Sweet, Melissa. 2011. Balloons Over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy’s Parade. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Books for Children.
2. PLOT SUMMARY
In this picture book, Melissa Sweet tells the story of Anthony “Tony” Frederick Sarg, who was the mind and talent behind the famous Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Through illustrations and text, Sweet describes Sarg’s childhood and fascination with puppets. Through simple explanations, readers also learn how that puppetry knowledge was transformed into the idea of floating puppets with the controls coming down to the handlers on the ground.
3. CRITICAL ANALYSIS
Balloons Over Broadway won the 2012 Robert F. Sibert Medal and the 2012 NCTE Orbis Pictus Award. This award-winning picture book is many things: a biography, yes, but also a history lesson, an artistic explanation and an inspiration based on Tony Sarg’s life (1880-1942.) Melissa Sweet makes her information entertaining through her art and her lively writing style. People will not even realize they are learning new information. Dr. Vardell describes biographies as “literary people watching,” (243) and that is much of what this book is like. We get to watch the genius of Tony Sarg unfold throughout his life, starting with a creation to help him stay in bed later as a child, culminating in his greatest achievement, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
The art steals the show in this puppet-pageant historical tale. With mixed-media collage illustrations, bold typefaces and fonts, and watercolor cartoons with amazing detail, the cheerful, colorful art critically supports text that both tells the personal story of Tony Sarg, and also explains the technical mechanics behind the giant balloons that have bounced down Broadway for years. Statements such as, “It was a parade New Yorkers would never forget!” are written in collage-style typography beneath cartoon illustrations and regular text explaining the path the balloons took to finish the parade. The words look bold and exciting, like the parade.
It is clear that the design was carefully thought-out, as every page is used to its fullest. The image of the first big balloon that floated like he wanted is turned vertically, using the design of the page to convey the scope of the balloons that he created. Even the end pages are used to provide background information about Tony Sarg and marionettes with clever collage, photography, and an illustration of a marionette. The early pages have a photograph of Tony Sarg across from a large, multi-fonted black and white quote of his saying, “Every little movement has a meaning of its own.” A direct quote gives readers trust that the author has done her research. On the end pages, there is even an original advertisement about the 1933 parade in The New York Times. Literally not one inch was wasted in this book. In the photo of the newspaper, it shows a few of the balloons—and it looks like the elephant balloon from the book’s vertical page is in the shot.
The actual story of Tony Sarg as a child and puppeteer is told in rough panels similar to a comic book, organized chronologically, making the text easy and fun to find and read. Dr. Vardell says a nonfiction book should, “encourage appropriate vocabulary and not talk down to the reader” (255). Sweet achieves this and freely and comfortably uses technical terms such as, “Tony wanted his balloons to articulate—to move and gesture—more like puppets. But how?”
The dramatic moment of his big realization is shown with appropriately dramatic black and white collage-style font: “But what if the controls were below and the puppet could rise up?” completed with a silhouette of Tony holding an elephant balloon—one we’ll see later, floating in the parade.
Sweet provides an Author’s Note in the back matter that provides more information about Tony Sarg, such as a quote by his daughter saying, “Quite simply, Tony Sarg just never grew up.” Sweet also gives a description of how she created her own art for the book.
As with any nonfiction book, “Accuracy is number one,” (253, Vardell.) Despite the charming art and text, this book would lose its value if it were not accurate. In this regard, readers can take comfort from the Thank You page, in which Sweet lists those to whom she spoke about Tony Sarg. Museums of puppetry and balloon designers are trustworthy sources for this topic, as are the 18 sources in her Bibliography and Sources, not including her Quote sources. Those are listed separately, with the photos courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association.
4. REVIEW EXCERPT(S)
“Sweet tells this slice of American history well, conveying both Sarg's enthusiasm and joy in his work as well as the drama and excitement of the parade. Rich in detail, the gouache, collage, and mixed-media illustrations are a stand-out, capturing the charm of the period and the awe-inspiring balloons. This one should float off the shelves.” School Library Journal, Sept 1, 2011
“Through careful explanation and fantastic art, Sweet explains step-by-step how the balloons were shaped and evolved. The pictures, a mix of collage and watercolors, are as exciting as the parade itself and are presented in an innovative design that uses an array of typefaces, reproductions of old newspaper articles, silhouettes, and the occasional comic-strip format. Grades K-2” Booklist Sept 15, 2011.
“Melissa Sweet's captivating picture book showcases Sarg's lively mind and creative and mechanical processes. Sweet uses a variety of illustration styles in the delightful, multilayered collage art that includes schematics and plans, photographs of toys she constructed to reflect Sarg's own creations, scenes from Sarg's life, and of course images of the parade balloons bobbing through the streets of New York. Ages 6-10.”—CCBC (Cooperative Book Center Choices, 2012).
“This bright, brimming picture biography commemorates Tony Sarg, a brilliant, self-taught artist whose innovative helium balloons delighted legions of Macy's parade watchers from 1928 on. …Sweet sketches Sarg's career as a puppeteer and marionette-maker... Sweet's charming mixed-media layouts form a playful bridge between her creative process and Sarg's….This clever marriage of information and illustration soars high.”- Kirkus Reviews, Sept 1, 2011.
- Invite a puppeteer to perform.
- Have students write their own puppet shows and perform them.
- Have students create a puppet or marionette.
- Do an illustrator study by comparing this book with Sweet's other book, A River of Words, which was a Caldecott Honor book.
6. PERSONAL REACTIONS
I found this book delightful. I loved all the small details throughout and I always enjoy learning about a new topic. It is not a book I will want to keep and reread, but it was a fun book to read and I felt Ms. Sweet certainly earned her awards.
Bryant, Jennifer. 2008. A River of Words. Ill. Melissa Sweet. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdsman Publishing Company.
Vardell, Sylvia. 2008. Children's Literature in Action. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.