Friday, November 18, 2011

Balloons Over Broadway

Written & illustrated by Melissa Sweet
$16.99, ages 4 and up, 40 pages.

A man with a knack for making things move turns the concept of marionettes upside down and creates one of the greatest parades on Earth.

In this marvelous tribute, Caldecott Honor winner Melissa Sweet uses a menagerie of objects and illustrations to tell the story of Anthony "Tony" Sarg, the artist behind Macy's parade balloons.

Sweet's telling is wondrous, as she echoes Tony's creative genius with her own playful use of wood, fabrics, color and sketches.

Whimsical collages delight the eye as Sweet mixes photographs of thread spool towers, a building block tiger on wheels and other objects with watercolor illustrations.

On the opening page, the book's title hangs on a cardboard sign from antique pulleys and wire. Later, a worn book is opened flat and filled with hand-sewn puppets, sketched diagrams, swatches of fabric and buttons.

The story itself moves along with a skip and bounce, and is sprinkled here and there with curious anecdotes to amuse readers.

Sweet writes that from boyhood on Tony tinkered with simple machines. He rigged pulleys and ropes to make dolls do jumping jacks and used those same mechanisms to let out the family's chickens from their coop while he was still in bed.

Tony ran rope from the door of the chicken coop through his bedroom window, then closed that door, sprinkled feed just outside of it and went off to bed. When his alarm rang in the morning, he pulled the rope, opening the door so the chickens could wander out and eat.

When Tony was full grown, he discovered the art of marionettes was a fading, so he revived the craft with his own style of wood and cloth puppets that moved like real actors. Eventually Tony was invited to perform with his puppets on Broadway.

Not long after, R. H. Macy, the owner of Macy's Department Store, "the biggest store on earth," asked Tony to design a "puppet parade" for the store's holiday windows.

This lead Tony to design Macy's famous "Wondertown" windows, a series of displays in which storybook characters danced from wires and gears.

The department store also wanted to honor its immigrant workers and in 1924, Macy asked Tony to create a street parade based on holiday carnivals abroad. Tony sewed costumes, built horse-drawn floats, even brought in zoo animals.

The parade was a hit. But as it grew, and lions and tigers were added, children became frightened. So Macy asked Tony to replace the animals with something more gentle and spectacular.

At first, Tony wanted to enlarge his animal marionettes. But he worried they'd be fragile in bad weather, and too heavy to carry back and forth down the streets. So he asked a blimp manufacturer to turn his sketches into giant rubber balloons.

The next step was to animate them. For the first parade, he used poles like those used on rod puppets to make them move. But the balloons had to stay low to the ground, which meant only people close to the street could see them.

How could Tony raise his balloons, and make them move and gesture? His solution: to flip the concept of the marionette. Rather than use controls above to move a puppet that hangs down, he put strings below a puppet that rises up.

He also made the balloons out of a lighter rubberized silk and filled them with helium.

At dawn on parade day in 1928, Tony was ready and so were the crowds. Though anxious that the balloons might float away, pop or get stuck, one-by-one he snipped lose the sandbags that held them down.

Soon, the air between skyscrapers became an avenue of floating animals. An inflated tiger, dog and elephant with grins as long as street lanes bobbed and flounced down Broadway, as onlookers squealed with excitement.

Today the Macy's Day Parade has become New York City's biggest street show, drawing more than 40 million onlookers worldwide. And it all started with a man who believed a puppet could be anything a person imagined.

Sweet, who won the Caldecott Honor for A River of Words by Jen Bryant, is a delight to follow;  her work bubbles with creativity and it's hard to find anyone who mixes illustration and collage as well.

In Balloons over Broadway, she takes an artist's life story and makes it as enchanting as the balloons he created, proving that nonfiction picture books don't have to be ho-hum. They can be as imaginative as make-believe.

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