Chatting with Susanna Reich about Fab Four Friends: The Boys Who Became the Beatles (+ a giveaway!)

“There is such a thing as magic, and the Beatles were magic.” ~ Paul McCartney

All art ©2015 Adam Gustavson

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.

The early Beatles (with Pete Best and Stu Sutcliffe) at the Indra Club in Hamburg (1960).
Beatles play at the Cavern Club (1961).

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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photo by Laurel Golio


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.

Susanna at about the age she discovered the Beatles (1969).

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.

Young George tuning his guitar at home.

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.”

John dancing with his mum Julia.

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.

A bowl of scouse (click for recipe).

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.

George (14), John (16), and Paul (15) in 1957, just about the time they met.

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.

John Lennon’s pre-Beatles skiffle band (ca. 1957).

Please share an interesting tidbit about each of the Beatles in their early days that the average person may not know.

Fun question!

John with his mum Julia

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 Harrison

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.

Ringo (with Rory and the Hurricanes) and George (1961).

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.

John and Paul “bashing away” on their guitars at Paul’s house after school (click to enlarge).
John and Paul (1962)

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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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 – 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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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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poetryfriday180The 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.


49 thoughts on “Chatting with Susanna Reich about Fab Four Friends: The Boys Who Became the Beatles (+ a giveaway!)

  1. My favorite Beatles song is “I Saw Her Standing There.” As a kid growing up in the 90s, my sister and I had an old cassette tape of the Beatles. We’d play it and dance around the kitchen.


    1. Okay, you’re making me feel really old — but that’s okay because I’m still really glad the Beatles defined my teenage years. 🙂


  2. What a wonderful post! Thank you. I remember listing to Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields Forever as a kid and not understanding the lyrics but feeling the poignancy in the music.


    1. LOL. There are quite a few Beatles lyrics that nobody fully understands . . . as Paul said in an interview, “drugs.” 🙂


  3. OMG I love this post. I still have my original Meet the Beatles album — in MONO!!! Favorite song. ARGH. Who knows? I’m going with I Want to Hold Your Hand — just because it’s on that first album and I remember singing along to it. And, yes, I’m old enough to remember when those songs first came on the radio. I was, however, in elementary school. LOL


    1. Elementary school? Too young to swoon with the rest of us? I think I have my Meet the Beatles album in the basement somewhere — and it’s in mono.


  4. “Eleanor Rigby”–so poignant, a wonderful poem! And the music supports the lyrics beautifully. Thanks for this interview, off to add this to my wish list of picture books.


  5. I was in college (old!) & I heard someone laugh & say there was a new wonderful band called The Beatles, what a silly name, we thought. My young cousins had a terrible fight with parents in order to see them in concert. Luckily, they did get to go. My husband was a rock radio station manager, so I met Paul & Linda on one of their tours much later in the history. How wonderful to have this book, Jama & Susanna. My favorite song, “When I’m Sixty-Four”, it seemed like such a long time till then. . . Thanks for a “Fab” post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You met Paul and Linda??!!! *DIES*

      Thanks so much for sharing your memories! I’m glad your cousins got to see them perform — so jealous. I went to many other concerts, but the Beatles never performed in Hawaii.

      Love your song choice. The jaunty melody and playfulness are signature Paul. 🙂


  6. I’m sure you didn’t enjoy putting this post together at all, Jama. 😉 Very cool to learn more about the boys’ younger days– I especially enjoyed the fun facts about each. My favorite Beatles song has got to be “Michelle”. That’s the song I was named after, plus everyone I’ve ever loved in my life has sung it to me.


    1. Ah, Ma Belle! Tu es très jolie!

      How cool to be named after a song — even cooler to have it sung to you by people who love you. Sigh. You’re a lucky girl.

      And you’re right about this post. I had to have my arm twisted in all kinds of ways. 😀


  7. The Beatles was the first group I listened to as a kid, my first real introduction to popular music and records and such. Now my 17 year old nephew is obsessed with them. He even has Yellow Submarine sneaks.


  8. Oh my! Such a fabulous post and picture book about the Fab Four Friends. There are too many wonderful songs to choose from. I will choose “It’s a Hard Day’s Night”.
    ~Suzy Leopold


    1. Love your choice, Suzy. I remember going to the theatre at least 6 times to see the movie. And now I own the DVD. It never gets old. Paul’s grandfather! School girls on the train!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Love the photo, Beatle Mania Will Never End! And it’s so true. It surprises me how many kids still love the Beatles. My nephew will love this book and will enjoy sharing it with his kids. Sorry, can’t pick a favorite song, but requesting the book now!


    1. Beatles will forever reign supreme. Just goes to show — good music is good music, retaining its universal appeal through all time and trends.


  10. Fabulous book! One of many favorite songs – Hey, Jude! Whenever this song came over the radio, I had to sing along. No matter how I felt that day, this song cheered me up, which is what the song is all about, take a bad day and make it better.


    1. My mom liked that song too — and that’s saying something, since she wasn’t necessarily keen on the Beatles to begin with.


  11. I guess the song I most fondly remember is “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.” The white album came out in November of my second year of college (an all-girls school). One of my dorm-mates bought it immediately and played it non-stop for days. I remember we danced to that song with joyous abandon.


    1. Oh Diane, love imagining you dancing with joyous abandon! Were any tabletops or chandeliers involved in these sessions? 🙂


  12. Thanks for the terrific post and bringing me back to watching the Beetles on Ed Sullivan. I was a mere second grader, and didn’t realize how astounding they were until my older sister and her 6th grade pals were swooning in the car on Monday morning.


  13. What a FAB post! Love that art, and the great care evidently taken with this history-changing story.
    Fave song? Hmmm. I’ve gotta go with Kate, “Eleanor Rigby” I think. I guess I had just turned a year old when they hit the Ed Sullivan show.


    1. Another young whippersnapper in 1964. 🙂
      Susanna’s research was very thorough, and she’s crafted a wholly engaging account of their early days. You’ve made me want to listen to Eleanor Rigby again.


  14. It’s amazing to realize how young these guys were when they wrote their iconic songs. I loved the Sgt. Pepper album — the artwork too — and the nostalgic songs like Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane.


    1. Sgt. Pepper was groundbreaking in many ways — I especially like to listen to that album with headphones. “She’s Leaving Home” is a masterpiece :).

      Liked by 1 person

  15. Hi, Jama,
    What a fantastic “behind the scenes” glimpse at this new book. I grew up with the Beatles too and found all these nuggets really fascinating– and a slice of an era too. But where’s my scouse? I’ll have to cook some up now!
    Thanks for joining the Poetry Friday fray!


  16. This book is on my TBR (R=read and R=reviewed) pile. Maybe I’ll just link here! As usual, you’ve left no stone unturned AND included food!!


  17. Although I don’t remember seeing the actual broadcast, I’ve always loved The Beatles. Thanks for sharing this review and all the great photos. I’ll be ordering this for sure. Not sure I can pick a favorite song; I love them all!


  18. I saw the broadcast, saw the disapproval in my mother’s eyes, and was hooked! This looks like a wonderful book with lots of kid appeal. Maybe one of its reader will be part of the next great band craze. As everyone has said, picking just 1 Beatles fave is impossible, but I think I will say “The Long and Winding Road.” I remember having a pen pal (yes, snail mail) and writing to her about liking that song.


    1. That’s such a beautiful song! Nice to hear that you were hooked when you saw them on TV. This book is a great intro for young readers — could very well inspire an aspiring musician. 🙂


  19. I’m partial to the Beatles’ later songs, such as “Let it Be” and “The Long and Winding Road.”
    I’ve also realized from this post that the beef stew I usually make is, essentially, scouse!

    Liked by 1 person

  20. So excited to get the Poetry Anthology giveaway! I was on the road Friday so I didn’t get a chance to see this. So it was a surprise to find it in my mailbox today! Delighted to give it to my niece who is a Title 1 reading teacher in Glen Burnie, Maryland. She will love it. (Course I will read it, too)

    Love this book the boys who became the Beatles and your in depth reporting on it!


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