'Enchanted Symphony' is the latest kids book from Julie Andrews and her daughter The latest children's book from Julie Andrews, Emma Walton Hamilton and illustrator Elly McKay is about the power of nature and music. They discussed their creative process in an interview with NPR.

A concert audience of houseplants? A new kids' book tells the surprisingly true tale

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Writing a children's book requires inspiration, imagination and a spoonful of problem-solving.

JULIE ANDREWS: This is Julie Andrews, and I am an author and an actress, and it is a pleasure to be here today. And I'm with my daughter.

EMMA WALTON HAMILTON: Hello, I'm Emma Walton Hamilton. I'm Julie Andrews' daughter and co-author.

ANDREWS: Well, our latest book - and we've written many books together - is called "The Enchanted Symphony." And it was inspired by a photograph that I saw of a little opera house completely filled with plants, of all strange things.

SIMON: Nearly 2,300 plants, one in each seat of the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona. Photograph was taken in June 2020 when the opera house had its first concert a few months into the start of the pandemic.

WALTON HAMILTON: It totally captured our imagination. At first we just saw the photograph, but then we discovered there was a video. There's a small string quartet, and they come on stage, and they play a Puccini piece for this audience of houseplants. The piece is called "Chrysanthemum" in Italian. So we tried to imagine what might cause an opera house to be filled with plants instead of people. And we came up with the little fable that is "The Enchanted Symphony."

ANDREWS: Yeah. We didn't want to write particularly about COVID, which was, of course, the reason that the plants were there just as a statement. So we had to come up with another reason.

WALTON HAMILTON: And we chose a mysterious fog, a mysterious fog that rolls in and blankets the village and creates a kind of an ennui and a despair and causes people to stay at home.

SIMON: "The Enchanted Symphony" follows a little boy named Piccolino. His father is the maestro at the opera house. One day, as the maestro was sweeping the stage, Dame Julie Andrews and Emma Walton Hamilton write, Piccolino wandered over to the grand piano. Gently raising the lid, he played a simple melody that echoed in the empty space. The sound was startling and sweet, and the maestro paused to listen. For a moment, his spirits lifted, and he realized how much he had missed music. But without an audience, the orchestra had no reason to play. Of course, Piccolino has an idea for how to bring music back to his village. "The Enchanted Symphony" is just the latest children's book from Dame Julie Andrews and Emma Walton Hamilton. It's illustrated by Elly MacKay. And here they are talking about it on our children's book series Picture This.

ANDREWS: Can I talk about Elly? Can you describe how you make your work, which is so different from any other illustrator that I've been aware of?

ELLY MACKAY: Well, it's funny. I thought about becoming a set designer when I was a teenager, and I guess I sort of work in miniature sets, so I build things three-dimensionally. I have a miniature theater, or several miniature theaters, and I build sets. I create the scenery, and I create the characters and set them within the little scene. And then I light it, and then I photograph it. So it was interesting because I had to create a theater inside my miniature theater. So I thought about all of the seats and the lighting, the chandeliers, how the curtains would fall and how the stage would be set. And I thought about how I would layer these houseplants further and further away, so it creates that sense of depth.

ANDREWS: I don't know how you manage the fog in your illustration, but it's brilliant.

MACKAY: Thank you.

WALTON HAMILTON: The key things that were uppermost in our minds were a quality of timelessness. We wanted it to have a sort of a - the quality of a fable or a fairy tale. And the other thing that concerned us was, of course, the fog. And I mean, it really is a character in the story. So we were concerned that the story would lack color. And so, you know, seeing the way in which Elly's work is transparent and is translucent and luminous gave us the confidence that she would be able to capture both the fog and other colors at the same time, which, of course, she beautifully does.

MACKAY: I tried to use a lot of vibrant colors for this book because children love bright colors. I was thinking about the palette, and I wanted the gloomy scenes all to have this kind of purple feel, lots of purple tones, and then the joyful scenes to be lit up with greens and reds and golds. And I used shadow quite a bit to contrast kind of the darker times with the lightness and play that came with the music.


ANDREWS: Really. And I love, Elly, in the book how you've woven the music when it's coming out of the great opera house doors, and you feel the sound of the music by the way you've illustrated it. It's lovely. I think that a lot of times illustrators and the writers of books don't get enough time to chat and talk to each other. And but in our case, we love talking to our illustrators. And in this case, it was a delight.

MACKAY: Oh, that's so nice. I found it really useful getting feedback. It's one of the great things about working this way is that it's so easy to change things. So I'll leave one of my sets up until it's actually finalized and approved. So I can move things around. So one suggestion was fewer flowers and more houseplants. And so I got busy and made more and more houseplants and filled my little theater full of houseplants. And it's so much fun to just play and create in that way. So I guess that's all part of it.

ANDREWS: Yeah, and it was exactly as we sort of imagined it because truly, we do see in our heads what we are writing about. And then to have it come alive so well and so completely right is one of the great benefits. It's the fun part.

WALTON HAMILTON: There is one particular illustration that I think is my favorite, which is of Piccolino, our little boy, throwing open the great opera house doors to let the music out into the world. And the music is surrounding him and moving and sparkling, and there's this...

ANDREWS: It's full of joy.

WALTON HAMILTON: Full of joy and radiance. And he is full of joy. He's sort of jumping in the air with his arms in the air, and there's this light from behind him.

MACKAY: I don't know if you knew this, but Piccolino - I was imagining my son the whole time that I was thinking of the story. I was imagining how he would go through things. He loves to grow things. So he grew all sorts of trees from seed, and he brought them out into our front yard and set up a stand like you'd set up a lemonade stand and sold them to our neighbors. So we have trees around our community that he started from seed. And so, yeah, he's that kind of outgoing kid that connects with everyone. So I was thinking about him throughout the story.

WALTON HAMILTON: We didn't know that. That's just wonderful.

ANDREWS: Basically, the little book is about what matters most in your life. And don't lose sight of the really important values, which to Emma and to me, are obviously nature and the arts and family and...


ANDREWS: Community in general. Yes.

WALTON HAMILTON: When we started writing together 25 years ago, my mom was living in Los Angeles. And I was living on the East Coast. And my children were very young and in school, and we could only work together early in the mornings. And, of course, Mom was three hours behind. We would actually work via phone those days, but Mom would always come to the phone in her nightgown because it was so early in the morning. And as a way of sort of preparing herself for the workday, she would spritz herself with perfume, even though...

ANDREWS: Which no one could see or smell. But it made me feel a little more awake at 6 in the morning.

WALTON HAMILTON: It was so funny. But now, happily, we live in the same town. And we are able to be together in the same room when we write, which is invaluable.

ANDREWS: Also, I think we have different strengths, which is what makes us so compatible in a way because Emma is a wonderful teacher of children's creative writing. And her strength is that she's the nuts and bolts of our books. She does, for instance, all the important things like the first act, the second act, the third act. And I'm more the flights of fancy. I write the - mostly write the opening or the pastoral scene or the end of the book or the ends of chapters or sometimes - well, we each come up with sometimes an idea for a character halfway through the book that might be an interesting left turn, so to speak.

WALTON HAMILTON: And it's really a process of finishing each other's sentences, as you can probably gather from hearing us talk.


WALTON HAMILTON: And then, of course, multiple printouts and multiple edits and revisions.

ANDREWS: And multiple cups of tea to help...

WALTON HAMILTON: And multiple cups of tea.

ANDREWS: ...Stimulate us along the way.


ANDREWS: English breakfast with milk. That's what I'm drinking as I'm talking to you.

WALTON HAMILTON: I think what we have learned most from working together is the degree to which being creative casts a kind of a magic spell on our relationship, on our lives - that shared time together spent just being creative and creative problem solving.

ANDREWS: And playing in a sandbox that is totally individual and full of imagination. It's a lovely place to go.

WALTON HAMILTON: It's almost like creative weight lifting, you know? It strengthens our relationship.

ANDREWS: Or meditating.


ANDREWS: Anything like that.

WALTON HAMILTON: Yeah. It really strengthens our relationship.


SIMON: Emma Walton Hamilton, Dame Julie Andrews and illustrator Elly MacKay all talking about their new children's book, "The Enchanted Symphony." The series Picture This is produced by Samantha Balaban.

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