Kids watching this year’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, either from the streets of Manhattan or on television, will view the spectacle with a new eye if they’ve had the chance to read Melissa Sweet’s Balloons over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy’s Parade. Just out from Houghton Mifflin, the picture book follows Tony Sarg’s creative journey from puppeteer and marionette master to designer of the very first parade balloons flown over Broadway in the 1928 Macy’s parade.
Sweet, who is a toy designer as well as an author and Caldecott Honor illustrator, first encountered Sarg’s work more than five years ago, when an art director for eeBoo, a boutique toy manufacturer for which the author has created illustrations, recommended she look at Tony Sarg’s work for inspiration.
"She told me Tony was a genius as an illustrator and puppeteer, and had designed the first Macy’s parade balloons," Sweet recalls. "I was intrigued." When she hung up the phone, she looked up Tony on the Internet. "I immediately wondered how this American treasure had slipped through the cracks. There is no doubt in my mind that if I had grown up in the 1920s, I would have run away from home to work in his studio or join his marionette troupe."
The author learned that a cache of Sarg’s work could be found on Nantucket, where he used to live. That same year, as coincidence would have it, Thanksgiving was approaching, and Sweet was headed to Massachusetts for the holiday. "I decided to make a side trip to Nantucket, and visited the library, where I found newspaper articles about Tony, and that started the whole ball rolling," she says. During the five years she worked on Balloons over Broadway, Sweet returned three times to the island to visit the Nantucket Historical Society, which has in its collection an array of Sarg’s work, plus a selection of vintage parade photos.
Though Sweet says she was instantly inspired to do a book about Sarg, it took her some time to decide on its focus. "He did everything so creatively—from puppeteer to toy maker to legendary prankster—that I didn’t know what story about him to tell," she says. “And after a lot of thought, writing, and working with my editor, Ann Rider, I came to the decision that I’d tell Tony’s story through his work for the Macy’s parade."
As is her wont, Sweet made sketches and collages "to get me thinking about the book," yet found she "became a little stuck with the writing for a couple of years." She recalls Rider suggesting that she create some toys and puppets for inspiration, which helped. "I made toys and puppets galore, I played with blocks, and I tried a whole slew of different collages," she explains. "I knew that Tony had an amazing toy collection, and I wanted to have some real toys in the art for the book."
Though Rider, executive editor of Houghton Mifflin Children’s Books, doesn’t specifically recall suggesting that Sweet make toys, she notes, "It is very Melissa to immerse herself in a project that way, to figure out Tony Sarg’s sense of play and what he was all about."
The editor believes that the choice of centering the story on Sarg’s role in creating the first Macy’s parade balloons also makes perfect sense. "Everyone loves the parade, and here was this person behind the scenes—and totally invisible—who was making it all happen," she notes. "Yet very few people knew about Sarg. He really is an unsung American folk hero who influenced and mentored many others."
In addition to her trips to Nantucket, Sweet’s research brought her to the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry in Storrs, Conn., where she talked with puppeteers who knew Sarg’s work. She also spoke with balloon designers, as well as with a man in his 90s who had worked Sarg on projects for a World’s Fair. "Accuracy was truly essential to me in this book," she comments. "As I talked to people, I became aware that Tony had really elevated puppetry at a time it wasn’t really considered a high art. The book did take me a long time, but I wanted to get it right. It’s a pretty big gift when someone like Tony lands in your studio."
And of course, Sweet visited Macy’s while working on the book. "The parade and Macy’s are practically one and the same,” she says, “so they were excited to learn of the project. Sarg was Macy’s go-to guy for all creative solutions to anything they wanted designed and built, especially around the parade."
Once the folks at Macy’s saw the finished book, "they fully embraced it," Sweet reports. The company asked Sweet to illustrate the 2011 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade poster, which she says "gives a nod to Sarg in its design." Art from the poster is featured on the parade’s Web site and adorns Macy’s shopping bags throughout November.
Sweet will travel from her Maine hometown to New York City during Thanksgiving week, where she’s scheduled to make several bookstore appearances. She’ll also visit Macy’s Herald Square store on November 20 to do a craft project, reading and signing. That same day, she will also attend the opening of the new DiMenna Children’s Museum at the New York Historical Society, where vintage parade photos will be on display.
And, for the first time in 20 years, the author will have the chance to watch the parade live. Will she be looking at those high-flying balloons through new eyes? "Definitely,” she replies. “I know I’ll be thinking about how they were made, and everything that went into creating them. It will be a very different experience."
Balloons over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy’s Parade by Melissa Sweet. Houghton Mifflin, $16.99 Nov. ISBN 978-0-547-19945-0