Emma Walton Hamilton on Mother's Day With Julie Andrews, Getting Kids to Read

Jeanne Sager

Julie Andrews
Photo by David Rodgers
When my daughter picked up Emma Walton Hamilton's new book with her mom, Julie Andrews, she practically shrieked at the sight of the author photo.

"Mommy, it's Princess Mia's Grandma!" No mention of the gorgeous Emma beside her.

That's life as the daughter of one of the world's most celebrated actresses, but Emma has melded her own experience in theater and Hollywood and a talent for writing passed down from her famous mother to make books cool for kids.

Mother and daughter's most recent collaboration, The Very Fairy Princess, hits shelves later this month, and The Stir spoke with Emma Walton Hamilton about motherhood, being a famous daughter, and of course, books.

What have you really enjoyed about writing children's books?

What have I really enjoyed? You know, how much time do we have? It's total, sheer, unbridled pleasure. It's like playing in a sandbox all day long.

First of all, I have two kids, I work with kids, most of my life revolves around kids, so I'm obviously a big lover of children. I'm a big reader myself and a passionate advocate for the value of reading.

Those two things alone make me feel like I'm living purposefully. But also the world of children's literature is just so rich and wonderful. Ultimately I think the thing I enjoy most about it is it's inherently hopeful.

How were you introduced to reading as a child?

Reading was a huge part of my childhood. My parents were divorced very early, so I had two families. Both households that I grew up in are passionated reading houses. I was just surrounded by books everywhere, in every room. Always reading bedtime stories.

It was a huge, huge part of my childhood; both my mother and my father and my stepmother read to me, my brothers, and sisters constantly.

And of course, my mom was writing her first children's book, The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles, when I was a kid. So she'd read to us each new chapter as she completed it as kind of a test market.

So your mom acts ... and she wrote children's books -- how did you end up following the less glamorous path?

[Laughs.] Well, I started out as an actor! It was a circuitous route for me. I started out working in theater, which I think informs a lot of what I do.

I saw how much she loved writing, and that was certainly contagious. Also, I wrote a lot of stories myself as a kid. She kept them all, and she bound them for me. She took them seriously.

We actually wrote a little story together when I was 5, which was an attempt I think on my parents' part to give me a sense of family. My father, who was an artist, illustrated it.

They were divorced, living on separate sides of the country, and the idea was that my mom and I would write the story. I'd then travel to my father's house for the summer; he'd illustrate it. I'd bring it home, and she'd have it bound, and I'd have this lovely copy of our collaboration together forever.

I still do have that wonderful little item. Many years later, we revisited it and adapted it into one of the books that we published, which is called Simeon's Gift.

Do you remember your favorite books your mom read to you?

My all-time favorite, my rainy day favorite was The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. That was a book she read to me first and I came back to it again and again.

What are the books you read to your kids that they really respond to?

I have a son and a daughter -- my son is 13, and my daughter is 6 -- and they have completely opposite tastes. And not just because one is so much older or because one is male and one is female.

My son has always been a lover of non-fiction, and my daughter is a total fantasy lover, princesses and anything girly. It's challenging to find stuff we can read together as a family.

Fortunately one of the things both of my kids really love is humor. What inevitably happens is I end up reading my daughter bedtime stories, and my son comes and snuggles with us.

I'll sometimes look for books that have appeal to both of them. The wonderful Winnie the Pooh books are so ageless ... as is Beverly Cleary.

Your daughter is in to princesses -- did she play a role in The Very Fairy Princess?

Photo from Hachette Book Group
She's the inspiration actually. She's a wonderful, feisty, independent, funny, strong little girl. She has CP, so she has some mobility issues with her legs -- it's mild, but it does present her with some obstacles and challenges in life.

She sails through them because her sense of self worth and view of herself is of a beautiful girl and a princess. She's just been such a source of inspiration to us because even with her tumbles and scrapes, her will is so strong.

How does it actually work writing with your mom?

We live on opposite coasts; my mom is most of the time in California and I'm here on the East Coast. At the beginning it was very difficult -- we'd spend a lot of time on the phone with very stiff necks!

Now we use the miracle of technology and for the last several years have been writing together via Webcam. We find it's really important to see each other when we're writing -- a lot of our dialogue is very expressive, and somehow you just need to see each other . . . to be able to make eye contact. 

Usually once we have our idea we outline . . . and we work from the beginning in a very organic process of finishing each other's sentences! I type like crazy while we're working, print the latest efforts of the day, and we e-mail them back and forth and edit like crazy!

You guys have a close relationship -- so what's Mother's Day going to be like?

I so wish we were doing something. Unfortunately she'll be out of town this Mother's Day; she's doing a concert in London. She'll be traveling, and I'll be here! But we will obviously speak. Most likely we'll iChat like we usually do!

Is that how your kids get to see Grandma too?

Yes, often! Although she does come here. She has a house out here, and she does come and visit as often as she can. But we do a lot of visiting that way -- it's a great thing. I think a lot about how much easier that would have made my life easier growing up with divorced parents.

Do they get to watch Grandma via the movies?

Yes! Again, it's interesting because of my son's passion for non-fiction, he was mostly as a kid and is mostly interested in documentaries and sports and that sort of thing. He never really showed a tremendous amount of interest in those films.

My daughter adores them, and she asks to watch them and can't get enough of them. She's fascinated by the whole notion!

How do you balance the TV watching with making sure the kids get enough books?

This is a big part of my passion; I wrote a book on this subject called Raising Bookworms.

I'm a firm believer that we need to take responsibility as parents. We learn reading at school, but we learn to love reading at home.

More and more, with the digital age and electronics competing for our kids' attention, we really do have a challenge. That whole book is about finding ways to make reading as joyful an activity in kids lives as possible . . . so it's something they gravitate toward and are drawn to. 

I think we can't make TV forbidden fruit; the minute you put a moritorium on it it's something they're more drawn to. I think our task as parents is to look for ways to use it wisely.

The best way to do that is to a. be involved in what they're watching, to have dialogue about what their watching and b. to look for ways to integrate reading with TV.

Watching films, for instance, that are adaptations of books so they can then read the book or vice versa. Or having dialogue about the fact that every show they're watching starts as a script, speaking about the narrative of the story . . . not just letting it be received passively.

Talking about the story, talking about the characters and the problems that get solved.

In an ideal world we have to encourage both -- see the film, see a theater adaptation, read the book. . .


You can start by reading The Very Fairy Princess with your kids this May! The book will be available from Little Brown on May 19, with a digital download of the audio form available from Hachette Audio.

Or start writing your own books with your kids -- or for them. Emma Walton Hamilton offers a Just Write for Kids at-home course for moms who want to put the tales they spin at bedtime onto the page. 

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