Children’s book illustrator Melissa Sweet showcases her craft to Iowa City

An artist as well as an author, Melissa Sweet spoke about the process of creating illustrations for children’s books at Prairie Lights.


Emily Wangen

Children’s book illustrator Melissa Sweet shows her illustrations in the book How to Read a Book by Kwame Alexander during a Live From Prairie Lights event on Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2019. Sweet has illustrated more than 100 books throughout her career. (Emily W

Pedro Barragan, Arts Reporter

On Oct. 16, illustrator Melissa Sweet visited Prairie Lights while visiting Iowa City to speak of her illustrations in How to Read a Book, a children’s book written by Kwame Alexander.  

 Sweet was greeted by an audience of both adults and children, many of whom had questions about her previous efforts in children’s literature.

 Sweet is a two-time Caldecott Honoree for her illustrations in two of author Jen Bryant’s books: A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams, and The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus. Sweet has also written four books herself, including Carmine: A Little More Red (a New York Times Best Illustrated Book) and Balloons Over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy’s Parade.

Mary Taft of Prairie Lights kids department spoke highly of Sweet’s craft as a children’s book illustrator, and said she felt excited to have her at the book shop.

“Melissa Sweet is very good at marrying her illustration style with the content of the text,” said Taft. “She draws readers into the page by adding little mysteries. . . she’ll use found material like a tally sheet from a store and mix it with paint… creating this whole rich experience.”

 Sweet also spent time with the Iowa City community during her visit. 

Related: Prairie Lights hosts International Writing Program instructors from Summer Youth Program 

“In this type of project, my role is to take Kwame’s lyrical text and craft a visual story around it,” Sweet said. “What was interesting about this project was that there was no beginning, middle, or end. And there isn’t one character running through the book, which often happens in a children’s book.”

 Sweet said she saw illustration as a process of translating Kwame’s prose into her own images.

 “I looked at Kwame’s words and translated them visually. I created collages around his work making each page its own piece of art,” she said. 

 Sweet’s visit to Iowa was made with the intention of discussing her creative process with third and fourth graders from local schools.The schools prepared a curriculum for the students in preparation for Sweet’s visit, introducing the children to her artistic process.

 “The students are well prepared to talk to me,” said Sweet. “We’ll be talking about writing and where ideas come from. I do a lot of picture book biographies, so they’ll be well versed in my work, and I’ll be able to speak to them.”

Near the end of her talk, a young girl asked about a portion of an earlier Sweet book that centered on the alphabet with a joke about underpants. She said it made her and her family laugh, to which Sweet replied, “That one’s a crowd pleaser.”

Sweet said her advice for anyone aspiring to enter the world of children’s book art was to study a picture book’s pacing and rendering.

 “They need to dissect them and figure out how it’s made,” Sweet said. “And this is advice for anyone in the arts. Whether you want to be a dancer or write a play or a children’s book, it requires discipline and verve. So you’re doing the work you believe in so it can be part of your daily life.”