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Monday, February 6, 2012

Balloons Over Broadway, written and illustrated by Melissa Sweet. Houghton Mifflin, Thomas Allen. 2011. $19.99 ages 6 and up

"In the heart of New York City, in Herald Square, was the "biggest store on earth": R. H. Macy's department store. Macy's had heard about Tony's puppets and asked him to design a "puppet parade" for the store's holiday windows."

Melissa Sweet is not the first author to spend a number of years working on a book; but she might be among those who had the most fun while working so hard. In the five years spent researching this imaginative and talented man she visited the Nantucket Historical Society three times. Why? Its collection houses an impressive display of  Tony Sarg's signature work, as well as vintage photos from the early parades. It must have been like being in the 'best' toy shop!
Melissa Sweet has much in common with the subject of this sparkling picture book biography. Her love of toy collections and her ability to design and build them are just two such shared interests. It is obvious as this book is read that she spent hours figuring out the best way to display all that she was learning.

Tony Sarg had an intense infatuation from a very early age, building a chicken feeding system using pulleys when he was only six. This simple machine ensured that his chore was done without ever having to leave his warm and inviting bed in the early morning. The interest never waned. When he was older he went to London to learn how make puppets and used that knowledge to create characters that made his shows smash hits with his audiences. Those shows led to work in New York, attention from Macy's, and a chance to design some spectacular window displays for the holiday season.

Not one to rest on his laurels, and interested in Macy's concern for their immigrant employees who were missing their cultural celebrations, Tony took on the task of helping to stage the first Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Making it an annual tradition allowed Sarg to use his imagination and ingenuity to create the balloons that are now such a symbol to the 44 million people who watch the parade, not to mention the more than two million who line the streets of New York to be there in person.

In an author's note, Melissa Sweet includes a quote from Tony Sarg that I just love:

"I have never done a stroke of work in my life."

What wonder there is in work that is loved and well done. The author uses her note to give an overview of Tony Sarg's life work, then adds a source list that will be most helpful for anyone interested in knowing more.

Have I mentioned the art? I have not. I cannot possibly do justice to the detail-filled, impeccably designed spreads that grace every single turn of the page. There is so much to see and learn from taking a close look. Of the art, Melissa Sweet has this to say:

"To create the art for this book, I began by making toys and puppets. I played with all sorts of materials, not knowing exactly what the outcome would be. In addition to the watercolor illustrations, my collages are, in part, a mix of paper from old books to make papier-mache puppets, found objects, and fabrics, all painted or altered to illustrate what it may have felt like to be in Sarg's world."

She puts us right there, and makes our lives better for knowing this extraordinary man who may have been virtually unknown to the world until now!

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