YA Book Review: The Origins of the Beatles
By Cyrisse Jaffee
A new YA book about John Lennon and Paul McCartney will help fans know more about the friendship that changed pop culture.
This Boy: The Early Lives of John Lennon & Paul McCartney by Ilene Cooper. Viking, 102 pages.
For those tweens and teens who can’t get enough of the Beatles lore, This Boy does a reasonably good job of exploring the early lives of John and Paul, whose friendship and talents formed the core of the Beatles. Since so much has already been written about them, there’s not a lot new here, especially since much of Cooper’s material is taken from well-known, existing sources, such as Hunter Davies’s The Beatles and Mark Lewisohn’s The Complete Beatles Chronicles and Tune In. And one heartily wishes that not only were some of the photographs in color, but that black-and-white photographs didn’t bleed into the page, losing whatever sharpness and definition they might have had. This design choice gives an even more dreary and dowdy look to life in Britain during the 1940s and 1950s.
Yet Cooper manages to pack a lot of information (perhaps a bit too much) into this YA version. She keeps to a well-known narrative: John was clever, creative, and rebellious. His early traumas and loss (his stepfather’s sudden death when John was 15, his mother’s fatal accident two years later), not to mention poor eyesight, led to his disaffection with school, rules, and authority. Paul was musically gifted, more polite, and from a more stable home life. But he, too, suffered the loss of his mother at an early age (he was 14). John and Paul bonded over their shared grief, and, despite their superficial differences, they formed a tight and well-matched friendship that resulted in not only musical genius, but more success than either of them ever dreamed of.
One could quibble here and there with some of the details. The heart-wrenching scene where five-year-old John is asked to choose whether he wants to live with his mother (Julia) or father (Alf) — now separated — is told mainly from Alf’s point of view; Julia gets short shrift. (In an earlier section, the text tries to be objective, but also says bluntly, “Men liked Julia Lennon, and she liked men.”) The author’s notes show that her source is Alf’s autobiography, which was also the common source for many early Beatle biographers; it’s since been disputed.
There are also some little gems: 10-year-old Paul’s prizewinning essay about Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, which shows off his neat handwriting with fanciful curlicues; his aunt Mimi’s defense of John at school despite her own disapproval of his poor performance; Paul’s early cultural forays into theater and literature; and John’s love poems in art school for a girl named Barbara.
George is mentioned a little bit, and Ringo even less. The book ends hurriedly, with only a page or two devoted to the Beatles meeting Brian Epstein and then getting a record deal. An Afterword offers a brief summary of each of the Beatles’ lives (as well as those of Aunt Mimi, Paul’s father and brother, and John’s father) up to the present. Notes and a brief bibliography follow.
For those young people who already like the Beatles and want to know more, this will be a nice addition. Those who want just an introduction, or a more detailed look at the Fab Four, or a deeper analysis of their music, will have to look elsewhere.
Cyrisse Jaffee is a former children’s and YA librarian, a children’s book editor and book reviewer, and a creator of educational materials for WGBH. She holds a master’s degree in Library Science from Simmons College and lives in Newton, MA.