Young readers, parents, and librarians are used to seeing picture book biographies of real-life people like, say, George Washington and Thomas Edison. Or Babe Ruth and Martin Luther King, Jr. But as the inevitable march of time moves forward, more contemporary subjects will grace the shelves of elementary and junior high schools. So add to the Babe and MLK the names of John, Paul, George and Ringo.
Written by Susanna Reich and illustrated by Adam Gustavson, Fab Four Friends tells the story of the Beatles aimed at children from ages 6 to 10. The book follows the individual Beatles from their births up until the initial rush of Beatlemania in England at the end of 1963. Reich — who has penned previous real-people children’s bios on chef Julia Child, pianist Clara Schumann, and dancer Jose Limon — says that sticking to the limited timeline was no accident. And it allowed her to pen a narrative closer to her intended audience’s heart.
“Doing a picture book about the whole story of the band would be too big,” she offers. “I saw it focusing on their childhood, something that kids would relate to. And I didn’t want to get into the drug era, so this neatly sidesteps it.”
Fab Four Friends is not the first children's book about the group - that would be Who Were the Beatles? part of a larger series of biographies on historical figures. But it is the only one that centers on their early days.
For research, Reich read scores of books on the group ranging from Hunter Davies’ 1968 authorized biography The Beatles to last year’s Tune In, Mark Lewisohn’s exhaustive first of a planned three-volume series on the band’s history. Fortunately, she only had to absorb the parts up to the end of 1963.
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“If I had to read them all, then it would have been a ten-year project!” she laughs.
And indeed, hardcore Beatles fans will notice some familiar quotes in Reich’s story. There's the admonition from John Lennon’s Aunt Mimi that “the guitar’s all right for a hobby, John, but you’ll never make a living at it.” Or Lennon’s exhortation that the band would reach “the toppermost of the poppermost” in terms of success, and one record-company executive’s observation that “guitar groups are on their way out.”
That last one must have hurt later.
And yes, Pete Best and Stu Sutcliffe get mentions. The Beatles’ parents are here as Reich retells the members' childhoods and upbringings, as are earlier rock legends they tried to emulate like Fats Domino, Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley.
There is also a glossary explaining some of the more decidedly English terms that might go over the heads of American children like “bloke,” “scouser,” and “Teddy Boy.” And what the hell are “winklepicker shoes?” “That stuff was fun!” Reich says. “The language was fun.”
Reich adds that it is normal practice for children’s-book authors to have no say, direction, or even see the illustrations that will accompany their books after the text is turned in and then assigned to an artist. But because this was a nonfiction work, she was allowed to give feedback and see her literary partner’s work all the way through the process.
It helped that Gustavson — who also worked on Rock and Roll Highway: The Robbie Robertson Story about the erstwhile leader of The Band — is also a guitarist himself.
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“He knows about every little detail on a guitar from the head stock and the color of the wood and how many knobs each guitar has. And I really wanted to get that right, because Beatles fans can be particular about that!” Reich laughs. “And I think he also did a wonderful job capturing the Beatles’ likeness and other aspects of the era.”
As for what Reich hopes that her young readers take away from the book, it’s simple. Though it will lead them to a music store (or at least the iTunes site) and not the bookshelves.
“I hope that the first thing a kid who become curious does is look up their music,” she says. “And from a larger perspective, it’s a story that’s inspiring to kids in that it tells them something about how hard you have to work to achieve your dreams. That this group of people collaborated with an enthusiastic spirit and love of what they were doing. And that’s part of what enable them to achieve their success.”
The Houston Symphony performs the music of the Beatles this weekend, at 8 p.m. Friday; 8 p.m. Saturday; and 7:30 p.m. Sunday at Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana. See houstonsymphony.org for more information.