Before Phillipa Soo earned praise—and a Tony nomination—for her role as Eliza in Broadway’s Hamilton, she was a young girl who grappled with stage fright. Her new picture book, Piper Chen Sings (Random House Studio, April 2), co-written with sister-in-law Maris Pasquale Doran and illustrated by Qin Leng, is a tribute to Soo’s younger self and to her Chinese heritage. The talented and outgoing Piper loves to sing, but when she’s given the opportunity to perform a solo in a school concert, she’s struck by a wave of doubt. Luckily, her loving grandmother Nǎi Nai is there to offer some encouragement and to help Piper put a name to her anxieties: húdié, the Mandarin word for butterflies.

Soo and Pasquale Doran, a psychotherapist and social worker, spent much of the Covid-19 lockdown working on Piper Chen, their debut picture book. They frequently communicated via FaceTime from their homes in Brooklyn and New Jersey, respectively—an experience they found deeply rewarding. Given the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes during the pandemic, centering a Chinese American protagonist was especially important to both. In Piper, they’ve created a character whose pride in her culture is evident, yet she’ll also resonate with anyone who’s ever felt uncertain or insecure. Soo and Pasquale Doran spoke with Kirkus via Zoom from their homes; the interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Phillipa, you’ve mentioned in previous interviews that you weren’t always seen as a Chinese American actor until Hamilton.

Phillipa Soo: I’ve reassessed what I meant in that moment. I didn’t feel like the world saw me as Asian because I didn’t see myself in the world. I played a lot of roles that were traditionally written as white characters, and I am half white. I didn’t feel like I’d found my way in terms of being considered an actor of color until that moment. And, especially after Hamilton, I took on a new outlook: I’m going to try to tell Asian stories. Part of that meant telling my own story as a mixed-race person. I felt, over the years, empowered to find myself in that space—and proud to be considered an actor of color and an Asian American actress and to represent a community of people who felt like they were being seen for the first time.

Piper has a big, energetic presence, but she also feels uncertainty. Was it challenging to balance those elements?

Maris Pasquale Doran: We’re all complex people holding multiple feelings and thought processes at once. We wanted to show that through this character, how she’s holding that nervousness but also that excitement. That she can be so gregarious and bubbly in her own space but then also feel a little scared. [It’s important] to take that pause and to be aware of ourselves in the world. What are our emotions? Which ones do we want to lead or guide us? How do we listen to that internal compass? As a therapist, I work with adults, and this [idea] is something they’re working on all the time. It felt important to have a [way] to talk with young people about this, to start that practice earlier.

How did you come to incorporate the idea of húdié?

P.S.: Growing up, I’d go to my grandma’s house, and she would speak to me in Chinese; she would speak to my dad in Chinese. She would teach me Chinese words. My grandmother was a painter as well as a musician. The Nǎi Nai in the book is based on my own Nǎi Nai. She would write out calligraphy words for me. She’d write me a birthday card, and my Chinese name would be written out. I was so jazzed by the fact that this was my culture, too. This beautiful symbol that I knew nothing about was somehow a part of me.And so [we wanted to use the idea of] “butterflies in your tummy” and have it be a moment where Nǎi Nai could share something about her own experience and give a beautiful gift to Piper. In saying that húdié means butterfly in Chinese, she’s comforting her; she’s giving her a tool to understand her feelings. But also she’s just telling her that she loves her in that moment. And that’s like the love I felt with my own Nǎi Nai when she’d write out my name in Chinese.

Was it important to you to have an illustrator who was of Asian descent?

P.S.: I think that in terms of our publisher pairing us up with this wonderful artist, Qin, there was intention behind that. Forgive me if I’m remembering this incorrectly, Maris, but I think we said that we just wanted it to feel handmade. We wanted it to feel like something nostalgic, something delicate and beautiful. It was this happy marriage, in that Qin is also of Asian descent. And she uses a lot of watercolor, and my grandmother painted with watercolor. It felt like this wonderful, artistic miracle.

M.P.D.: It was so beautiful collaborating with her. Every image we received, we said, “This is exactly what we were trying to convey.”

Many books send kids the message that they should do things that scare them, even if they don’t want to. But the adult characters in your book tell Piper that it’s OK if she chooses not to perform.

M.P.D.: That’s exactly what we wanted to say: You have agency in your life. Indeed, the brave decision may not be doing the thing. So that part where Piper sits and she thinks and she blinks—she’s really reflecting. She’s taking a pause, which most of us do not do. She’s taking that pause to reflect and say, Do I want to do this? Do I let the excitement lead me? Or does this nervousness mean that it’s not the right decision yet?

Phillipa, you’ve said in an interview that Piper’s experience is similar to a childhood memory of yours. You were afraid to take part in a ballet performance, but after it was over, you chose to walk onstage with your ballet teacher.

P.S.: It’s one of the first times I remember someone other than my parents saying, “Well, what do you want to do? You have a choice here.” I got so much more out of that moment, because I was the one who said, “I am going to go out there.” It’s one of the most formative moments of my life. Miss Lisa, if you’re out there, thank you!

Do you each have a favorite moment in the book?

M.P.D.: The very beginning, when she’s twirling over that two-page spread. The way Qin represented it, you almost feel the motion. Right away, we have that feeling of this little girl’s energy. It’s such a powerful introduction in a few short lines.

P.S.: The night of the show, when the class is all waiting backstage. As a theater nerd, I have to applaud Qin because she captured it so well. To see not only that backstage space, but also all the kids who have their own emotions that they’re going through. And another one of my favorite moments is the end, with Piper looking out [at the audience]. The use of color and light is just so gorgeous.

Mahnaz Dar is a young readers’ editor.