement.

3. What is one favorite thing that you learned about Tony Sarg?

There were so many. One thing that comes to mind is his generosity in spirit.  He shared what he knew, and that showed up over and over again in my research about him.

4. The illustrations for Balloons Over Broadway are collages. What are your favorite sources of collage material?

Probably old paper, the kind you find in ledger books, but I’ll use anything at all if it feels right for a project.

5. After reading Balloons Over Broadway last year, my kids and I were looking forward to seeing the balloons in Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. We were so disappointed that the balloons were not featured in the television coverage. I heard that you had the pleasure of watching Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in person this past Thanksgiving. Could you describe what these balloons look like in person?

I was at the parade this past year and many years ago while I was living in NYC for a brief time. I have to say that equally as spectacular as the parade is the night before when the balloons are being inflated. It is just wild and surreal. They are so huge flat, and the crowds are swarming the area to get a glimpse.

But, this year my husband and I arrived at the head of the parade (up by the Museum of Natural History around 77th St.), and we passed the balloons lined up on a side street all ready to go. It was fun to see them all together since they’re pretty spread out through the parade.

It’s hard to describe how enormous the balloons are — gigantic behemoths. They sort of hover over the street, undulating along with as many as twenty “handlers” to move them down Broadway with thick ropes.

6. Which of the balloons in Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is your favorite?

I’m partial to the old characters that they bring out every year, like the policeman.

7. I read that to create the art for Balloons Over Broadway you began by making toys and puppets. What are your favorite materials to make puppets out of?

I like anything…fabric, paper mache, wood, but I really love using found objects too.

8. Several of the illustrations in Balloon Over Broadway include photographs of puppets and toys that you made. Which toy or puppet in Balloons Over Broadway is your favorite? Could you describe it for us?

The tiger (seen on the title page above) was almost instantaneous, and fabricating it loosened up my noggin. I was thinking about the balloon animals that were in Sarg’s parade — the tiger, elephant, etc. Then, I made a backward leap wondering what animals I could make from something as simple as children’s blocks, something Sarg would have played with.

9. Did you make puppets as a kid? If so, what did you make puppets out of when you were a kid?

I recall making sock puppets into characters, but I think my favorite was a good old sandwich bag. The bottom made a great place for a face and it was instantanimation!

For kids interested in playing with their own puppets, Melissa Sweet just released this very cute Balloons Over Broadway activity kit. An educator’s guide will be coming out in mid-October.

An early sketch from Balloons Over Broadway.

Melissa Sweet has a new picture book biography coming out this coming January: A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin. I, for one, am excited to read it. For A Splash of Red, Sweet teamed up with author Jen Bryant. The last collaboration between Melissa Sweet and Jen Bryant – A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams – garnered a Caldecott Honor.

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This entry was posted in Ages 4+, Ages 5+, Ages 6+, Ages 7+, Ages 8+ and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to A Conversation with Melissa Sweet, Author of Balloons Over Broadway

  1. Jules says:

    Make that “thanks.” Need. more. coffee.

  2. Jules says:

    Love this. Thank to both of you!

  3. PragmaticMom says:

    I had heard about Balloons Over Broadway last year — it won a bunch of awards, did it not? But I didn’t actually manage to get my hands on a copy but after your review, I will try harder. Sounds great! My son will love the inventor aspect that I did not realize was part of the story! Thanks for your review!

  4. Thank you for this wonderful post. It happens to be Jim Henson’s birthday today so it’s even more fitting. Here’s to the puppeteers!

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