Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Inventor Profile (& Giveaway!): Melissa Sweet: I Do Believe Anybody Can Draw

I would say there might be a difference between looking at something and actually seeing it and when you draw, you have to see it- Melissa Sweet   (all photos courtesy of Melissa Sweet unless otherwise noted)

Oftentimes when discussing a toy with an expert, we wonder who designed such an amazing product.  What were they thinking?  Whenever I find that out, I tell my kids.  Their faces light up.  After I tell them about the inventor, they look at their toy differently, as if an uncle had made it for them.  There is admiration but more importantly, there is appreciation.

I remind my kids every once in a while that none of the toys that come for testing in our home are free.  Even though we didn’t pay for them, there is a hope and expectation attached to each one because a real live person created it and that is special and to be respected.   It’s my hope that this newfound respect will broaden their perspective on life and their future.  There are other jobs besides mommy’s and daddy’s and teacher, doctor, and firefighter.   Kids can connect to the outer world through their toys- the things they touch and stare at closely on a daily basis.  It could have been made by a college student in Minnesota or a teacher in Belgium or an artist in our neighborhood.  But once we help them make that connection, they become interested in Minnesota or Belgium or our neighborhood.  All of it becomes very familiar and children learn new things better when there is a familiar presence involved.

This book has made a huge impact in this household. photo: eeBoo

Here’s something you might find familiar.   If you don’t have it, you will likely go out to buy it just so you can share this story with your child as they attempt to follow along her book.   Welcome to Toys are Tools’ first Inventor Profile of Melissa Sweet, author of The Drawing Book by eeBoo that was reviewed here. 

Inventor Profile: Melissa Sweet: I Do Believe Anybody Can Draw

“It was all I ever did,” said Melissa Sweet in an interview when I asked her when she first realized that she wanted to become an artist. “My whole world was about making stuff so it never occurred to me to do something else.”

Making stuff is what the young Melissa did.  And guess what she did after she made them?  

She sold them. 

As young as 7 years of age, she would go door to door selling potholders, cookies, and even perfume!  “And you know,” Melissa quips, “nobody’s going to say NO.”  At one point, she even created a baked goods delivery route for Sunday mornings to bring doughnuts from a cherished neighborhood bakery.

I silently let out a sigh of relief.   I can’t believe this author/illustrator of nearly 100 children’s books is talking to me and making me laugh.  Her resume barely has enough room to fit all the accolades her work has garnered including the Caldecott Honor, Oppenheim Toy Portfolio, Parents’ Choice Award, the Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Medal, the Cook Prize from Bankstreet, the Golden Kite Award and many other honors.

Her commercial pursuits really surprised me. I thought I was going to hear a description about a girl who was painting landscapes by kindergarten but such was not the case.   Melissa Sweet was a maker, a shaker, a hard-worker. 

These are all scenes from Carmine: A Little More Red authored and illustrated by Melissa Sweet

I Am Not a “Good Relaxer”

“I was better off with something to do and I still am,” said Melissa. “I am not a good relaxer.”  

I have two kids who are also not “good relaxers” and so I asked her about school.  Sure enough, school was a bit tough for the restlessly productive young Melissa.   But she was lucky and had some good teachers along the way.  By high school, she was taking lots of drawing classes.  In fact, she was the first and only girl in her school to take Shop and Mechanical Drawing.  She literally had to have her parents intervene so that she could be permitted to take the class since no female students were taking such classes.

I also asked Melissa about her earlier art education.  Surprisingly as a child, she didn’t receive that much formal training.  In fact, Melissa Sweet had started learning how to draw by watching television! There was an artist named Bob Gnagy. “He drew using simple shapes, which I loved,” said Melissa.  “For a little kid, everybody can draw a shape and you can get something to look like something and it feels pretty fun.”

This is where Melissa Sweet works

The view from her studio.

 Inventor Stories Teach Humility

After finishing college, she went into the greeting card industry and she described that period of her life as a bridge to working with children’s books.  But here is the special part: Melissa Sweet said she used this time to get better rather than describing it as a place to work until she was discovered which is what I thought she would have said.
“I mean, my work just wasn’t quite ready for the publishing world,” she said matter-of-factly. 

“When I go into schools, I show kids a pretty early piece and then I’ll show them Carmine (Carmine: A Little More Red) or Balloons (Balloons over Broadway) and I’ll go ‘This is me.  This is both me.’”

Melissa Sweet sure knows how to connect with children which is probably why The Drawing Book is such a success.  A good teacher is one who knows her student before she creates a curriculum.

When Melissa Sweet visits schools, she shows children her earlier work (pictured here, a little one of a kind board book)
Twenty years later, Melissa Sweet is accomplishing works like Carmine: A Little More Red which is simply beautiful and part of the giveaway for this article- Hooray!!!

Good Inventors Understand How Kids Think

Melissa talked about Saxton Freymann who is also the creator of Felt Mosaics (reviewed here) and a close member of the eeBoo family.  “My goal was to create the kind of book that I had,” she said, referring to cartooning books that she had as a child.  “He (Saxton Freymann) and I both watched John Gnagy, and so we both had these books as kids who liked to draw.  They were quirky.  They weren’t trying to get you to be… you know, a great painter.  They were just trying to get you to understand how to make things, how to draw what you see.”

Melissa also intended for the book to be something that she would have wanted as a kid- something that wasn’t too serious.  However, there definitely was intention of teaching children how to draw, “You could do something and feel like you got a reasonable facsimile and it was fun.”

I mentioned Number 5’s mom, an avid eeBoo fan, who thought the eeBoo drawing books were great because the kids could try something and not feel bad with their results.  “That’s a good way to put it,” Melissa said. “Because I feel like I am a living proof that you’re not born drawing well.  You want to feel good. Every kid wants to feel good after they make something.”

 An Expert’s Take on the Benefits of Drawing

Interviewing Melissa Sweet was my own feel-good experience. It was so much fun talking to her!  I asked her how learning to draw is good for a child even if she may not become an artist.  She replied, “Oh, I had a thought, and then I lost it but I’ll just start talking and see if it comes back.” 

Number 1 Son, following the path of young Melissa Sweet?  These are his Lego creations FOR SALE!!!  Five dollars a piece.  Deal or No Deal?

Do you see what I mean about how awesome it is to find out who made your children’s favorite things?   Their stories can teach us and our children so much!!!  But on a more grounded note, Melissa did have great thoughts on this subject, if anything, this is the takeaway message:

 “I would say there might be a difference between looking at something and actually seeing it and when you draw, you have to see it. You have to take something 3-dimensional and make it 2-dimensional,” said Melissa.  She believes that this process can be taught. “There is no question in my mind.  It can be learned.   I do believe anybody can draw.”

I kid you not, Number 2 Son, just five years old, has filled all these sketchbooks after tackling a few pages within eeBoo's The Drawing Book a few months ago.  He was only drawing a little before he received the book.  The bird in the center is something he's learned from The Drawing Book.  Can you figure out the other things he's drawn?

She told me that learning how to see the world in a different way gives us an appreciation of not just the arts but basically anything that is made. “So for instance, a kid’s sneakers - It had to be drawn first,” Melissa cited. “I think that art is all about someone’s idea and they took it to fruition. And it’s not just the arts, it’s any invention.  It’s any design.”

YES!!!  I had a feeling that I was doing the right thing by asking my kids to draw often. However, with kids being so young and taking up information like sponges, I feel like this is a great time for them to really tackle drawing.  I know they are creative.  They have lots of ideas but drawing to me means that you must make a decision to start on an idea and go with it.  It means to take a chance and show yourself what you can make even if you must risk disappointment.

Now, we’re armed with not only the books she’s authored and illustrated including the eeBoo Drawing Book, but also her own personal story of hard work and success.  Which one will have the most impact when we try to convince our kids to take a chance and draw something they’ve never drawn before?  I think all the possible answers will leave us pleasantly surprised.

Melissa Sweet is one of the reasons eeBoo's toys and games are so beautiful.  Their designers rock!

Now Here's A Chance for You to Have Not Only THE DRAWING BOOK but also Carmine: A Little More Red.  Use the artwork from the book to familiarize your child with her style and then warm them up to drawing their next greatest creation or have them try drawing first and then let them recognize similar elements in this awesome highly-acclaimed children's book.  One set of these two books will go to TWO winners!!!!  The prizes can only be shipped to addresses in the U.S.

NOTE: Pinterest and Google Plus Folks- we have entries just for you!  This is very much a Pinterest kind of story!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Can't wait to find out if you've won?  We understand.  Put these great books in your shopping cart today:

Disclosure statement: Toys are Tools has not been compensated in any fashion by the manufacturer of any of the mentioned products for the publication of this post.  The product was given to Toys are Tools' testers to facilitate a review.  Reviews are never promised. The books are donated by Melissa Sweet.


  1. I think that interviews with the inventor is a great addition to your site. Having insight into their thoughts and motivations for their creations can shed a whole new light on the item. I would love to see more! I think it would also help inspire kids to try their hand at inventing when they see someone else's success.

  2. I love her work.. I wish Tyler was able to appreciate at this level... It's hard on me after 5 years of design school (Architecture) to not be able to share visual beauty yet... He's just so easily frustrated and is so passionate about the right brained world... I encourage him in artistic observation, but maybe one day it will be drawing

  3. I must say, I love the author's reflections on how time has progressed her artwork. From raising an "I hate to write" boy who now is a film/sound artist who majored in Graphic design, I can see how people mature and find their own over time. I just hope the same holds true for my 10 yr 0ld whose favorite thing is making new characters from lego figures! Hmmm, a miniaturist??

  4. This is a lovely story. I'll be sure to tell my daughter who is a one very active and creative kid

  5. my son loves making up stories with her story cards. Loved your post on Melissa Sweet! I didn't know anything about her, and now we do.

  6. Thank you for a wonderful interview. Here's to all the budding inventors out there! Keep playing.

  7. Andy, That is very much the point. There are lots of inventive kids out there and toys are things that they can relate to. It's no longer elusive and mysterious and can then become a possibility. Thanks for writing!

  8. Like she said, anybody can learn to draw. EVEN me!!! I have used her book to decorate t-shirts when I couldn't come up with any idea. Melissa Sweet said that the eeBoo drawing books provide children with "vocabularies" and it really does make sense. My son draws his birds the way she did in her book but someday he will learn to draw birds in a different way and thereby increasing his vocabulary. We are just taking it one step at a time but I'm telling you- sketchbooks are great! They can use a marker and all the pages stay together so they don't worry about it getting lost.

  9. My oldest son thinks in 3D all the time. He's definitely a Lego kid. It's very hard for him to represent his thinking in drawing but we are continuing to try. There are some pages in Melissa Sweet's book that covers drawing in 3D. My son liked those a lot.

  10. oh please do tell your child. I hope she enjoys the story.

  11. I love when toy companies write the name of the inventor on the box of the toy. I think we are able to appreciate the toy better. Whenever my son and I read a book, he always asks me to read the author and illustrator's name. I like that. On books, they include pictures and a short ditty inside the flap. I think they should do that with toys too. Why not?

  12. I agree. Didn't you just love those pictures? I feel like I have just eaten the most delicious meal whenever I see those pictures.

  13. I am so very lucky that you had the time to speak with me and share your story with my readers. Don't be surprised if you see a new wave of kid entrepreneurs running around delivering doughnuts via bicycle on Sunday mornings. It was a great idea then and it's still a great idea now! My son is making more Lego creations (to sell) as I type this! I hope he finds some good customers! Thanks for dropping by and leaving us this cheerful note!

  14. I love this behind-the-scenes profile. Very cool. I think drawing is very much a useful skill no matter what you end up doing in life, if only, as Melissa says because it helps you truly see the world around you. As for future interviews, I think my son would probably love a profile of a Lego inventor—and info about how he could get hired one day!

  15. Hmmmmm.... I guess you don't mean original Lego inventor, maybe someone who designs one of the many sets/kits..... they must have dozens of designers working for them. I wonder what their office looks like. Maybe they have blocks all over the floor? But getting info about getting hired...... What a great idea!!! Thank you so so much. I love the readers here! This is exactly why I wanted to start the Inventor Profiles... I think we can start thinking about these things. Kristinha, thank you!

  16. I LOVED this post. I LOVED getting to know the author of these books! I'm often very much a skimmer, but I read all of this. It reminded me of the design articles in the Mary Englebreit Home Companion magazine (don't know if that's still published). Those articles like this post really introduced you to creative people. LOVE THAT!

  17. i loved this profile. so interesting. just the right amount of info for me. i read all of it. wonderful.

  18. Jenn-just was forwarded this wonderful interview by Mary Cousin, as part of her Chi-tag inventor series.

    This is exactly the early intervention that children need to succeed!

    Followed you, can't wait to read more-