Stacy Innerst’s illustrations have appeared in major newspapers and magazines as well as children’s books about Levi Strauss and Abraham Lincoln. Most recently, he illustrated The Beatles Were Funny (And They Were Fab), a picture-book biography of the British band. This week, he chatted with Kidsbiographer about his own love for the Beatles and children’s natural affinity for the surreal.
Kidsbiographer: What sort of research did you do to illustrate The Beatles Were Funny?
Stacy Innerst: Well, I listened to a lot of their music for inspiration, but I would have been doing that anyway! I have a friend who is a Beatles maniac, so I had many conversations with him and borrowed books from his extensive Beatles library. I watched hours of videos online, and, of course, tapped into my own memories and love of their music. It was really the most fun I’ve had researching anything.
Kidsbiographer: One of my favorite illustrations in The Beatles Were Funny appears on the first page – your city-dreamscape of Liverpool. This painting contains some signposts of Englishness – the double-decker bus, the red telephone booth – while the cranes and smokestacks in the back suggest the city’s grittiness. A yellow blimp – or maybe a submarine – hovers above the buildings and a sign reads “Strawberry Fields,” hinting at the Fab Four’s later career. Can you describe how you composed this extraordinary picture?
Stacy Innerst: Thank you. I’m fond of that painting, too. First, I found photos of the roundabout at Penny Lane and the childhood homes of each of the Beatles. They included all kinds of autobiographical touchstones in their song, so I picked a few, such as Penny Lane and Strawberry Field, to give a sense of the nostalgia that they had for their childhood. I included the barber shop (Tony’s) that they mention in the song “Penny Lane” and the Cavern Club where they played their first shows in Liverpool. I really wanted to capture the musical energy of the place and their humble beginnings in an industrial port city. The yellow submarine was added to give a clue of what was to come later in their lives. I’ve never been to Liverpool, but I lived in the UK port city of Aberdeen, Scotland years ago, so I used some of those memories in rendering the scene. The double decker bus, the phone booth, the rows of shops and houses were all things I’d seen every day while living in Aberdeen. I painted musical notes floating throughout the industrial skyline to give a sense of the inspiration that they found in their city.
Kidsbiographer: The book’s second-to-last spread shows the four musicians, in the latter half of the band’s career, walking in a line. It’s impossible to look at this illustration and not think of the Abbey Road album cover. How did other iconic Beatles’ photos and cover art influence your work on this picture-book biography?
Stacy Innerst: Abbey Road was one of the first records I ever bought for myself, and I played it until it was ragged. And I spent many, many hours studying the photograph on the cover while it was spinning. That image was so burned into my psyche that I couldn’t possibly conceive of a better way to tell the story of the Beatles retreat to record their last album at Abbey Road studios. I did change the composition a bit so it would be suitable for a picture book – no cigarette in Paul’s hand, for instance. So much of their musical lives were documented in photographs that it was hard to illustrate the book without touching on some iconic photos.
Kidsbiographer: In a gentle, age-appropriate way, some of your work in The Beatles Were Funny suggests the band’s later, psychedelic phase. I’m especially fond of the spread in which disembodied mouths scream after the band, who retreat in a car. The jellybeans fans pelted at the band surround the mouths and strike the vehicle. What was the most challenging aspect of employing such surreal imagery in a book for young children?
Stacy Innerst: I tend to employ surrealism in many of my picture books, but this one particularly cried out for some reality-bending. The book really focused on the earlier, funny Beatles – screaming girls, jellybeans, mop-tops. I always came back to the whole story of the Beatles when I was composing the illustrations, but you can’t really get into LSD and the Maharishi in a children’s picture book. I think their experience of being that popular and that young must have been very surreal, even without the influence of psychedelic drugs. In that spread, I was really trying to convey the sound of lots of screaming fans without making the people who were doing the screaming too specific. It’s kind of interesting, though, because when kids see surreal images they tend to laugh at the silliness while many adults focus on the weirdness. It’s just a theory, but I think children are more used to seeing things in surreal or imaginative ways in their day to day lives. I have childhood memories of things and events that, in retrospect, were very mundane, but they were simply awe-inspiring when I was 4 or 5.
Kidsbiographer: What do you hope children will take away from The Beatles Were Funny?
Stacy Innerst: The fact that they came from ordinary beginnings and became extraordinary not just because of their musical gifts, but also because they kept their sense of humor and remained who they were. I also hope that they will be exposed to some really good music as a result of being introduced to the Beatles. When I first started the project, I wondered whether young kids would even know who the Beatles were. I painted some of the pictures for the book while I was doing a residency at the Children’s Museum in Pittsburgh, so I had a chance to talk to scores of kids and get their feedback. Most had heard of the Beatles because of their parents or grandparents, so my fear that it would be over their heads was calmed. They really got it.
Kidsbiographer: Would you like to discuss any current or upcoming projects?
Stacy Innerst: My editor at Harcourt and my agent at Writers House are both adamant that I write and illustrate a book, so that’s my current fixation. I have a few stories in various stages of completion. One is about my personal experience growing up as a twin, and there is a LOT of material there, believe me. The other involves a malodorous main character and its desire to be loved – not so much from personal experience, I hope.