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  Introducing... Andrea Beck

By Sharon Jennings
CANSCAIP News

You are four years old and you did a bad, bad thing. The details are murky but the outcome is clear: you are sent to your room.

Fortunately (for your parents aren't really awful), you have lots of books to keep you company. You spot one of your favourites, Elliot Gets Stuck, on the shelf, and you smile as you look at Elliot's goofy face. You flip through the pages and tell yourself the story. After all, at your age, you've "memberized" the words. You laugh out loud when you get to the pictures of Elliot's fanny hanging out of the mail slot. Is Socks hiding a smile? Or, wicked idea, is she covering her nose? Then you look around at all your toys and an idea creeps into your ever fertile brain. (Probably the reason why you are in disgrace in the first place.) You make up your own story: You place the teddies and the rabbits and the dolls just so and away you go. They all come to life and have an adventure, just like Elliot. You while away the banishment talking and laughing and prancing about and, down below, your poor parents wonder what on earth is going on. Don't you know you're being punished? Ahhh, but parents aren't part of Elliot's world. In that world, there aren't any grown-ups to thwart the natural order of things. Elliot is free to roam the big house, no questions asked, and you begin to think that life as a toy might be infinitely better than life as an incorrigible four year old.

So here's the question: do you grow up to be a writer / artist / maker of toys all rolled into one super package? Hopefully, yes. You'd be following in the footsteps of Elliot's creator, Andrea Beck.
Of course, I have no idea if Andrea was punished and banished as a child. (It's called poetic license.) But I do know that without a tot of other children around to play with, Andrea turned to her toys and made up stories about them. And I know that she has memories of herself at five, sewing something with great big stitches. She showed me the first toy she made, at ten, which is kept in a place of honour in a closed display cabinet - a smiley-faced doll with hunks of black yarn hair, striped overalls, and a foot that is oozing stuffing. Then Andrea told me that around the same age, her mother gathered up most of her toys and threw them out. It is a confusing memory, lacking in rationalization. I asked her if she had been sick, and suggested a similarity to The Velveteen Rabbit. Andrea shrugged, and then smiled. "I loved the Velveteen Rabbit! It was one of my favourite books." She understood what that little boy went through; she knew the importance of toys as friends.
Somewhere in this toy-themed childhood, Andrea began to draw, and after being inspired by a high school art teacher, Andrea enrolled at Dawson College in Montreal. During the two year program, she studied painting, drawing, sculpture, colour, history, and print making. Then, she moved to Toronto and studied design at The Ontario College of Art (and now, Design).

In one assignment, each student was asked to create a toy for a toy company. The winner would receive $200.00. This rang alarm bells for Andrea. "There is no question," she assures me, "I have a head for business." She knew something was fishy about the toy assignment. Students were being asked to submit their best work for someone else's profit. Andrea declined to submit the two toys she had designed and opened her own toy business instead. She referred to it as a "bootstrap" business, which puzzled me. "It means I worked out of my apartment on Wellesley and waitressed for a few months before my business was able to support me. I expanded it without having to go to the bank. I had one employee who sewed and I did the creating and the selling across Canada, before expanding to twelve employees in a toy studio." After five years (and two children) Andrea sold what had become a very successful small business.

Andrea spent a few years happily at home with her children (who, by the way, have elected to follow in their mother's footsteps. One is an aspiring actor/screenwriter/filmmaker, the other is studying to be a computer special effects designer. Andrea's husband, a non-artistic engineer, suffers silently and makes the best of it! And another by-the-way: it was Andrea who designed and built the Elliot look-alike pond in the backyard, not the engineer.) Back to Andrea, at home, reading to her boys; that's when she discovered the magic of picture books. She began painting again, and taught some children's art classes. Then she decided to head off to university and get a degree in psychology. At first she flirted with the idea of teaching in the public school system, but the dismal state of affairs depressed her. She was used to almost one on one contact with the kids in her art classes. She knew she could never tolerate the overloaded classrooms; she knew she couldn't cope with children in need not getting the time and attention they deserved. Was there another way to connect?

In the back of her mind, or somewhere in her artist's soul, the creative ooze began to stir and shift.

Andrea told me that her mother had found interesting ways to use the toys that Andrea had made for her business. "For example, a moose I created became a doorstop. I loved that moose. I was always thinking of things he'd like to do. I used to imagine that he would talk to all the other toys when I left the shop at night." Another moose began to come alive in Andrea's imagination, not the one sold in Canadiana shops across the country, but one that might appeal to a young child. And so, the first Elliot Moose story was written - but never published.

Andrea showed me the prototype she had sent out to publishers. It is a 6 by 6 inch black and white book. It has a very British feel to it, as Andrea admitted to being heavily influenced by British authors and illustrators. And it begins in a shiver-up-the-spine way:

Elliot Moose stood in his spot by the door. He had stood there for as long as he could remember. It was a good spot and he liked it.

But one day, Elliot sees a leaf fluttering in through the open door. It is such a beautiful sight. Elliot wishes he could touch it.

And to his surprise, he reached out a hand and did.

Okay, I thought to myself. 'The story's been written: now we're getting to the good stuff. I told Andrea that at one point all I knew about her was that she had marched into Valerie Hussey's office at Kids Can Press and deposited a fully hatched, illustrated book, with matching toys, on her desk. And Valerie jumped for joy.

I'm sorry to report that Andrea laughed hysterically. Another urban legend shot down. But, you know, what really happened is pretty good, too. Andrea sent out a multiple submission. She made that very clear on every package. But the last package to go out was the one to Kids Can. "That's because I had an eerie feeling that if anyone wanted Elliot, it would be Kids Can. I had a sense that I was about to jump off a cliff."

Andrea confesses that after she had written the story about Elliot, she knew she wasn't done with him. He was alive inside her and wanted out. He was compelling. He wanted more adventures, to keep going and discover so many things. She knew, in other words, that Elliot had to be a series. So she did a ton of research and read every series there was. And she realized that Franklin was probably very close to what she hoped for with Elliot. Franklin was "maturing". Maybe Kids Can was ripe for another animal series. And if so...well, Andrea knew that life would be crazy for the next little while. She was exhausted from working two jobs and finishing off her degree, and thus, the hesitation.

So on a Thursday afternoon, a day after the other submissions went out, Andrea sent a package by courier to Kids Can. Valerie phoned at 9:30 the next morning. (I feel I must give an of these details because most of us; waiting months to hear anything at all, won't believe a word I'm writing.) She asked Andrea to hold off for one week. "Don't sign anything!" she admonished.

But Stoddart was interested, too. (Whew! What a close call!) And although Andrea said she'd give anything to work with Kathryn Cole, Valerie made her an offer she couldn't refuse. In exactly one week, Valerie offered her a contract, accepted her as illustrator as well (that had never been a given), loved her Elliot design (Andrea had some of her nine characters already created and sewn) and made it clear that she wanted a series. With television rights. And merchandise.

At this point, Andrea admitted to "dumb luck and a bit of guilt. I know that others go years without anything being accepted, my sister included. And here I was, unpublished, being catapulted into the writing world." She then used the word "kismet" to describe all that has happened.

 

Andrea Beck

But, of course, life in publishing isn't without its ups and downs. The Elliot series was accepted, but not the story that Andrea had submitted. Kids Can wanted each story to stand alone, and the first book was about how Elliot came to life. Kids Can didn't want a consecutive storyline. Andrea hasn't given up on this original story, however. (You heard it here first: I suggested that perhaps it could be published as a special Elliot story one day, in a different format, after a few more books have been written. A sort of tenth anniversary, special edition thingy. Andrea, of course, agreed.)

So now the first book had to be written, and Andrea was introduced to the world of writing- by-committee. Everyone had an idea of what Elliot should be, and Andrea, who was new both to publishing and editing, went through a trial-by-fire period of growth. It took a while to learn to trust her own judgment and to do some hasty soul searching. And she couldn't have done it without the help of her editor, Debbie Rogosin. Here Andrea interjected some advice for new young authors. "Work hard to know and develop your own voice. Trust yourself. And read, read, read" As soon as Elliot's Emergency was in the can, Andrea had to come up with the next three stories. Then the merchandising headache began. So far, Elliot has games, puzzles, feltboards, nine plush toys, and... well, I lost track hereabouts. Andrea explained that during this period, she had to constantly stop what she was doing for emergency consultations. Sometimes she received two Fed Ex deliveries a day. Meanwhile, Nelvana was going ahead with one hundred and four (104!!) five minute Elliot videos, to be shown four at a time in a twenty minute program. The stories were written by a team over two months, and Andrea, relegated to 'creative consultant,' had only the briefest time to read them and pass along her comments. Andrea accepts that the television show is different from how she envisions Elliot, and has decided to concentrate on making sure the books are in her own voice.

Which brings her to an interesting quandary. If you read through the Elliot series, you will observe that the books have changed. Andrea noted that with each book, she became more certain of Elliot's world. But should she keep everything the same, or admit that she had grown and evolved as an artist? Andrea decided that children would forgive her for changing some colours, adding in more details, but that she would never forgive herself for staying stuck. Elliot's Noisy Night, the seventh book, is Andrea's favourite to date. She feels that the art is more layered, richer in texture, and therefore has a warm, cosy feel to it that is important for children.
Elliot Moose was worried. Last night, he'd heard noises in bed. As he hurried to the kitchen for a bedtime snack) Elliot imagined scary things.
The illustration for this spread is a delight. Elliot hurries down the long hallway and glances worriedly to his right - to the dark side of the room. A long, dark shadow - his own-trails behind him, But his good friend Socks (who, in Elliot's Bath, went from white to purple - better television graphics!) is up ahead, bathed in light. (And you thought picture books were easy!) As you continue through the book, you feel as if you could reach out and touch the animals: their fur or fluff or fuzzies seem that life-like. And if you are four, afraid of the dark and eerie noises, how could you not find comfort as you study Elliot and Socks, hobnobbing together under the covers? Adults will laugh at this picture: children will nod knowingly.

So much for the charming / cuddle-up stuff. As Monty Python says: And now for something completely different. When Kids Can sent me a hot-off-the-press copy of Andrea's newest book, The Waiting Dog, I could hardly believe the art was done by Elliot's creator. Wait 'tit you see it! It even comes with a warning sticker on the cover: WARNING! DO YOU HAVE THE GUTS TO READ THIS BOOK?

The story was written by Carolyn Beck, Andrea's big sister. (Hmmm. After reading about Jane Drake and Ann Love, I sense a whole sister thing emerging in our community.) She wrote The Waiting Dog many years ago, and whenever she read it aloud, like at family birthday parties, it always produced gales of laughter. It is about a dog that waits by the mail slot every day for the letter carrier and dreams of pulling him in and gobbling him up.

Here goes, and beware:

Then your oesophagus! / Down I'd plunge /  Past heart and lungs  and diaphragm / I'm an alimentary beast, / I AM! ! / To your lovely liver and succulent spleen /  and your scrumptious stomach / bulging between.
Pusses and sores, / crusted or plain, 1 gushes and gores / and the lobes of your brain.

Andrea used dark acrylics, lots of purples and earth tones, and bones and guts and blood are spread liberally all around. In fact, she said the art was so dark that she preferred to work outside in natural light. She laughed when she told me about Carolyn's reaction to the art: she left the room. "I didn't think it would look like this!" she wailed. "But these are your words," Andrea replied. ''Suck an eyeball.' What did you think the art would look like?!" Andrea approached the project in her usual business-like manner. She did a mock up and sent it out. They got back fantastic, glowing, rejection letters. Everyone loved it; nobody would go near it with a ten-foot pole. And then, miracle of miracles, acceptance from Kids Can.

Andrea told a funny story here. Because she had signed a morality clause, in which she agreed not to sully Elliot's name with her own bad behaviour (?!), Andrea had originally planned on using a pseudonym for The Waiting Dog - Ada Mahon (get it?). And she and her sister, while drinking copious amounts of wine, planned out a complete promotion package. They would go on David Letterman, with paper bags over their heads (the last to protect Elliot). Carolyn came up with several titles for the story: The Postman Will Never Ring Twice; Postage Chew; Going Postal; Mutt- ered Mail. But Valerie, sensing an opportunity to promote Andrea's versatility, wanted Andrea to use her own name. (However, the alert among you will note that one envelope pushed through the mail slot is addressed to Ada Mahon.)

The book is, I suggest, the anti-Elliot, and indeed, Andrea is expecting some outrage. But hopefully, the book will reach that hard-to-please market - the reluctant male reader. (Perhaps Hannibal Lectors-in-waiting?) And I must say, I am eagerly awaiting reactions and reviews!

Where does Andrea go from here? Well, Elliot's Christmas will be out later this year, and, in the meantime, she teaches art classes to twelve women, two nights a week, in her home - she actually has a room set up for just this purpose and is preparing for an August exhibit at the McKay Art Gallery in Unionville. It will feature lots of Elliot paintings, plus whimsical sculptures - like the almost life-size cow that hangs overhead in her front hallway. In November, she will be on her first tour for Book Week, heading back to her roots in Montreal. She has contacted her primary school, and asked if she might be able to swing a visit. She has never forgotten one of her early teachers, and would dearly love to pay him homage.

Andrea told me that she is working on three other stories, only one of which is about toys. "I have finally worked toys out of my system," she stated. But, of course, she hopes there will be more Elliot stories.

A good thing, I think. For as long as Elliot is free to move about the big house, solving problems with a clothesline and seeking adventures with a wooden spoon, his loyal fans are encouraged to imagine likewise.

 

***

 

SHARON JENNINGS is the author of several picture books, including The Bye-Bye Pie, winner of the children ~ choice Blue Spruce Award. One of her favourite characters is Priscilla, of Priscilla's Paw de Deux, who is as brash and cheeky as Sharon wishes she could be. Bats in the Garbage, the third chapter book in the Bats series, was published this April.

Extracted from CANSCAIP News, Volume 25, Number 2, Summer 2003. Reproduced by permission.

 
 
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