Author-Illustrator Interview: Carlyn Beccia on Who Put the B in Ballyhoo?

Carlyn Beccia is the author and illustrator of Who Put the B in the Ballyhoo? (Houghton Mifflin, 2007). She has also illustrated jackets for A Houdini and Nate Adventure by Tom Lalicki (FSG, 2006-2008) and Christopher Paul Curtis‘s latest book Elijah of Buxton (Scholastic, 2007). Note: Carlyn’s author-illustrator and book sites are exceptionally intriguing.

Carlyn attended the University of Massachusetts on a four-year art scholarship and graduated in 1995. She worked as a graphic designer for 10 years before returning to her first love–illustration. In 2005, Carlyn was the Grand Prize Portfolio Winner in the Society of Children’s Writers & Illustrators (SCBWI) portfolio exhibition. In 2006, she was awarded a certificate of Merit in The Society of Illustrators of Los Angeles, Illustration West 44 Annual and was also the Grand Prize Portfolio Winner in the New England, Society of Children’s Writers & Illustrators (New England SCBWI) portfolio exhibition.

Could you tell us about your path to publication? Any sprints or stumbles along the way?

My first book didn’t get picked up in the traditional way. I sent an 8.5 x 11 art sample illustrating different circus acts to my current editor. She suggested that it would make a great circus alphabet book and that she would like me to be the author as well as illustrator. I immediately panicked and explained that I was not a writer. My editor was persuasive and insisted that I try writing the book. The rest is history. I am forever grateful that she had faith in me. Now, I can’t imagine not writing.

Congratulations on your debut release, Who Put the B in Ballyhoo? (Houghton Mifflin, 2007)! Could you fill us in on the book?

Ballyhoo is an alphabet book illustrating the most famous circus stars throughout history. Each letter of the alphabet is showcased in a circus poster ranging from the beautiful, bearded lady Annie Jones of the 1800’s to present day hoaxes like “Lancelot the Last living Unicorn”.

What was your initial inspiration for creating this book?

My initial inspiration was all these wacky and wonderful performers, especially those showcased in the sideshows of the early circuses. For example, there was the petite, but fearless tiger trainer, Mabel Stark, who slept with her favorite tiger, Rajah. Then there were invented spectacles like P.T. Barnum‘s Feejee Mermaid–a fantastical combination of a monkey’s head and a fish’s tail made to look like a real mermaid.

Many books have the underlying message that it is cool to be unique, but in the days of the circus it really did pay to be different. The strangeness of each one of the performers didn’t make them handicapped, it made them true stars.

What was the timeline between spark and publication, and what were the major events along the way?

It took about a year to complete the book. During that time, I visited the American Dime Museum in Baltimore and spent most of the time researching circus legends. I also experimented with some different illustration techniques to capture an old and textured look that would mimic vintage circus posters.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?

The typography was a challenge because each circus poster has its own unique font and design elements that illustrate a different time period. I poured over thousands of newspaper clippings and vintage circus posters and used them as a reference to hand letter the type so that each page looks different. I think you would have to be a graphic designer to appreciate the differences, but it was important to me to be true to each time period.

What is it like to be a debut author-illustrator in 2007?

It is an exciting feeling to have your work published. However, publishing the book is just the beginning. I have been learning a lot about marketing and promoting books. I would have to say one of the most rewarding things I have experienced is going out and reading the book to kids and seeing their reaction to the various personalities in the book.

Could you describe your apprenticeship? How did you build your skills on each front?

I worked as a graphic designer for 10 years before breaking into children’s publishing. I did study art in school, but I consider myself self-taught. I paint in digital mixed media using Corel Painter. The program didn’t even exist when I was in school.

As far as writing, I think most authors are self-taught as well. I am working on my second book which has significantly more text than my first book. I feel this experience has enhanced my skills as a writer.

If you could go back and talk to yourself when you were a pre-published writer-illustrator, what advice would you offer?

I would sit myself down and tell myself not to read any book reviews!

Which picture books would you suggest for study and why?

I have so many favorite illustrators. I love the spontaneity and line work of Henry Cole‘s work. One of my favorite illustrators is Yuyi Morales (illustrator interview). Every single page she paints has this amazing emotional impact. She never gets lazy with her art. Any one of her books is a lesson on keeping the passion in every page.

One of my favorite writers is Kathleen Krull because her nonfiction picture books never lose sight of the person behind the story. My philosophy has always been that history is told by the people who changed it.

What do you do when you’re not writing or illustrating?

I used to Salsa dance and horseback ride but I can’t do either right now because I am seven months pregnant. Well….I can sort of still salsa dance but it is not pretty. The baby has his/her own salsa routine. In fact, I think he or she is doing it right now because my stomach is getting kicked from every side.

How do you balance your life as a writer with the responsibilities (speaking, promotion, etc.) of being an author?

I am learning that I can’t do every aspect of promotion so I try to focus on the ones that I love. I prefer to do library talks and school visits over book signings. I give live presentations to kids on digital painting. Kids are pretty fearless when it comes to painting on the computer and it is always fascinating to me how quickly they pick it up.

What can your fans look forward to next?

I am currently working on a tell-all book that uncovers the biggest rumors throughout European history, called The Raucous Royals, The True and Untrue Rumors of Kings and Queens, (Houghton Mifflin, 2008). I would describe it as “history lesson meets tabloid magazine.” I feel that kids today can be subjected to rumors at a very young age. This book pokes fun at all the ridiculous rumors that have survived throughout history. Was Napoleon really short? Was there a real Prince Dracula? Did Marie Antoinette really suggest that the poor eat cake?

I think it’s a subject that will appeal to both adults and kids because its basic message is: don’t believe everything you read..not even this book. Many adults will be surprised by the truth behind the rumors and it teaches kids to be their own history detectives!