It’s been a good time lately to be a fan of illustrator Melissa Sweet.

Last year, Melissa illustrated Susan Hood’s Spike, the Mixed-Up Monster, the story of a hopelessly adorable axolotl salamander, which was recently named a Highly Commended honor book for the 2013 Charlotte Zolotow Award. She also illustrated Alicia Potter’s Mrs. Harkness and the Panda, the fascinating picture book biography of socialite explorer Ruth Harkness, who brought back the first live panda to the United States. It’s a picture book I didn’t cover here at Kirkus or my own blog but that I very much enjoyed. (Better late than never. Whew.)

And that wasn’t all Sweet illustrated in 2012, but then she’s always busy with her paintbrush.

2013 bodes just as well for those, like me, who enjoy her watercolor and mixed media artwork. February will see the release of Michelle Markel’s Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909, the story of Clara Lemlich, who led the turn-of-the-century strike of shirtwaist workers in the New York garment industry. The starred Kirkus review calls the book “sparkling.”

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Melissa has also joined forces again with author Jen Bryant–as she did for the 2009 Caldecott Honor title A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams–for the January release of A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin, another superb picture book biography, this one of the self-taught African American artist.

Those illustrators interested in picture book biographies would do well to watch and learn from Sweet, who finds a particular joy in such tales. “With each biography,” Melissa told me, “there is something that grabs me and makes me want to know more. The stories pose so many questions and make me search for visual clues. It can be a feat to portray all the nuances of the time, place, and culture, yet keep the art fresh and contemporary. But those challenges are the best part. Each book makes me see the world (and how I make art) differently.”

Melissa took a few moments to chat with me about these books and what’s next on the drawing board.

Congratulations to you and author Susan Hood on the Zolotow honor. Was Spike as fun to illustrate as it looks? 

Thank you. We were all thrilled. Spike was fun to illustrate. Axolotls are preposterously cute. There is no other word for them. This book is a nice mix of fiction and nonfiction, and Susan created wonderful characters to research and draw.

Tell me about the research you and Jen did for A Splash of Red, the Pippin biography. Did anything surprise you? 

Once we decided that this would be our next book together, Jen proposed meeting in Pennsylvania (where she lives) for a research field trip. Jen had already written the text, so she knew where to go and who to talk to. I love researching biographies, and I didn’t hesitate at the chance to retrace her steps.

I knew about Horace Pippin from art school and was excited to talk with the Educational Director at the Brandywine River Museum and see Pippin’s paintings firsthand. Over the next few days, Jen and I went to the Barnes Foundation, to Pippin’s home, and to see his burnt wood panels. Taking this time to share what we both knew made for a richer and more in-depth story.

After researching a number of biographies, I've found nothing can replace the experience of, say, being in Audubon’s home, seeing William Carlos Williams’ typewriter and hand-written notes, or viewing Pippin’s paintings. It creates a deeper connection that makes their stories come aSplash of Red Spreadlive.

There were a few surprises, but one was on my way to Jen’s when I stopped at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I especially wanted to see Pippin’s  painting, The End of the War: Starting Home. When I arrived, the department assistant took me to a storage vault and rolled out the painting.

It’s very powerful and hard to do it justice in a photograph. I knew it had 100 layers of paint and took him about three years to complete. I expected the paint to be really thick, but it had very thin layers. The trees were meticulously rendered, almost embossed. On the frame, Pippin had carved tiny wooden helmets, bayonets, and grenades. Seeing that frame was one of the reasons I was inspired to carve the pencils and brushes (that he won in a contest). Somehow, I wanted this three-dimensional element reflected in the illustrations.

What did you learn, while researching Brave Girl, that was new to you?

[This research] took me to the Tenement Museum in NYC. What an incredible place! Not just for learning about the New York City immigrant experience, but to get a visceral sense of the beginnings of the fashion industry.

There was one thing that really struck me about Clara Lemlich’s story. Somehow the women sewing these fashionable shirtwaists under horrid conditions realized that they needed to enroll the women buying the shirts to help them fight for their rights. Brava! to all of them for standing together.

What's next for you? 

Jen and I have another book together. (More about that later when the art is done!)

This year I'm illustrating a poetry book for Candlewick, and I have another book of my own in mind.

It's pretty action-packed.

A SPLASH OF RED: THE LIFE AND ART OF HORACE PIPPIN. Copyright © 2013 by Jen Bryant. Illustration copyright © 2013 by Melissa Sweet. Published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York. Illustration reproduced with permission of Melissa Sweet. Photo courtesy of the author.

Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.