In-depth Written Interview
with Emma Walton Hamilton
Insights Beyond the Meet-the-Author Movie
Julie Andrews Edwards and Emma Walton Hamilton, interviewed in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on August 5 and 6, 2008.
TEACHINGBOOKS: We know all about the Julie Andrews of the stage and screen. What do the two of you bring to the world of children's books?
EMMA WALTON HAMILTON: I write children's books with my mother, Julie. She's written several children's books on her own, and we have written 18 together thus far. We publish them in a program called the Julie Andrews Collection, for which I am the editorial director.
JULIE ANDREWS EDWARDS: My father was a teacher, and he instilled in me the love of reading. He was passionate about reading to me as a child; he would sit me on his lap, follow the text of the story with his finger, and talk about the illustrations.
If you can instill a love of reading in your children, they will be ahead of the curve at school and in their lives in general. Their imaginations will be stimulated. I thank heavens for the father that gave me that to begin with.
TEACHINGBOOKS: The Julie Andrews Collection includes books for children of all ages, from pre-readers and early readers to young adults. What's the idea behind the collection?
EMMA WALTON HAMILTON: The idea behind the Julie Andrews Collection is that we can bring a "Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval" standard to books for readers of all ages. My mom represents a standard of goodness and quality to audiences around the globe, and we wanted to try to do the same with books.
So, we bring together books that we write with books that we are passionate about and believe in. The books have a commitment to celebrating nature and the arts, and particularly promote the idea that there is wonder everywhere. It's about engaging our imaginations and appreciating the world around us.
TEACHINGBOOKS: Both of you are dedicated, spokespeople for reading. How do you advocate for reading and encouraging happy readers?
EMMA WALTON HAMILTON: I am passionate about reading, for myself and for kids. Our future as a compassionate, productive, healthy society is rooted in our continuing to engage our minds and spirits. The key for me is in keeping it joyful as an activity.
I think so much emphasis these days is placed upon achievement and skill and assessment that the joy has gone out of reading for many kids. Students become distracted by struggling to learn to read or by the pressure to achieve.
My personal view is that reading has to be balanced. Obviously, there's a certain amount of reading that we have to do academically to continue to learn and to grow, but it's got to be balanced with fun and with elective reading. Whether that's comic books or Jane Austen, if it makes you excited about reading, that's what matters.
TEACHINGBOOKS: Why do you believe that incorporating arts elements and activities into your collection enhances reading skills and enjoyment?
JULIE ANDREWS EDWARDS: When I write with Emma, we try to combine as much of the arts as we possibly can into our books, whether it is the quality of the paper, the designs, the illustrations, or the colors. And then we try to make the stories themselves as much as possible about something that children can relate to.
I hope that when children read our stories that they evoke images for children. I four stories can help children use their own imaginations and lead them to act the stories out or to embark on related research, they will learn more and learn to love reading more.
EMMA WALTON HAMILTON: We've always thought that integrating reading with the arts was a natural pairing because they are so synergistic. I ran a theater for 17 years where I focused on education and programming for young audiences. I was very aware of how much crossover there is between the performing arts and literature.
For instance, many theater pieces for young audiences are adaptations of classic children's books. During those performances, I was always intrigued to know how much preparation the children had before seeing the show. I wondered: are they reading the book beforehand, are they discussing it, are they being prepared for the show any differently than with the book?
When Mom and I started writing together, it just felt natural to bring our experience with the performing arts to what we do with the children's books. We think very visually and very dramatically. We've tried to focus our passion for the arts in much of what we write and then look for ways to make that practical in classrooms and libraries and at home. We look for activities, games, and other ways we can support the stories theatrically and creatively, all across the arts.
When I think about how the arts and literature can complement each other and canheighten awareness and connection for kids and for audiences, I remember when our book Simeon's Gift was in its early stages of being adapted into a theater piece. Students would write to us after the show or raise the question in the question-and-answer period after the show and say, "I really loved the part about Simeon trying to find his voice; I wonder what my voice will be." To have a young person ask that question of themselves by watching somebody else take that journey, albeit a character in a story, is everything you could hope for.
TEACHINGBOOKS: Simeon's Gift began as a story that the two of you wrote when Emma was a little girl.
EMMA WALTON HAMILTON: Right. Simeon's Gift had its first incarnation as a story that I wrote with my mom when I was about five years old, and my parents were fairly newly separated and living on separate coasts. In an attempt, I think, to preserve a sense of family unity, my mom and I decided we would write a story together and then I would bring it with me when I went to visit my father for summer vacation.
My father's an artist, so he illustrated the story and then I brought it back to my mom to bind it for me. The complete book was sort of an example of our unification as af amily. It had a special place on my shelf for decades.
The original story is now the last third of Simeon's Gift. It's just the part where Simeon heads home downstream and meets the three animals on the way to visit his daughter.
When Mom and I started writing books together professionally, some 30something years later, we showed our little book to our editor and said, "Is there any thinghere worth pursuing?" and she said, "I think there is; maybe you need to rewrite it from your adult perspective and see if you can flesh the story out and find out who this fellow is and why he is coming downstream."
And we sat down to write the beginning of the story, imagining that we would end with this journey, and this wonderful sort of adaptation poured out of us in a very organic way.
TEACHINGBOOKS: A CD with Julie Andrews Edwards reading the book accompanies Simeon's Gift. How and why did that come about?
JULIE ANDREWS EDWARDS: Any one of the arts will usually spur thoughts and then more thoughts, and in the case of Simeon's Gift, it's about music. We packaged the book with a CD, which includes my reading the story with music accompanying it. If I'm reading about a river or the trees or the wind blowing or the stars at night, if you can hear that in the music in some way, you've wedded the two and your imagination takes off. To be able to hear that in music is really important.
EMMA WALTON HAMILTON: Publishing budgets being what they are, we dreamed of musical instruments of all different kinds, but we were limited to piano. So the wonderful Ian Fraser, who is a masterful composer and pianist, created this very improvisatory soundscape, where he and my mother would get together and she would read the story, and he would just see where the music took him.
Little by little, melodies and themes emerged, and they made this incredible recording with her narrating and him just playing, sounding like a full orchestra but with only a piano.
TEACHINGBOOKS: Simeon's Gift has gone through many iterations. After the CD came the theatrical, then symphonic productions. Now there are multimedia versions as well.
JULIE ANDREWS EDWARDS: That little book has had the most amazing journey. When Emma and I researched what kind of illustrator we would like, we hoped for Gennady Spirin, who creates illuminated manuscript-style illustrations. When we mentioned his name to our publisher, we got this rather daunting reply: "Oh, but he's so famous and he wouldn't dream of doing your book, he's much too busy and he's very particular about what he does."
So I said, "Well, could you just ask?" [Spirin] had no idea who I was. He didn't know that my other life is as a movie star, and he just liked the story, and lo and behold, he said yes. That was our first piece of really great, good luck. Then I asked a friend of mine if he would design the music as a background to our story so that I could package it with a CD. Lo and behold, he said yes, and the music was great.
The next thing I knew, it was suggested that we do it as a play for children. I was delighted because that's exactly where my heart is. So a little play was developed for children, which I hope will go out across the country at some point and children will see it.
Then somebody suggested we write it with a symphony orchestra in mind: "Why don't you narrate the story and have a big orchestra behind you that sort of illustrates the book in a different way?"
EMMA WALTON HAMILTON: You can't imagine what a thrill the next step was to hear Simeon's Gift fully orchestrated, where we can really hear the river in the chimes and inthe tympani, and we can actually hear the trumpets heralding the arrival of the archbishop, and the flute that is the bird. It's just beyond our wildest dreams.
Now, Simeon's Gift is a book in multiple formats, including a Web game. It has the most multi-purposing of any of our books. Much of it happened as a kind of happy accident, and has set the course for what we now hope the Julie Andrews Collection can achieve with other books: adapting one story for narration, for stage, for symphony, and into a Web game. That's just been such a wonderful opportunity.
TEACHINGBOOKS: How do you see any of these versions being used in schools?
EMMA WALTON HAMILTON: Our hope is that Simeon's Gift will have lots of use in schools in different formats, and in different ways. Obviously, the first and simplest use is the book itself. And we hope that it's a good enough story to captivate readers' interest. But also that the artwork is also worth exploring because it's so extraordinary. Gennady is such a gifted painter, and the illustrations are so rich. There's so much to find there.
We would love to see both the symphonic version of Simeon's Gift and the stage version of Simeon's Gift have further life; the goal being that we would continue to produce Simeon's Gift as part of this larger "The Gift of Music" piece that is traveling around to symphonies. At the same time, we're envisioning a stage adaptation of Simeon's Gift that would probably have Mom's recorded voiceover narration, and it would go out on the road and tour and school groups could attend.
In our ideal world, students would have a chance to read the book, to study the book a little bit, and then an adaptation (either the symphonic or stage version) would come to a theater near them, and they would be able to travel together as a school group and attend the performance, then maybe even have a Q&A session with the performers after the show. Then they could go back and play Simeon's Web game and create apiece of music themselves online or take any part of the story and adapt it further themselves, or write a sequel, or talk about what their own gifts are and perhaps craft a creative piece about that.
TEACHINGBOOKS: What benefit do you see to adding performing arts extension activities to the reading of and lessons about your books?
JULIE ANDREWS EDWARDS: If somebody can act out one of the books as a play, ifthey can see a play, film, or television show that's related, that can be so stimulating for them. Anything that makes children engage and think—and love what the story is about—can only bring the most enormous rewards.
EMMA WALTON HAMILTON: The online component and the multiple formats address the way young people are learning, playing, and communicating with one another. The platforms allow those who learn visually the opportunity to explore the illustrations on a deeper level, or, for those who are auditory learners, to do recorded narration or other things that involve listening skills. Those who learn kinesthetically can do the practical activities from our teacher's guides, or from the teacher, themselves.
TEACHINGBOOKS: How would you suggest teachers maximize these multiple ways to experience Simeon's Gift?
EMMA WALTON HAMILTON: I think one of the best opportunities for teachers with books like this is the concept of Reader's Theater: taking a scene from a book, or the whole story, and adapting it with kids.
There is a variety of ways to do that. There's a structured approach to Reader's Theater, where there are scripts available in all kinds of formats and templates online. Or teachers can just go very organic with it and work with the students to adapt the script: to break it into scenes and assign characters to the individual students who are interested in reading the parts. Then maybe another student might be more artistic and might be more interested in perhaps helping to create a backdrop for the event, or helping the other kids to identify what clothes they might wear or what color palette they might choose to tell the story best. Maybe another student might choose appropriate music to support the event.
TEACHINGBOOKS: What does Reader's Theater do for the reader's comprehension and enjoyment of the chosen book?
EMMA WALTON HAMILTON: Reader's Theater gives reading comprehension a huge boost. It gives participants an opportunity to actually put themselves in the shoes of the characters and imagine what their struggles and interests are and how they might solve their problems on a level that they perhaps would have only gotten peripherally from reading the book.
I think you have to have a personal connection, and that's what we're always looking to try to create: a personal way in to a story. Reader's Theater can give you that personal connection because in order to really do it right, you have to let your imagination go, almost like playing pretend. When we played make-believe as kids, in that moment, we had total faith what we were doing was real. And that's the kind of experiential reality you can create with Reader's Theater. You're asking the readers to surrender and abandon themselves to that faith in what they're doing and pretend that it's real. Reader's Theater has students put themselves in a character's shoes and imagine what the character is feeling. Oftentimes, kids will make huge personal discoveries.
My experience in working with kids in the theater programs through the theater that I co-founded is that dramatic reading and writing for kids can open a window to individuality and to expression that nothing else does, because all of a sudden the pressure is off and they just bring themselves to the table.
TEACHINGBOOKS: The Great American Mousical is another book that very obviously speaks towards integrating performing arts. It teaches so much about theater. Could you share a little about that?
JULIE ANDREWS EDWARDS: The Great American Mousical came about in a delightful way. I was in a show on Broadway. When it was discovered that there was a little mouse in our wardrobe department, and someone mentioned that there's an awful lot of mice below the stage—way, way, way down in the bowels of the theater—a light bulb went off in my head. I thought, "Oh, my gosh, that would be a wonderful way to bring the theater to children of a young age." Why not write about a troupe of mice that live below the boards of a great Broadway theater and how they watch what goes on up above and take all their ideas and put on their own performances? And out of that came the book, The Great American Mousical.
EMMA WALTON HAMILTON: The Great American Mousical is really a Valentine to musical theater in many ways. We both love the theater so much. It's a fragile art in our digital age, and we wanted to do our part to preserve it and to say to kids, "Hey, this really matters."
We decided to bring everything that we knew about theater to bear using the eccentric characters that we have known and loved. The mice characters are based on them. Many are theatrical stereotypes, but stereotypes have their roots in truth. There's the great diva, and the harried stage manager, and the slightly neurotic hairdresser.
The mice share a little bit about theater etiquette, theater tradition, and theater history, so hopefully kids are getting a bit of that without realizing it. And then we thought we would support the book as much possible with theater-related activities, trivia questions, puzzles, downloadable coloring pages, and in the paperback version, there's a mock review written of the performance that the mice are putting on in the show.
If you know anything about theater, you can play along by guessing what the real shows are that we're referring to. And hopefully, we've made it fun as well as a good story.
TEACHINGBOOKS: Is The Great American Mousical an appropriate book to use for Reader's Theater?
EMMA WALTON HAMILTON: Yes, it is perfect for Reader's Theater. It actually breaks up very naturally and very easily, theatrically speaking. And it's enormous fun because the characters are so specific and so diverse, and you can have great fun stepping into the shoes of the pompous actor or the fretting diva or any of those things.
TEACHINGBOOKS: Please describe your collaborative writing process.
JULIE ANDREWS EDWARDS: Because I come from the theater, I use the images of the theater and of movies a great deal when I write. I see the story in my head. I have to break down the outline of a story first. I have to know where I'm going. Usually I have a good beginning and a good ending, and then I think, "Now I have to find my way through it."
When I work with Emma, she's always saying to me, "Mom, if you're thinking like the theater, you'd better get a good ending to your first act." By that she means, somewhere in the middle of the book, what is the point that you peak or get to the excitement before you move on to the next step? She's very good at reminding me about that.
When she and I write together, Emma is the nuts and bolts of the story and makes me stick to the really essential things–the outline, and what the pattern of the story is. I think my contribution is more the flights of fancy and the bits of imagination—seeing it in my head as a great play or a great movie. Then it's edited and re-edited and worked and reworked until we're both pretty satisfied with the result and it goes off to our publishing company, and then the hard work begins of finding an illustrator and so on.
EMMA WALTON HAMILTON: People ask me all the time what it's like to work with my mother. I feel completely blessed because, first of all, this has given us an opportunity to enrich our relationship in ways we never could have imagined. Our time together is purely creative. It's unfettered by politics or the news of the day or aches and pains or family dramas or anything else. This time together is sort of golden and protected as being just creative time, which is heavenly.
Our process together is that generally speaking, we start with an idea. For example, we want to write about mice in the theater, or we want to write a Valentine to the theater, and we're going to use mice as the central characters as our way in.
Then we'll say, what's the ultimate point that we're going to hope that this story delivers? In the case of Mousical, we were hoping to offer readers some of the joy and value of theater, making the point that no matter how small you are, you can still make a difference in the world.
Then we'll work backwards and we'll think, "What's the storyline that we are going to arrive at?" We'll start by brainstorming and outline and we'll think, "Okay, maybe it needs a little bit more here, a little bit heightened conflict there," and once we've figured out what the outline is, then we go back and start working our way through it, writing it together, and generally that is literally a process of just finishing each other's sentences. It's a very organic process.
Usually I'm transcribing while we're talking to each other, and we're just improv storytelling, and I'm typing, typing, typing while we're talking. This thing kind of pours out and unfolds, and then there are endless hours of editing and slashing and cutting and pasting and moving. We're both verbose occasionally, so we do a great deal of overwriting, and then a huge amount of cleaning up and eliminating and streamlining and focusing.
TEACHINGBOOKS: You're engaging with the story as actors, as writers, and as readers. How do all of these combine when you write a story?
JULIE ANDREWS EDWARDS: When I start to write, I see my stories as a kind of movie. For instance, I ask myself, "What kind of opening do I want for this book?" In the case o four book, Dragon: Hound of Honor, the opening illustration is a beautiful field. You can almost hear the lark in the sky, and you see the kind of day it is: a spring morning and you know it's going to be hot later; everything's kind of shimmering in the haze. Then suddenly, the dog "Dragon" comes up over the hill, and you wonder what's caught his attention.
EMMA WALTON HAMILTON: We both tend to think theatrically and visually. We think in terms of fanfare, like an overture to start the story off, and we think in terms of a denouement at the end. Mom tends to be the big ideas person. I tend to be the structure person. Later, when we're getting into the nuts and bolts of structure and figuring out how to do the research, then it's a real give and take of doing research and figuring out what piece goes where.
TEACHINGBOOKS: What's it like for you to read to children? What do you find is the best approach?
JULIE ANDREWS EDWARDS: When I read to children, I try to become the characters. It's great if you can make a separate voice for each character. Sometimes you can lower your voice with excitement or get more intimate about it: you can lean forward and engage the children as a narrator or as a reader. It's particularly important that you find the voice that you want to use for each character, because then children can imagine that person as you're reading aloud. And of course, the illustrations help enormously.
Having read the story aloud, ask them to draw for you. Ask them what they think Simeon's flute looked like, or what they imagined the river looked like. So many things that you can ask children hopefully pique their interest and they can design and think for themselves. Having children draw and illustrate what they saw in their minds' eyes during the story is a tremendous teaching aid.
TEACHINGBOOKS: What do you like to tell teachers?
EMMA WALTON HAMILTON: Keep up the good work. I have incredible admiration for teachers. I think that teachers have the hardest job in the world, and they are the most unsung heroes so much of the time.
I think every single one of us can think back on the key individuals in our lives who really made a difference, and also maybe some of those who sent us astray. There are those are the teachers who are brave enough to buck the system, and obviously not in such a way that jeopardizes their jobs, but brave enough to say, "I know I have to accomplish that, but I want to know how I'm going to help this child get there differently. I want to know what makes this child tick, and I want to help him get there from a place of curiosity, rather than from a place where I impose my ideas on him."
TEACHINGBOOKS: What do you like to tell students?
EMMA WALTON HAMILTON: Hang in there; there will come a moment when this will make sense, when a light bulb will go off, where you'll say, "Oh, I get this," or "That's interesting," or "I want to know more about that." Pay attention to that little light bulb and then follow it, follow it, follow it as much as you can, because that's your passion, that's your gift, that's where your life will begin to unfold.
TEACHINGBOOKS: What do you do when you get stuck?
EMMA WALTON HAMILTON: Usually, I walk away from my work for a little while. I find that's incredibly helpful. It's something I learned from my mom. She used to say, "Tell your brain you want that piece of information or you want to solve this problem, and then just walk away from it. Just forget about it. Just do something else, completely distract yourself, and you'll see, it's like a computer. Eventually, it will deliver it up." And I find that's really true.
If I say to myself, I need to figure out how this problem gets solved in this story, invariably it's in the shower or on a walk or when I'm doing something else entirely that this thing will surface and suddenly make itself known. And it has nothing to do with my having solved it. It's just coming from some deeper place organically, and it works.
TEACHINGBOOKS: Have you written any books that were not illustrated?
JULIE ANDREWS EDWARDS: Yes. The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles, which I wrote solo, is about using your imagination. I decided that perhaps it would be better without any illustrations because then any child could imagine the last great whangdoodle anywhere they wanted. And they do.
TEACHINGBOOKS: How did you come to write The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles?
JULIE ANDREWS EDWARDS: After I finished my first book, Mandy, I had so enjoyed the writing process and the characters that I felt a little bit lonely, and I sort of wanted to write some more. You never feel lonely if you're writing, because you're living with all these characters in your head.
I was looking for a word in a thesaurus one day. I couldn't find the word I was looking for, but I suddenly stumbled across the word "whangdoodle," and I looked up from the page, and I said, "My gosh, that's a wonderful word. I'm going to write a book called The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles." Then I had to come up with a story. The word and my title just fired up my imagination, so I set out to research what a whangdoodle might be. I looked in lots of dictionaries and couldn't find it, but finally, in one dictionary, I found a description of a whangdoodle. It was a humorous, mythical creature of fanciful and undefined nature. And I thought if it's undefined, maybe I could bethe one to define it. So the whangdoodle and I kind of found each other. I decided what he'd look like, and my imagination just went wild on that one. I had a terrific time writing that book.
TEACHINGBOOKS: Mandy has such fabulous universal themes, and it works so well today.
JULIE ANDREWS EDWARDS: To my delight, Mandy is still in print. The book came about as a kind of accident. I was making a movie in Europe on this glorious estate, and I was playing a game with my kids where we had forfeits. I lost the first game, and said to my eldest daughter, "All right, I lost, what's my forfeit to be?" And smart Jenny said, "Write me a story."
At first I thought I could write a little fable for her. But then I thought I would write something that would actually engage her, get her mind going, and make her feel stimulated. The idea of Mandy came about because I was filming on this beautiful estate. The gardens were so beautifully landscaped, and it was a place where so much history had happened. Families had lived there for generation after generation after generation.
I conceived the idea of a special little house in the woods and a little orphan girl who discovered this empty house, and she had such a need for home that she adopted the house and made it her own. The story goes on from there.
TEACHINGBOOKS: Julie, you are both a celebrity and a long-term author. Do you think of yourself as a celebrity author?
JULIE ANDREWS EDWARDS: These days, people like me who are in the arts are perceived as celebrity writers. That really makes me angry because I expend a great deal of effort and spend an enormous amount of time on our books. And I've been writing now for 35 years.
All I care about really is writing something worthwhile for children, something that will engage them in some way and stimulates in them a sense of wonder. Our books have three W's on them, which are "words," "wisdom," and "wonder." Words inevitably lead to wisdom, and wisdom inevitably leads to wonder and awe at this phenomenal world around us.
TEACHINGBOOKS: Emma, how do you suppose those who work with children and books can instill and maintain a joy of reading in their readers?
EMMA WALTON HAMILTON: I think the main thing that we can do as adults helping young people to find the joy in reading, whether we're parents or caregivers or educators, is to come at that subliminally as much as possible and not to make it an issue. The key is to know the individual child and get them materials to read that's going to speak to them best.
It might be providing comic books. Graphic novels might really speak to one child who's struggling with the other kinds of reading and might help them discover that storytelling is joyful and personal and illuminating. They might find your way in auditorily by listening to audio books in the car instead of playing Game Boys or watching DVDs.
It might be helping to explore a story visually by going to see a museum exhibit that's relevant to something that somebody's reading, or going to see a show or listening to a piece of music or cooking a meal that's in one of the stories, something practical, something kinesthetic that draws the reader in and helps them to experience the story for themselves. Those are all ways I think we can kind of come in the back door and help kids find the joy, as opposed to the chore or responsibility, of reading.
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