I can’t imagine the challenge of writing a picture book biography about someone who is both so well loved and still living, but that’s exactly what today’s author did!
Julie Hedlund has visited my blog before. She is an award-winning children’s book author, but also the founder of the 12 x 12 Picture Book Writing Challenge, which boasts more than 1,700 members. She is a co-founder of Picture Book Summit, an annual online conference, and the co-creator (with Emma Walton Hamilton) of The Complete Picture Book Submissions System. You can learn more about Julie at her website or follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
SONG AFTER SONG: THE MUSICAL LIFE OF JULIE ANDREWS is a nonfiction picture book biography about THE singer and actress that many of us know and love. It takes a cradle to grave approach, but does it with such graceful musical metaphors that it feels like fate brought this book to be. The illustrations also have delightful touches (like the cover which showcases some of Julie Andrews’ most beloved characters hidden in the curtains) that readers will want to pour over the book to catch all the nuances. This is a beautiful tribute to the life of a beloved singer and actress that you won’t want to miss.
Welcome back Julie!
Me: Every picture book you’ve published has almost been a new format: educational, a loving rhymer, funny word play, and now biography. What made you want to dive into this new format and tell this story?
Julie: Ha! Thank you for noticing. It’s true that I seem to resist having any kind of author “brand” in that I write what I love, regardless of format.
As for this book, the desire to write it came from a dual love of the picture book biography as a format and, of course, my love of Julie Andrews as a performer. I honestly couldn’t believe nobody had written one about her yet. Given that I do have a personal connection, it seemed a bit like fate.
Me: Writing a biography for someone who is still living can be incredibly difficult, especially with choosing what parts of their life to focus on. However, you have a personal connection to Julie Andrews. Did that make it even more of a challenge to write this manuscript? How did you choose what parts of her life to focus on?
Julie: Oh my goodness, yes! The personal connection made it SO much harder, at least for me. Emma Walton Hamilton (Julie’s daughter) is one of my closest friends, so it was important to me to do justice to her mother’s legacy. I also felt a grave responsibility to write a book worthy of Julie’s achievements – one that would both please her existing fans and create new ones among child readers. The imposter syndrome ran high with this one!
As for what parts of her life to focus on, I always knew I wanted to write primarily about her youth – before she knew was going to be “the” Julie Andrews. How did she go from being a child growing up in war-torn England to one of the most beloved performers of all time? I felt that story would appeal to young readers more than focusing on her iconic performances and career.
Me: Even though you may know Julie and her daughter Emma, did you still have to do research to write this book? Can you tell us a bit about your research process? How long did it take you to research all the different facts and tidbits that went into this story?
Julie: I did tons of research! I read Julie’s memoirs multiple times. I watched and listened to hours of recorded interviews. I went to England for on-the-ground research in her home village as well as places she lived and performed in London. I did research on the history of vaudeville in England and what life was like in London during the Blitz. The bulk of the research took about one year, but I continued doing research as the manuscript evolved. Emma and Julie commented on various versions of the manuscript for purposes of accuracy – especially emotional accuracy. But the structure, style, and voice of the story were always mine.
Me: You have some great metaphors woven throughout your text. How long did it take you to write this story? How many revisions were there?
Julie: I’ve been dreading this question ever since I got the offer on the book – LOL. It took 8 years from the time I started researching to the book’s acquisition. Another two years for publication, and that makes it a cool decade from start to finish. I’m going to guess there were close to 100 drafts. What I do know is that 4 different versions of this manuscript went to acquisitions at different houses over that 8 year period until little bee books (the perfect home for this book!) made an offer. So, it was a bit of a haul. That said, the moral of this story is, never give up! If you’ve written a story that you know in your heart needs to be in the world, keep the faith that it will find its place. It truly does only take one yes.
Me: I love that! What is one thing that surprised you in writing this book?
Julie: At the risk of sounding glib, I was surprised that it turned out to be so challenging to sell this book. I figured everyone knows and loves Julie Andrews, right? This should be a slam dunk. But as you already know from my response to the previous question, that was not the case at all.
In retrospect, I now know that a big part of the reason it took so long is because I was teaching myself how to write a picture book biography as I went along. I’m grateful the earlier versions didn’t get published, because this is the one the world was meant to see.
Me: Ilaria Urbinati’s illustrations in this book are wonderful! They fit so perfectly. Were there any illustration surprises for you? Any favorites?
Julie: I’m sure I’m biased, but Ilaria’s illustrations for this book are nothing less than jaw-dropping. The silhouettes of Julie’s characters in the curtains on the cover? Brilliant!
I love how she carried that theme throughout the book, and another of my favorites is the one where Julie is onstage at the Royal Palladium Theater and a silhouette of her and her father emerges as she’s singing. It’s a gorgeous representation of the influence her father’s love had on her life.
Me: Why did you want to share Julie Andrew with a new generation? Why was it important for you to share her story with today’s young readers?
Julie: At first it was because Julie’s work had meant so much to me as a child, but as I got deeper into her story, I realized it had a lot to say about the importance of embracing whatever gifts you have and sharing them with the world.
I also think it’s important, in a world of insta-fame and celebrity via social media, for children to see how hard Julie worked on her singing and that her life was not easy. It’s tempting to look at where she landed and assume a lot of the rough patches on her path were paved over for her, but that is far from the case. She made a lot of sacrifices, even as a young child, to cultivate her gift.
On a separate note, I think the story has a great deal to teach us as writers, too. How many of us have looked from afar at hugely successful authors and thought how much easier it must be for them than it is for us? The truth is, in every success story, there is always an iceberg’s worth of work that we don’t see. As our teachers would tell us, it’s best to keep our eyes on our own papers and keep doing the work. That’s where we tap into meaningful success.
Oh my gosh. That’s so so true. Thank you for stopping by my blog again today Julie.
Dear readers, this book was released September 5th. It’s hard to believe that there hasn’t been a biography written about Julie Andrews before this one, but there is one now and you won’t want to miss it. This picture book biography is a wonderful marriage of text and illustrations that bring to light a life worth singing about. It wasn’t all roses, but it certainly is one to remember.