“There is such a thing as magic, and the Beatles were magic.” ~ Paul McCartney
I remember February 9, 1964 like it was yesterday — the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show!
There, in my aunt’s living room, I tried to process the heart-swelling moment, the excitement, the energy, the burst-wide-open-never-be-the-same-again feeling. Just look at them! Those Edwardian suits, black pointy boots, cool haircuts! They were good looking, different, charming, revolutionary. I could barely breathe as Paul sang, “Close your eyes, and I’ll kiss you . . . ”
My uncle bought “Meet the Beatles” for me from a record store downtown. I plastered the walls of my bedroom with Beatles pics I had cut out from teen magazines. I collected Beatles bubble gum cards and read everything I could get my hands on about John, Paul, George and Ringo. I began writing faithfully to a new penpal who lived in Liverpool, dreaming of the day when I could set foot on British soil.
I still count my lucky stars that I was just the right age to experience the onset of Beatlemania. As I grew up, so did their music. None of us could have foreseen the lasting impact they’d ultimately have on music history, composition, production and pop culture. Half a century later, they’re still number one.
When I heard that Susanna Reich had published a new picture book biography about the dashing mop tops, I was all over it. In Fab Four Friends (Henry Holt, 2015), she focuses on the Beatles’ formative years as ordinary working class lads from Liverpool, spotlighting them as individuals with unique family histories, presenting them in the order they joined the group. Bonded by their love of rock ‘n roll with impassioned dreams of “becoming somebody,” they also forged a strong friendship that kept them together as they scrounged for work as the Quarrymen and gradually honed their craft by playing dingy bars in Hamburg. Back home in Liverpool, they whipped up a frenzy at the Cavern Club.
With Brian Epstein as their manager, George Martin as their record producer, Ringo Starr replacing Pete Best as drummer, and their first single “Love Me Do,” the Beatles were well on their way to conquering all of Britain, then the world, with their unique sound and charismatic stage presence.
Beautifully brought to life with Adam Gustavson’s evocative oil paintings, Fab Four Friends is as much an affectionate tribute to the bestselling band in history as it is a testament to hard work, fearless determination, friendship, and the power of music to transform lives. I’m so pleased Susanna is here today to tell us more about the magic that became the Beatles. 🙂
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🎵 CHATTING UP SUSANNA REICH 🎸
Like many of us, you became a Beatles fan after seeing them on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, and you consider their music to be “the defining sound track of my childhood.” What’s the wildest, funniest, or most unusual thing you did while in the throes of Beatlemania?
Well, I wasn’t a particularly wild child (at least not in 1964!). But I was very impressed by the screaming on the Ed Sullivan show. Is that what it meant to be a teenage girl? When A Hard Day’s Night opened later that year, I went to see it with a friend. As my mother drove us to the theater, I turned to my friend and said, “Shall we scream?” I think we agreed that we would, but I don’t remember if we did. The screaming hormones probably hadn’t kicked in yet.
Did you ever attend a Beatles concert? If so, what do you remember most about it?
I wish! I was too young to go on my own, and my parents wouldn’t dream of taking me. It was classical music 24/7 in our house.
Is Paul still your favorite Beatle? Did your feelings for them as individuals change as a result of working on this book? If so, how?
When I was a kid, Paul was my favorite because he was the cute one. In the course of writing the book I developed a particular fondness for George, the “quiet” Beatle. But the biggest surprise was realizing that instead of being a girl with a crush on four young men, I now feel quite motherly toward them. They were so young. It’s as if the Beatles became frozen in time while I grew up.
What’s your favorite Beatles song and why? Were there any particular song(s) that proved especially inspirational for this project?
Oh, I can’t choose a favorite. There are so many great ones! One of the pleasures of writing the book was developing a deeper appreciation for their songs by listening to the musicians who influenced them—Elvis, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Ray Charles, Buddy Holly, Bill Haley, the Everly Brothers, Carl Perkins. To better understand the historical context, I also listened to British performers like Lonnie Donegan, who inspired the skiffle craze that gave rise to John’s first group, the Quarrymen; Gerry & The Pacemakers, another of Brian Epstein’s Liverpool groups; and British music hall standards and pop hits of the pre-war era, which Paul’s father used to play. You can hear echoes of that style in songs like “Penny Lane” and “When I’m 64.”
While doing the research for this book, did you come across any interesting food-related stories about any of the lads?
Haha! You know I always pay attention to food. I think my favorite story is one that’s in the book. In 1960, before they went to Hamburg, the boys had few bookings and no money. They used to hang out at the Jacaranda coffee bar after rehearsal and debate whether they could afford to buy something to eat. Beatles biographer Bob Spitz quotes Allan Williams, the Jacaranda manager, as saying, “They’d go into a great big huddle…and decide if they could afford to have jam or whether it would be best to stick to toast and butter.” Jam cost an extra penny, so it was a big decision.
Also, I can’t resist mentioning that Liverpudlians are sometimes called “scousers.” The term comes from scouse, a meat and vegetable stew that’s been eaten by sailors throughout Northern Europe since at least the seventeenth century. As a port city, Liverpool has always been home to sailors, and scouse is still a popular dish there.
What criteria did you use to decide which facts to include from the massive amount of material available?
There were a few big challenges in writing a picture book about the Beatles. The story of the band, from the day John met Paul in 1957 to the band’s breakup in 1969-70, is long and complicated. There are four main characters, not to mention family members, friends and people in the music world. There’s so much research material that I could’ve spent years just reading.
Instead of telling the whole story of the band, I decided to focus on the early years; I wanted to show young readers how these boys became the Beatles. The four main characters were a given, and it wasn’t hard to pick out anecdotes and quotes that would reveal their personalities. I chose to introduce the boys one at a time, in the order they joined the band. I mention important family members, as well as Stuart Sutcliffe, Pete Best, Brian Epstein and George Martin, but without going into detail.
As far as dealing with the massive amount of research material, I relied on the most authoritative sources and did my best to stop reading once I got to 1964. Many people, at least in the U.S., think the Beatles story starts in 1964 with Ed Sullivan. I wanted to write about what happened before that.
Please share an interesting tidbit about each of the Beatles in their early days that the average person may not know.
John was crazy about Elvis. His Aunt Mimi said, “I never got a minute’s peace. It was Elvis Presley, Elvis Presley. In the end I said, ‘Elvis Presley’s all very well, John, but I don’t want him for breakfast, dinner, and tea.”
Paul’s real first name is James—Paul is his middle name. In the early 1950s, he was the only one of the boys whose family had a telephone. When he went to concerts during his teen years, he sometimes waited at the stage door for autographs.
George’s childhood home had no bathroom and no central heating. At bath time, his mother would take down the zinc tub that hung on the backyard wall and fill it with hot water from pots and kettles.
When Ringo was a child, his grandfather made him “a train with a real fire in the engine.” It was so big you could sit on it, and Ringo would charge other kids for a ride.
Besides their obvious love of music, what other factors do you think contributed to the strong bond they were able to forge, thus enabling them to become an extraordinarily successful band?
All four of them were talented, ambitious and ferociously hard-working. Their friendship was essential to their success, as was their shared sense of humor. Or should I say humour?
As the main songwriters, John and Paul forged a creative partnership from the beginning. Their talents were complimentary, and they pushed each other to develop songwriting skills and to break new artistic ground.
Your thoughts about Adam Gustavson’s illustrations?
I love Adam’s illustrations! They’re so beautiful and full of life, and the painterly details are extraordinary. Look at the subtle coloration on the tub in John’s mum’s bathroom, or the play of light and shadow on the sheets and blanket of George’s bed. The boys’ likenesses are superb, their body postures so expressive. I especially appreciate the attention Adam paid to historical details in clothing, hairstyles, furniture. And the musical instruments! Getting those right was really important, not only because we wanted to be accurate, but because Beatles fans are real gearheads.
Do you consider the Beatles to be the best rock ‘n roll band of all time? Why or why not?
Yes, of course! First of all because of the Lennon-McCartney songs. They wrote so many hits, and not just because they could turn out memorable tunes. The melodies, harmonies and chords are very sophisticated. You find that out right away if you try to play and sing them.
As a group, the Beatles were fearless. They weren’t afraid to let their work change and evolve over time. What they did with George Martin in the recording studio—just listen to Sgt. Pepper or the White Album. They were groundbreaking.
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FAB FOUR FRIENDS: The Boys Who Became the Beatles
written by Susanna Reich
illustrated by Adam Gustavson
published by Henry Holt BFYR, August 18, 2015
Picture Book Biography for ages 5+, 32 pp.
*Includes Author’s Note, Glossary, Quote Citations, Sources
** More interior spreads at the publisher’s webpage
Gustavson’s naturalistic oil illustrations capture individual band-members’ personalities and fans’ excitement, complementing the well-orchestrated text. – The Horn Book
[A] grand and archetypal tale . . . the closing cornucopia of Beatles books, audio, video, and websites will also help to fill in the blanks. First steps on the long and winding road. – Kirkus Reviews
Reich concentrates on the qualities that brought them together, focusing especially on their humor, their work ethic, and their consummate musicianship. Gustavson’s luminous oil paintings capture likenesses and personalities that are utterly recognizable, even when the bandmates are just little boys and teens. – Booklist
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🎶 FAB FOUR FRIENDS GIVEAWAY! 🎤
For a chance to win a brand new copy of FAB FOUR FRIENDS, please leave a comment at this post, telling us what your favorite Beatles song is — what do you think of whenever you hear it? Extra entries for blogging, tweeting, Facebooking, etc. (mention in your comment). Deadline: midnight (EDT) Wednesday, September 2, 2015. Giveaway open to U.S. residents only, please. Winner will be announced next Friday. Good Luck!
Did you miss any of the previous stops on the Fab Four Friends Blog Tour?
Monday, August 17 Booktalking – Nonfiction Monday
Tuesday, August 18 Shelf-Employed – review; plus, Susanna reveals her favorite Beatles song
Wednesday, August 19 UnleashingReaders.com – review, teacher tools, discussion questions & more
Thursday, August 20 Elizabeth Dulemba – Susanna & Adam interview each other
Friday, August 21 Maurice on Books – review
Tuesday, August 25 Kidsbiographer’s Blog – Susanna writes about choosing subjects for kid’s biographies
Wednesday, August 26 Gail Gauthier
Thursday, August 27 Tales from the Rushmore Kid
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THE POETRY FRIDAY ANTHOLOGY FOR CELEBRATIONS GIVEAWAY WINNER
We’ll get the books to you lickety split :).
Thanks to all who entered!
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Shall we call on the lads to play us out?
Here’s the earliest video recording of the Beatles at the Cavern (August 22, 1962). History in the making!
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The brilliant and beautiful Sylvia Vardell is hosting the Roundup at Poetry for Children. Take her a bowl of scouse, sing a Beatles tune and check out the full menu of poetic goodness being served up in the blogosphere this week.
*Interior spreads from Fab Four Friends posted by permission of the publisher, text copyright © 2015 Susanna Reich, illustrations © 2015 Adam Gustavson, published by Henry Holt BFYR. All rights reserved.
*Beatles photographs in this post not included in the book.
Copyright © 2015 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.