Emma Walton Hamilton — Wednesday Worthy INTERVIEW
June 6, 2012
EMMA WALTON HAMILTON is a best-selling children’s book author, editor, educator and arts and literacy advocate. She has co-authored over twenty children’s books with her mother, Julie Andrews, six of which have been on the New York Times best-seller list, including The Very Fairy Princess series (#1 NY Times Bestseller), Julie Andrews’ Collection Of Poems, Songs And Lullabies (illustrated by James McMullan); the Dumpy The Dump Truck series; Simeon’s Gift; The Great American Mousical and THANKS TO YOU – Wisdom From Mother And Child (#1 New York Times Bestseller).
Emma’s own book for parents and caregivers, Raising Bookworms: Getting Kids Reading for Pleasure and Empowerment, premiered as a #1 best-seller on Amazon.com in the literacy category and won a Parent’s Choice Gold Medal, silver medals from the Living Now and IPPY Book Awards, and an Honorable Mention from ForeWord Magazine’s Best Book of the Year.
Emma is a faculty member for Stony Brook Southampton’s MFA in Creative Writing and Literature Program, where she teaches children’s literature courses and serves as Director of the annual Southampton Children’s Literature Conference. She is also Executive Director of their Young American Writers Project (YAWP), an inter-disciplinary writing program for middle and high school students on Long Island.
As the creator and host of the “Children’s Book Hub” membership site, Emma provides resources, information and support for children’s book authors and illustrators world-wide. She is also the creator of “Just Write for Kids!“, an online course in writing picture books. (Biographical information and photos are from Emma’s website, used with permission. To read the full biography, and to see more of what Emma does, please visit her website. But do come back for the interview!)
Beth: I first got to know Emma through the books she has co-authored with her mother, then through her blog which was a forerunner of her current blog. I participated in the posts and comments on her current blog that helped firm up the content of her Just Write for Kids! course, then took the course itself from September to November of 2010. Emma’s encouragement and enthusiasm about my writing, and her sensitivity and support through the final weeks of my mother’s life, which coincided with my participation in the course, cemented my admiration for and appreciation of Emma. I was a charter member of her Children’s Book Hub, I continue to work with her as my freelance editor on many of my writing projects, Emma and I co-administer the Children’s Book Hub Facebook Group, and I look forward to meeting her in person in July, at the Stony Brook Southampton Children’s Literature Conference mentioned in the bio.
I am thrilled that she agreed to do this interview with me. I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I have! Click the magic words!
Beth: For most of us who write, the process is a solitary one, with perhaps some input at some point from a trusted friend or critique group.
You, on the other hand, have had a successful and productive collaborative writing partnership with your mother for several years, producing over 20 books (!) – picture books, early readers and middle-grade novels. How does that collaboration work? Do you contribute equally to the words that get written on the page? What are some of the rewards – and the frustrations – of writing in tandem?
Emma: It’s hard to believe, but Mom and I have been writing together now for 15 years (longer, if you count the first version of Simeon’s Gift that we penned together when I was just five!)
Our professional collaboration started with the Dumpy the Dump Truck series, and while we both had a pretty good understanding of dramatic structure and the rules of storytelling, we were totally green when it came to writing picture books. Those early years were a tremendous learning curve for us both. But we were quick and eager students, and we’ve been fortunate to have very patient editors over the years, who have taught us so much.
We generally start a new project by brainstorming an outline, even for a picture book. Once we have the seed of an idea – a character, or a plot, let’s say – we try to determine the theme, the overall message, or point, of the book. What do we want to leave our readers with? We ask ourselves questions like, “What must our hero do, or what problem must s/he overcome, in order to learn that lesson?”
Our writing process is literally just thinking out loud and finishing each other’s sentences. Mom is generally best at the fun ideas, the flights of fancy, or great one-liners; I’m the nuts-and-bolts person. I tend to keep track of whether the action is moving forward, or the voices are true to the characters. I’m also the scribe, typing while we talk, but it’s pretty equal in terms of the amount of words we each contribute to a given page.
Because we are often on opposite coasts, we do a lot of our work via webcam. It’s really revolutionized the way we work. We can do screen-sharing if need be, and somehow seeing each other while we work makes all the difference.
One of the great rewards of working with a partner is you have another set of eyes and ears, another creative mind to bounce ideas off of. There’ve been so many times when we’ve both been individually dry in terms of ideas, but once we start brainstorming together, some sort of alchemy takes over and the story starts emerging as if we are connecting the dots.
In terms of frustrations, they mostly have to do with scheduling. We are both SO busy, wearing multiple hats and having many different jobs… and then there’s the time difference. Finding the time to write together is probably the hardest part – and as a result, meeting our deadlines!
Beth: You have a strong background in theatre, as an actress, as co-founder of the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor, NY, as director of the education program at Bay Street for many years. Does that background inform your current work as a writer, editor and educator?
Emma: Everything is synergistic. For instance, last week I worked with a group of teen writers who had been participating in a workshop at our local library and were preparing to give public readings of their work. My job was to help them share themselves and their work with an audience – and we explored techniques like breathing, slowing down, grounding, lifting the eyes off the page, making contact, letting a thought land before moving on the next, where to begin or end an excerpt, etc. I was drawing on my experiences as an actor, director, educator, editor and fellow writer all at the same time.
I also always think about writing in dramatic terms, as does Mom. Concepts like the dramatic arc of a story, the three-act structure, or details like scene changes, sound effects, and entrances and exits, all play a major role in our writing process. And whenever I do public presentations, I try to incorporate what I know about performance and sustaining audience interest.
In the end it all comes down to storytelling. I see my primary role in almost everything I do these days as “facilitator.” Whether I’m writing, editing, teaching, directing, administrating or coaching, my job is to support how best to tell that story, to help it achieve its full potential.
Beth: Let’s segue from being an educator in theatre to being an educator in writing. Could you share with us some of the journey that took you from one focus into the other?
Emma: I’ve always enjoyed teaching. I started fairly early, teaching acting, and I also worked quite a bit as a dramaturg – which is the equivalent of an editor for playwrights. Eventually I ran the education programs at our theatre, and taught playwriting to middle and high school students in our area schools. I very quickly discovered that I learned more from teaching than in all my years of being a student. I’m not sure why that phenomenon exists, but it has certainly been true for me.
Several years after my mother and I started writing together, we were fortunate enough to develop our own imprint, in which we published not only our own picture books and novels but those by other writers as well, and I became the editor for those projects. Editing other people’s manuscripts, as well as screening the many submissions that came in over those years, was another invaluable education for me, and really helped me further understand the rules of the craft.
Eventually, I think because I was a ‘local author,’ I was invited to teach a course in picture book writing for the Southampton Children’s Literature Conference at Stony Brook Southampton. I simply loved it, and I’ve been teaching children’s book writing ever since. I joined the faculty there, and was subsequently invited to take over the directorship of the Children’s Lit Conference.
Beth: I know you’ve been teaching a class in the Master of Fine Arts in Literature program at Stony Brook Southampton this semester, a class in children’s literature. I freely admit that I envy the students in your class. What sort of topics have been covered in this class (just to kick my envy level up a notch or two…)?
Emma: It’s been a broad study in writing children’s books across several formats, and it’s been such fun. We began by studying picture books, and spent several weeks reading and studying some of our favorites, then workshopping the picture book manuscripts the students developed. We then moved on to chapter books and middle grade novels. The students each chose one book to read and report on, and we studied the differences between the two formats, and did a number of exercises in voice and style. We also looked at the evolution of children’s books from the beginning of the 20th century to today, and studied the way in which certain influencers, such as librarians (or the ALA), editors and ground breaking authors, had helped the genre develop and take its place in the industry, distinct from adult publishing.
We spent the last month studying YA. Again, we read and reviewed a number of classic and contemporary favorites, and the students tried their hands at writing their own YA material. Some of them are now developing full YA novels, and several have chosen to pursue them as thesis projects.
For our last class, we screened the excellent documentary about children’s lit, “Library of the Early Mind,” and reviewed mock query letters for the students’ manuscripts. The whole semester was a total joy. Once again, I think I learned as much as the students did. (I’m actually pursuing my own MFA in the program as well, so it gets a bit schizophrenic sometimes!) I can’t wait to teach it again.
Beth: You’re also involved in a program called YAWP, the Young American Writers Project. Could you tell us a bit about that?
Emma: I’m very proud to be the Executive Director and a co-founder of The Young American Writers Project. YAWP is an educational outreach program for middle and high school students created and sponsored by Stony Brook Southampton’s MFA in Creative Writing and Literature. The program is dedicated to mentoring middle and high school students in the development of creative expression and critical thinking through writing. Our acronym is a tongue-in-cheek tribute to Walt Whitman, the famous Long Island teacher, journalist and poet who sounded his ‘barbaric yawp across the rooftops’ a century and a half ago in “Leaves of Grass.”
YAWP programs send professional writers and writing teachers (largely comprised of our talented MFA students and faculty) into Long Island schools with a variety of innovative, inter-disciplinary writing workshops, including playwriting, screenwriting, poetry, personal essay and fiction, most of which conclude with special projects and presentations, as well as potential publication in the YAWP Ezine (www.yawpezine.com).
The goals of YAWP include:
• To enhance critical thinking, collaboration and communications skills.
• To help each student find and develop his or her unique voice and point of view.
• To use creative expression as a way to solve problems and promote global awareness.
• To advance 21st century skills while supporting ELA requirements.
• To expose students to the unique creative programs and resources of Stony Brook Southampton, including the annual Southampton Writer’s Conferences.
• To develop and support the next generation of readers and writers.
YAWP programs can be particularly effective for at-risk students, or for those who find writing and communications skills challenging in the traditional academic environment. For those interested in learning more, we have a terrific short film on the program which can be viewed on our website, http://www.youngamericanwritersproject.com
Beth: The aspect of your teaching that I have direct experience with is your Just Write for Kids online/home study course. What made you decide to reach out to aspiring writers in this way? How has the experience been for you?
Emma: The course was inspired by the fact that in my freelance editing practice I was seeing aspiring children’s book authors make the same basic mistakes over and over again. It struck me that there were clearly some common misperceptions out there about writing for children, and with the market getting tougher and tougher, I thought (rather selfishly, I admit) that if I could give people the tools, the ground rules, for writing an effective picture book, I could perhaps save them, and myself, a lot of time and trouble.
Since I was teaching at the college, I started developing the course by recording myself in class. I had those recordings transcribed, then further developed the material to encompass an eight week course. Having taken quite a few courses online myself, I felt that the best format was to deliver the lessons in weekly installments, but to allow people the time to work on the lessons at their own pace and in their own time. While it was designed to be an independent study, I wanted students to be able to ask me questions and also learn from one another, so there is a lively comment section attached to each lesson where questions get posted and feedback is shared between me and the participants over time.
I recently revisited the course material and did a comprehensive update. I added some new concepts, as well as some follow-up to the assignments and additional resources, bonuses etc. I think of it as a living, breathing program that grows and adapts as I do – and as the industry does.
Beth: Of course, I also need to mention the Children’s Book Hub. I so appreciate the resources you amass for us in the Hub, and especially the monthly Expert Interviews and follow-up Question and Answer webinars. I am in awe of the preparation and research that you do for each one. Could you tell us about the Hub from your perspective?
Emma: My journey to becoming a children’s book author and editor was a crash course in learning whatever I could about the genre from whomever I could as I went along. I wish there had been a resource like the Children’s Book Hub for me to turn to, to get up to speed with respect to the industry’s standards, challenges, key players, etc. when I was first starting out.
Writing can be a very solitary experience – and as I progressed in my writing, editing and teaching, I became more and more aware of the need for community, as well as for greater access to information and resources in our field. This is particularly true for those of us who live in small towns, or parts of the world that have limited availability of critique groups or other resources specific to children’s lit. Happily, the Internet offers so much opportunity in this regard. The Hub provides as much support for my own work as it does for my members. I think I learn as much, if not more, each month as they do! It does take a lot of time to organize and prepare for the interviews and Q&A’s on a weekly basis, to write the newsletters, and to ferret out ongoing information and resources, but it’s worth every moment. And I’m a bit like a mother hen – I get so excited when one of our members has a triumph. It’s a triumph for us all!
Beth: I do want to talk briefly about your editing as well. I have benefited so much from your expertise. What made you decide to get into freelance editing? How did you learn the skills that are necessary?
For anyone who hasn’t experienced your guidance, I want to say how much I appreciate your ability to give honest feedback while remaining encouraging. I realize a great deal of that is simply your personality, but how do you find the balance? Are you ever stymied by how to deal with a manuscript?
Emma: First of all, thank you. It’s an ongoing pleasure to work with you and the many other repeat clients I have, as well as the many other individuals who have shared their manuscripts with me over the years.
I think my editing skills were initially honed through my experiences in the theatre. I had the advantage of being exposed to a great deal of theatre as a child, so that by the time I started to study acting and directing myself, I already had a fairly solid base of knowledge and instinct from which to work. I had the privilege of working with some truly outstanding teachers – Stella Adler, Herbert Berghof, Uta Hagen, Robert Moss and Harold Guskin – all of whom helped shape my understanding of character, dramatic structure, conflict, theme and action, which are universal principles of dramatic writing no matter the genre.
Eventually, I had the privilege of working with a number of playwrights on new plays. Whether my role was as actor, dramaturg, director or producer, I learned what was needed to strengthen the story and the action. The best directors ask leading questions to help actors make discoveries and choices, rather than telling them what to do or how to do it. That philosophy has very much informed my own approach to feedback, as have the workshops I’ve led for kids over the years.
The workshop approach is used by most creative writing programs around the world, and feedback is an important part of the workshop process – but kids don’t necessarily instinctively know how to strike the right balance when it comes to constructive criticism. They’re inclined to say “I liked it!” or “It was funny!” and stop there, or attempt to rewrite someone else’s play with sentences that begin with “You should…” In the young playwrights and YAWP programs I’ve led, we’ve always emphasized talking about what works – and why – before addressing what doesn’t, and asking questions instead of making statements about areas that need strengthening, to help lead the playwright to his or her own discoveries.
Over the years, as I’ve moved into writing, then editing and coaching, my approach has continued to evolve. Of course, it’s also been informed by my own experiences as a writer – and by editors I’ve worked with.
I do sometimes get stymied by a particular editing challenge – but when I do, I go back to the basic rules of dramatic structure, I start posing the essential questions, and that usually reveals the way. These days, I’m very careful about screening a manuscript first before I agree to take it on, so as to determine whether it’s something I can be helpful with before I begin. Different editors are better suited to different projects, and I do know my strengths and weaknesses – and my limitations.
Beth: What are the greatest rewards – and if you want to share them, some of the frustrations as well – of the variety of work you do within the kidlit world?
Emma: Of all the fields I’ve worked in, I find children’s lit one of the most rewarding. Becoming a mother was a watershed moment in my life – it was as if I suddenly woke up and noticed the beauty, the innocence, the vulnerability, not just of my child, but of children everywhere. I was suddenly filled with compassion for every child I met, as well as for the child I was – whom I had largely raced to grow out of and get away from.
It’s hard growing up. The world can be a scary, chaotic place… but this is where children’s literature is so valuable. It provides safe opportunities for children to solve problems, exorcize fears, laugh at themselves, escape for a moment, learn and grow. One editor I know likens children’s books to “survival kits” for kids. I love that analogy.
There is nothing more rewarding than making an author visit at a school, let’s say, and seeing the joy or interest on children’s faces as you read a story you have written. Their questions, their comments, their enthusiasm, totally offset any of the challenges or frustrations inherent in the writing or publishing process. And there are frustrations, of course – just as there are in any business or creative endeavor. There’s nothing quite as painful as a poor review, or low sales returns, or a rejection letter, when you’ve poured your heart and soul into something you hope will be valuable and appreciated. It’s also very hard to make a living writing children’s books… but to me, the rewards outweigh the challenges tenfold. In the end, no matter how dark the subjects they tackle may be, children’s books are ultimately, inherently, hopeful. And the people who write them and illustrate them and publish them and sell them are some of the nicest people in the world – and that makes it a very lovely world to be a part of.
Beth: I feel privileged and honored to have been able to have this in-depth “conversation” with you, Emma. I know my readers will have appreciated it, as have I. Thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview, and for all you do for me, personally, in my writing life, as well as for all you do in the world of children’s literature at large. To borrow one of your own phrases, “To your success!”