chatting with margaret cardillo and julia denos about just being audrey

“God kissed her on the cheek, and there she was.” ~ Billy Wilder on Audrey Hepburn

I’m really happy to welcome author Margaret Cardillo and illustrator Julia Denos to alphabet soup today because I love love their new picture book biography, Just Being Audrey (Balzer + Bray, 2011)!

As a lifelong Audrey fan, I was truly excited when I first heard about this book when reading Julia’s fab interview at 7-Imp. At a time when young girls look to celebrities for role models, and when all too often those role models disappoint, it’s heartening to know that now Audrey’s story can be held up as rock solid inspiration.

Distilling Hepburn’s fascinating life into 32 pages must have been a daunting task, but Margaret and Julia have done a beautiful job of presenting significant milestones — from Audrey’s unique childhood in Nazi-occupied Europe, to her rise as an award-winning actress and fashion icon, to the tireless work she did on behalf of the world’s impoverished children as International Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF.


I love how Just Being Audrey captures the essence of Audrey’s grace, elegance, style, beauty, indomitable spirit, and unfailing kindness. She was definitely someone who always remained true to herself, and it’s exciting to see generation after generation, regardless of age or gender, continue to admire not only Audrey’s “movie star” persona, but also the totally unassuming person she was in real life. The more you learn about Audrey, the more you want to emulate her conduct and live by her values. Margaret’s and Julia’s own admiration, enthusiasm and love for Audrey shine through on every page — making this well-written, gorgeously illustrated book an especially good choice for Women’s History Month and a wonderful keepsake for girls (and women) of all ages.

I know you’ll enjoy hearing what Margaret and Julia have to say!

If you could meet Audrey today, what would you say to her? 

Margaret: I’d thank her for inspiring me, for being completely lovely and a great role model. And then I would listen to absolutely anything she had to say. I’d hang on every word and commit them to memory. Then I’d probably compliment her outfit because I’m sure it would be fabulous.

Julia: You know, I’ve spent months saying, “If only I’d had the chance to meet Audrey,” but I could never imagine much beyond a big hug! I know I’d be speechless, but she’d probably break the ice by offering to make spaghetti.

Why do you think it’s important for young readers to know about Audrey’s life?

Margaret: That’s the reason I wrote the book: to share the story of this amazing woman with young readers. When too many women use their celebrity for the wrong reasons, I wanted to celebrate a woman who used her celebrity for the right ones. She is an icon for her style and a role model for her actions. Her work with UNICEF was unprecedented. Before it was in vogue to give your name to charities, she was not only an ambassador for UNICEF, she was on the road for the majority of the year, in the villages holding sick children and embracing their mothers. There were no bounds to her love.

Here was a girl who overcame enormous adversity during the war (and proved brave and kind even in the darkest hours). Then, as a young woman, she broke into one of the most difficult industries in the world—and always with a smile on her face and kind words. And she was always, always true to herself. No matter how different she looked or sounded, she never tried to dress or act like anyone other than herself. What better message is there for a young person? Be yourself. Be kind. That can be the foundation of a good person.

Julia: Audrey lived her life in a way that makes her a fabulous role model for young readers, especially young women.

She experienced war-time trauma as a child and endured. She invented her own brand of elegance by respecting her unique physical attributes, rather than trying to alter them; something rare in celebrities and is refreshing to see.

Besides her well-known outer beauty, Audrey is a lovely example of radiant inner beauty. She possessed some rare and admirable virtues: integrity, devotion, gratitude and humility. She believed in putting others first and lived her life accordingly. Audrey cared a lot about plain old kindness, and that every person had worth. Yes, she even did her homework! Directors always mentioned that she was punctual and always prepared for her scenes; Audrey claimed she HAD to study lines so intensely to compensate, since she did not possess the star quality that her peers did! She had also known what it was like to have nothing and never forgot that. Perhaps this is why she always chose to be grateful, always chose hope, and encouraged hope in others.

Audrey was a leader. In her speeches for UNICEF, she encouraged each of us to act on the responsibility we have to our needy family around the globe, especially children. Caring for the needs of others, and using her celebrity name to do so, became her singular goal at the end of her life.

Above all, Audrey is an example of simply living according to one’s heart, which is a great message for a reader of any age. She was “just Audrey,” despite fame and fortune. That is what made her a star.

What did you love most about working on this project? What proved to be the biggest challenge?

Margaret: I loved delving into her life and learning everything I could. Seeing the illustrations for the first time was a great day. I also really enjoyed (and still enjoy) hearing everyone’s stories about how and why they came to love Audrey. It’s not just older women, either. Men, young children, twenty-somethings. The reaction to Audrey Hepburn is visceral and I love hearing what she means to people. It’s great inspiration.

One of the biggest challenges for me was letting go of all the great and interesting facts about Audrey’s life. There was so much I wanted to squeeze in (I was so grateful to our fabulous editor and designer for figuring out how to get a timeline in the backmatter). It was so important to me to do her life story justice, a feat I now realize is basically impossible, because I’m still thinking to this day, “Well, what about this fact or this point?”

Julia: I loved watching Audrey’s story unfold. It felt very special and overwhelming to be invited into someone’s life story from beginning to end and try to create something to honor it. I also enjoyed learning gems that seemed off the beaten path for Audrey fans. One surprising find was Audrey’s visual talent, her understanding of costume design and how she played a role in tailoring her look. She created art through her life and even painted.

Of course, I also loved that I was REQUIRED to surround myself in her fashion! Her life-long partnership with Hubert de Givenchy was inspiring and incredibly interesting to learn about. They were two driven people who genuinely loved and respected each others’ crafts, assisted one another in building their careers, and were dear friends from Sabrina’s dress to the end of her life. Audrey tended to take her favorite people with her, including her makeup artists credited for the “Audrey eye,” the De Rossi’s, who ended up dear friends of her family.

Audrey with Hubert de Givenchy

The biggest challenge was sitting at my desk, flooded with gorgeous imagery, and trying to figure out how to funnel it all into a “look” for Audrey that I could duplicate again and again. It was intimidating! It always takes a lot of drawing and giant leaps of faith to finally end up with a sketch that is free and light but still bears resemblance.

You both did a lot of research. From your point of view as a writer or illustrator, which materials were the most helpful, enlightening, and/or inspiring?

Margaret: I read a lot of biographies for basic information. And towards the end I picked up a few gift books to get away from simply facts. I also read fan blogs for inspiration and motivation. I took something from all of them. My absolute favorite book was Audrey Hepburn’s son’s family memoir called Audrey Hepburn, An Elegant Spirit: A Son Remembers. Mr. Ferrer’s love for his mother is palpable and it is the closest I felt to knowing her. I also poured over The Audrey Hepburn Treasures because I love all of those pockets with Audrey memorabilia.

Of course I watched and re-watched her movies (which, let me tell you, was the most difficult part of the research. “Excuse me,” I’d tell my family, “I HAVE to go watch Breakfast at Tiffany’s. It’s research for the book!) And then, at the end, I kind of had to forget all of it and write from my heart. I have such admiration for her and she has been such an inspiration to me and I wanted that to translate to the page. I knew I had to get a lot of facts into a small amount of space, but I also wanted some of that emotion to come through.

Julia: The main sources were biographies, which I read first. The stand out title was, Audrey Hepburn: An Elegant Spirit by Audrey’s son, Sean Hepburn-Ferrer. His words kept her very real. Girlhood pictures kept her childlike spirit with me. Candid family photos from her website kicked off my inspiration. Another inspiring book, The Audrey Hepburn Treasures by Ellen Erwin and Jessica Diamond, contained personal objects like handwritten notes, family Christmas cards, Audrey’s bran muffin recipe card! For visuals, of course I had the movies running constantly. I paused them often to look at details like shoe shapes and skirt movement.

There is this quiet little clip of her from “Gardens of the World” on YouTube. Between takes, the director asks her candidly about her work for UNICEF. I was so moved by this.

What’s your favorite spread in the book and why?  

Margaret: This is a question I dread people asking me. How do I choose? I am so lucky that Julia Denos agreed to illustrate the book. As soon as I saw her work, I knew she would be perfect. I want to live in her illustrations. When I saw the first sketch of Audrey it was like magic. I couldn’t wait to see what she would do with the book. Flipping through the first proof it was one “oohh” and “aahh” after another. And everyone in my family loves a different spread for a different reason, as do I. I will say that when I opened the spread that illustrates all of her movie roles, I had to catch my breath. It was just so perfect.

Julia: My favorite spread is the one about Audrey’s “style” with all the postcards. It was the most visually fun for me to try to capture Audrey’s synthesis of style + spirit. It was the first time I felt like I cracked Audrey’s code, and got her into the drawing. I also love Margaret’s description of “the Audrey look” here. I enjoyed making and researching the “around-the-world” travel pieces, dreaming of a time when stamps were actually 4 cents!

What’s your favorite Audrey movie and why? 

Margaret: Oh well, there you go! You’ve asked both the questions I dread answering! We have a Facebook fanpage for Just Being Audrey and the day the book came out we ran a contest: Name your favorite Audrey movie and why. The responses were fantastic. But it was very clear that most people have a hard time picking just one, which is such a testament to Audrey and the talented people she worked with. If forced, I’d have to say Roman Holiday. My mother introduced me to Audrey when I was about eleven. The first movie she showed me was Roman Holiday and it was love at first sight. Plus, I’m Italian so it holds a special place in my heart.

Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck relax in Rome during a break from shooting the 1953 film “Roman Holiday.”

Julia: Oh no! Impossible to choose. There are pieces from every movie I adore: the letter-writing scene in Sabrina as “La Vie en Rose” drifts in: “I have learned how to live, how to be in the world and of the world and not just stand aside and watch” . . . Avedon’s scrumptious Paris in Funny Face . . . but if I had to REALLY pick, then “by all means” Roman Holiday! It was my first Audrey movie and Audrey’s first Hollywood film. Maybe that’s why it’s my favorite. I could see her blossom as an actress. Knowing her background story made me feel so proud of her, since she’d worked so hard to get there. The best scene is at The Mouth of Truth when Gregory Peck puts his hand in the statue’s mouth and acts like it’s been eaten! YIKES! Apparently, this was a little joke on Audrey, so her reaction is real on screen — and it is PERFECT! Also love how she keeps asking Mr. Peck for “PAJAHHHHMAS.”

Audrey as Princess Ann in Roman Holiday

Jama: I don’t know about you, but I could go on talking about Audrey all day long. And it *is* very hard to pick a favorite Audrey movie; interesting how both Julia and Margaret decided on Roman Holiday, and for largely the same reasons! They’re the perfect match for telling Audrey’s story, totally in sync, and I thank them so much for visiting today!!

What’s your favorite Audrey movie?

written by Margaret Cardillo
illustrated by Julia Denos
published by Balzer + Bray (HarperCollins, January 2011)
Full Color Picture Book for ages 5+
Cool themes: self-actualization, ballet, movies, charity work, actors, Europe, fashion, kindness, gratitude.

♥ Official book trailer is here.

♥ Margaret Cardillo’s official website and blog.

♥ Julia Denos’s official website and blog.

Just Being Audrey Facebook Page, with links to the great reviews it’s been getting, like this one from Hannah Elliott at Forbes.

♥ Interviews: Margaret at the NY Daily News, Julia at 7-Imp.

♥ Audrey Hepburn official website.


“If I’m honest, I have to tell you I still read fairy tales, and I like them best of all. ” ~ Audrey Hepburn

*Spreads posted by permission, text copyright © 2011 Margaret Cardillo, illustrations © 2011 Julia Denos, published by Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins. All rights reserved.

**Unless otherwise noted, all photos from

Copyright © 2011 Jama Rattigan of jama rattigan’s alphabet soup. All rights reserved.

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