Audrey Hepburn, Roberto Clemente, Albert Einstein—kids know the names, but do they know what some of history’s most famous figures were like at the age of ten? In 10 at 10: The Surprising Childhoods of Ten Remarkable People Carlyn Beccia presents ten brief and beautifully illustrated biographies to give young readers a fresh look at the lives of people they may only know through history books.
Today Carlyn Beccia joins us to discuss her creative process, her favorite subjects, and her best memories from when she was ten! Read on to find out more.
What inspired you to write this book?
I was the kid who was the late bloomer. Art was always part of my DNA, but I didn’t discover my passion for writing until after college. I wrote this book for all the late bloomers.
None of the famous people in this book were all that special at ten. And many of them were headed on the wrong path. In many ways, their hero stories are anti-hero stories at the age of ten.
How did you choose the ten famous figures featured here?
It was hard to choose because I wanted biographies that told different stories of overcoming adversities.
For example, Bruce Lee had to learn to control his anger. Frida Kahlo faced bullying from other children after contracting polio as a young girl and at the age of eighteen, she turned to art to express herself while recovering from severe injuries caused by a bus accident. Raven Wilkinson found ways to perform onstage despite the racism blatantly thrown in her face. Louis Armstrong dealt with racism as well as extreme poverty as a child.
We read biographies because we see ourselves in the person or aspire to be like them. But while one child might relate to Audrey Hepburn’s story, another child won’t relate to her struggles. So I tried to choose people who had very different stories.
Who was your favorite subject to write about and why?
That’s like choosing between children, so I will have to pick two.
Because I dance ballet, I was drawn to Raven Wilkinson’s story. Ballet is a dance that requires superhuman mental and physical discipline. I can’t even imagine working that hard and then facing the hatred and ignorance that she encountered.
I also have a big old history crush on Bruce Lee. Bruce Lee was a deeply flawed man who learned how to control those flaws. Today we hear terms like toxic masculinity, but not as much about the men who turned their lives around. Lee was the boy headed on a destructive path and learned to control his anger. I see that aspect of his life as an important lesson for young boys.
Can you describe your research process?
I always start with secondary sources and then drill down into primary sources. Especially with well-known people, I will watch documentaries before I even begin reading biographies. I always end with as many letters as I can find. It’s in letters that someone’s character comes out. Letters are tiny confessionals.
Where would you tell young readers to start looking if they wanted to learn more about these fascinating individuals?
Well, of course, their library is a good place to start. But some kids learn from other senses — video and audiobooks are a better option for the child who struggles with reading. YouTube has so many fascinating documentaries. Learning doesn’t always have to be reading. And often, other media can entice a child into picking up a book.
What was the most surprising or exciting part about writing this book?
I was surprised by how many of these people went through a formative event between the ages of 9 and 12. It reminded me of the responsibility that teachers have in forming young minds.
You both write and illustrate 10 at 10. Do you find one part of the process more difficult than the other?
The most challenging part is blending the two. Often an illustration can communicate an idea better than the text, and sometimes text is a better vehicle than the illustration. It’s difficult to kill those darlings because it’s not that they are not working. It’s that they are working too hard together.
What was the creative process behind the book’s format?
I combined traditional storytelling with timelines that wrap about the border to give readers a birds-eye view into their lives. I love infographics, so I use them in most of my books.
Overall, I felt that you could see the rise and fall of an entire life in one visual. We tend to think of timelines as boring and factual, but when you use illustration to take snapshots of moments, the reader gets the breadth and depth of a person in one digestible visual.
Why do you think it’s important for young readers to see what these famous figures were doing at the age of 10?
I feel the influencer culture has placed tremendous pressure on kids to become famous at a young age. Consequently, kids today want to be known by the world before they even know themselves.
I was saddened by a recent research study that I read. When middle graders were asked what the number one career they aspired to, their answer was social media influencer. Think about that. We live in a world where every ten-year-old has the power to become a child star. And become a star for something inane like cutting pizza, a silly dance, or wearing the latest fashion.
Now, this sort of fame doesn’t come through hard work. It comes from popularity and status. And I think that is a horrible message for kids, mainly because when we have a society focused on status, envy is inevitable. Envy is not an emotion that ever breeds contentment.
And to be clear, it’s not the fault of kids. They are learning from us. We are no longer focused on how we can change the world for the better. We are focused on how to better ourselves by making the world watch us. Psychologists call it spectatoring, and it is messing kids up.
Biographies do the opposite of spectatoring. They force us to examine the lives of others to learn and become inspired by them.
What is your best memory from when you were 10 years old?
My parents have this picture of me in a long nightgown with a Holly Hobbie suitcase tramping through the snow. It was one of my many runaway pictures. I was an extremely emotional kid, and I didn’t have the tools to process those emotions. Passion is always a double-edged sword. It can slice through the world but can also cut the person wielding it. I had to learn to control my passions.
What are you working on now?
I am working on a sequel for Monstrous, and I can’t stop researching the history of witches. As a feminist, I want young girls to understand the trajectory of women’s rights from the standpoint of fear. Humans do horrible things when they act out of fear — it’s a subject that I explored in Monstrous, and I hope to continue that conversation.
Connect with Carlyn
Carlyn Beccia (pronounced Betcha) is an author, illustrator and graphic designer. Beccia’s children’s books, including Monstrous, The Raucous Royals, I Feel Better with a Frog in My Throat, and They Lost Their Heads, have won numerous awards including the Golden Kite Honor, the International Reading Association’s Children’s and Young Adult Book Award, and the Cybils Award.
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