Carlyn Beccia - bringing history to young audiences via digital art

November 9, 2010

Carlyn's medieval influences shine through in the patterning and flowers in this painting for her new book

3PP is delighted to welcome Carlyn Beccia, author and illustrator of the new book for younger audiences I Feel Better with a Frog in My Throat - History's Strangest Cures published by Houghton Mifflin.

I discovered Carlyn's wonderful blog, The Raucous Royals when researching an earlier article at 3PP about a Medici wedding. I was delighted to find that Carlyn also posted frequently on history and its representation in art. She does this in such a fun and visually rich manner that visiting her site is a feast of information and images, with some humour and scandal thrown in. I soon discovered that Carlyn was also passionate about use of digital techniques to illustrate her books, so invited her to 3PP to talk about all these wonderful things!

Another interesting element of this particular book is its depiction of the history of medicine. As a health professional myself, what became intriguing was how Carlyn would employ her talent with words and images to make this relevant and interesting to younger readers.

Carlyn's book is spectacularly fun, and beautiful to behold. It was great to hear, though not altogether surprising that I Feel Better with a Frog in My Throat won an Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Platinum Best Book Award for Early Readers. Well done Carlyn!

3PP: How did you decide on the theme for your new book?

CB: A lot of the themes for my books evolve out of previous books. This book’s theme evolved out of The Raucous Royals(2008). I was fascinated by the way George III’s doctors tortured him in the name of medicine.

Great Fun! Carlyn's Raucous Royals encourages young readers to "Test your Royal Wits: Crack Codes, Solve Mysteries, and Deduce Which Royal Rumors are True!"

3PP: What inspires you to write for younger audiences? What are the challenges?

CB: My biggest inspiration is the fact that I hated history as a child. I missed out on so many great stories because no one really ever put any non-fiction history picture books in front of me and I certainly was not going to seek them out.

Writing non-fiction for kids is challenging for the above reason. Non-fiction still is the ugly stepsister to fiction and many classrooms still don’t value it as a teaching tool. No one should ever expect to get rich writing non-fiction, but it is a lot of fun.

3PP: Your book is full of weird and wacky cures used throughout history. Will you admit to having tried any of these yourself?!

CB: I have dislocated my shoulder 9 times.[HN- Ouch!!] Well, during my research for I Feel Better with a Frog in my Throat, I had to endure the medieval method for getting my shoulder back into the socket. Medieval doctors would basically pull a sheet between two people to jimmy the shoulder back into place. During one painful dislocation, I saw my emergency doctor grab a sheet and explained to him that someone should really come up with something better since the technique basically had not changed since medieval medicine. Every generation thinks their medical techniques have evolved, but readers might be surprised to see just how much of our modern medicine has not changed.

3PP: What was the toughest lesson learnt during your career as a writer/illustrator?

CB: That it’s not enough to write a book and put it out there. You have to work your butt off to promote it. That part of the business is very hard for someone like me who is naturally shy.

3PP: How did you become interested in using digital media for your artwork? Did you do any formal training?

CB: My background is in oil painting and I paint digitally very similar to how I painted traditionally. Most people can’t tell the difference between the two.

Carlyn's use of painting programs such as Corel Painter allow her to emulate brushstrokes realistically. Watch this great video for a demonstration of digital painting tools

3PP: How long does it take to complete a digital painting such as those used in your new book?

CB: If it goes well….about a week. If it doesn’t, closer to two weeks.

The patterning on the walls in this digital painting inspired the colour scheme for the numerals I designed for Carlyn's interview.

3PP: The symbols and text around some of your pages are very intriguing - where is that from and what is its meaning?

CB: I like to put hidden messages in my books. I don’t want to give too many of them away but on one page I wrote in hieroglyphics – “I love Charlotte” (my daughter)

3PP: Your blog, The Raucous Royals is an unique mixture of history and its depiction in art. Do you consider yourself an art history blogger?

CB: I occasionally write about history and art on my blog so I guess that makes me an “art history blogger” but I would never consider myself an expert on the subject. I do try to tell the story behind famous paintings and what the artist might have been thinking, but I think art history is one of those funny subjects where everyone should be able to learn by exploring their interests and feelings, expert on not.

3PP: What do you think about the increasing presence of blogs showcasing the humanities?

CB: I think it is wonderful. It does something that books cannot – have a dialogue about history.

3PP: Has the web created new opportunities and connections for you as a writer and illustrator?

CB: The main reason why I blog is to meet other people who love history as much as I do. Most of my friends and family would roll their eyes if they knew I blogged about history.

3PP: Which artists have inspired you in your work?

CB: My all time love is Michelangelo, but lately I am most inspired by artists who have very painterly brush strokes probably because I am trying to evolve my art in that direction. Currently, I have on my desk books on J.C. Leyendecker, Giovanni Boldini and John Singer Sargent. As a storyteller, Norman Rockwell will always be my idol.

Left: Boldini's famous portrait of opera singer Lina CavalieriRight: A Leyendecker New Year's Baby poster for The Saturday Evening Post.

3PP: Your blog content often seems to hover around late Medieval, early Renaissance - do these periods fascinate you the most?

CB: Yes, I do a lot of hovering, but never quite seem to land in one place. I break the cardinal law that I recommend to anyone trying to get a following on his or her blog – focus on one time period. The blogs that become the most popular have a niche audience. It has made it hard to keep readers coming back, but I have such varied interests that I can’t stay in one time period. I do love the early Renaissance, but I have just as many posts on the 18th century and lately I have been researching more and more American history. The picture book I am working on now is on a famous American so you will probably see some more American history posts in the future. Researching just one person is taking an amazing amount of restraint!

Thank You for your precious time Carlyn!

3PP would like to thank Carlyn Beccia and Houghton Mifflin for the review copy of the book.


Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

I love Carlyn's blog and her work. I think we share the same approach to getting kid's excited about history--finding the humor and the strange! Great interview. Also, I am continually amazed at your ability to capture the artistic essence of your interviewees with your layouts and numbers.

Elizabeth said...

Thanks for hosting Carolyn Beccia and I'm so glad I've found your blog as well. Look forward to many great reading experiences!

Unknown said...

Cheers for the wonderful feedback Vicky - and welcome to 3PP Elizabeth!!

I really enjoyed doing this interview - It's not everyday I encounter another digital artist with an interest in art + history!! :)


Anonymous said...

Great interview tpp :)

Alberti's Window said...

What a fun review! I'm glad to know about Carolyn's blog and work. I know her books are written for younger audiences, but I'm sure that I would enjoy them myself!

Marsia Sfakianou Bealby said...

Hello. Beautiful blog. Keep up the good work! :)

Unknown said...

Cheers M and anonymous!

Hello Marsia - how wonderful to see you here!!

For those who don't know, Marsia's link above leads to the wonderful 'Challenging the Past' Archaeology blog - which provided the inspiration for my recent post about Life casting in ancient sculpture


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