The cover of “How to Read A Book” by Kwame Alexander and illustrated by Melissa Sweet of Portland. Image courtesy of HarperCollins

As soon as she said no, Melissa Sweet began doubting her decision.

“I sent it back with regrets,” the Portland artist said of the offer to illustrate a new children’s book by Newbery-winning author Kwame Alexander. “I kept it for a while, but when a book is offered to me I usually know fairly quickly whether I want to illustrate it. So I sent it back, and said, ‘I love this, but I think I’ve kept it too long. If I don’t know by now, I need to pass so you can offer it to someone else.'”

A month later, the editor called back, asking Sweet to reconsider, and Sweet did – gratefully.

Children’s book illustrator Melissa Sweet. Ben McCanna/Portland Press Herald

“Of all the books I have declined, I never really think about them again. But this is the one that got away. It drove me crazy that I said no, and I was elated I had the chance to revisit it,” she said.

The resulting collaboration brings together one of the most in-demand illustrators of children’s books and one of the genre’s hottest writers. Together, they produced “How to Read A Book,” based on a poem by Alexander that speaks to the joy, power and imagination associated with reading a book. HarperCollins published the book in June.

Sweet is a two-time Caldecott Honor Medal recipient and best-selling author and illustrator. Alexander is a poet and writer and regular contributor to NPR’s “Morning Edition.” In addition to his Newbery medal, he’s won the Coretta Scott King Author Honor and been nominated three times for an NAACP Image Award. He was the National Endowment for the Arts’ Read Across America Ambassador in 2018.

Kwame Alexander is a Newbery medal winner. Photo courtesy of HarperCollins

He’s also a huge fan of Sweet, and wanted to work with her long before he met her at a conference in 2015. “If you were to ask me at the time who were the illustrators I would most want to work with in my dream scenario, she was one of three – Ashley Bryan, Kadir Nelson and Melissa Sweet,” he said.

In the four years since, he’s seen that dream come true. Nelson illustrated Alexander’s “The Undefeated,” which came out this past spring, and Bryan has become such a close friend and mentor that Alexander has visited with him three times at his home on Little Cranberry Island, taking the ferry from Mount Desert Island.

In a phone interview, Alexander called Sweet a master and a genius, and said he pushed his editors at HarperCollins to approach her with the offer to illustrate “How to Read A Book,” because he really wanted her on the job. He’s been a fan since his daughter turned him on to her book, “A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin, published in 2013 and written by Jennifer Bryant. “That’s the one that made me say, ‘Wow, she is pretty incredible,’ ” Alexander said. “It could have been a week or it could have been a year, but I remember getting the note saying Melissa wants to do the book. I was completely floored and humbled.”

An inside page from “How to Read A Book,” illustrated by Melissa Sweet. Image courtesy of HarperCollins

The challenge of this project, Sweet said, was the openness of Alexander’s words. His poem captures the experience of holding and reading a book and then being transported by imagination, but is wide open to interpretation and is a far less tangible story than others she has illustrated. She could not rely on past projects to guide her. Her experience prepared her, but didn’t offer solutions to her question, “How am I going to do this?”

To lead her forward, she turned to the composer Igor Stravinsky for inspiration. He said, “The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self of the chains that shackle the spirit.” Because of the nature of Alexander’s story, Sweet felt emboldened and compelled to experiment with typeface, design and color, trying various approaches to elevate the words off the page. She didn’t interpret Alexander’s story, but attempted to illustrate what is not on the page by bringing a heightened sense of vision and movement to help conjure the feeling of taking a journey that reading inspires.

An inside page of “How to Read a Book,” illustrated by Melissa Sweet. Image courtesy of HarperCollins

She generated energy by creating much of the book’s text by hand and opting for a die-cut, gate-fold design of the pages to add potency to the story. She also expanded her palette, working with neon to create what she called “a more electric feel.” Each page is its own piece of art, linked only slightly to preceding and following pages.

Sweet feels triumphant with the results, an emotion that balances the feeling of uncertainty she faced when she wrestled with her decision to take on the project.

“This feels like a tremendous turning point for me,” she said. “It’s allowed me, or encouraged me, to question everything I have done and to look at how I render a book. I wanted to go simpler with this book, and I will want to do that again. I am excited because I feel like I could interpret someone’s words now in a way that is completely different.”


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