Thursdays with Emma Walton Hamilton — (interview excerpts) Part One
January 30, 2013
On January 8th, 2013, author, charter Children’s Book Hub member and Co-Host of the Children’s Book Hub Facebook group, Beth Stilborn, (yes, me) interviewed author, editor, educator and Hub founder Emma Walton Hamilton.
This was an oral interview, by phone. It was part of the regular “Expert Interviews” that Emma does for the Hub — this time she was the expert being interviewed. The transcript is now available, and with Emma’s permission, I will be serializing this interview (because it’s too long for one post!) over the next several weeks in a series called “Thursdays with Emma Walton Hamilton.”
Emma 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, seven of which have been on the New York Times best-seller list.
Each week I’ll be giving you another portion of Emma’s bio, followed by part of our interview. I hope you enjoy getting to know Emma better.
BETH: It’s great to be able to turn the tables on Emma; thank you so much for this opportunity for me to sit in the interviewer’s chair and ask you the questions.
EMMA: I’m delighted to be here on this side, although I’m a little nervous I have to say!
BETH: The feeling is mutual! We’ll be great! One of our Hub members said when she submitted her question – and it so echoes my own feeling that I want to share it with the group to start our evening – she said, “I want to thank Emma for holding the light for each of us while we work at becoming authors. You have truly been a patient teacher and editor, a role model and inspiration for all of us.” Emma, I think you can be assured that there is a hearty “so say all of us” going up all around the world.
EMMA: Thank you; that’s very dear. I love that image – holding the light. That’s a wonderful metaphor, and I do feel like I try to do that for everyone who aspires to play in this wonderful playground of children’s books; it’s truly a joy, this business and craft, and I get so much pleasure out of working with others in the same field.
BETH: You certainly give us so much encouragement, and I’m going to delve into your joy as we go along. I will get to a more linear approach to my questions in a moment, but first I’d like to get to some of the heart of Emma Walton Hamilton.
Emma, you and I share several passions: children’s books and literacy, the arts; but I’m going to focus on your passion for children’s books – and so my question to start off our evening is a two-parter. What made you so passionate about children’s literature and why are you committed to helping emerging writers to find their voice?
EMMA: Good questions to start off with! I would say that there are two primary events or influences in my life that drew me to children’s literature and made me passionate about it in the first place. The first is that I am keenly aware of what an influence it was in my own childhood, what a profound joy and learning tool and friend children’s books were to me as a child. I had favorites that I returned to again and again, and I can vividly remember listening to Huckleberry Finn being read aloud to me by my father and stepmother over summer vacation or The Little Grey Men or The Wind in the Willows being read to me by my mom, and just not wanting the chapter to end, and not wanting to go to sleep without reading the next chapter… and how much that influenced me throughout my youth.
Then I did a side step and went into theater, and did a lot of acting and producing and directing and teaching, and I became very involved in dramaturgy as well – which means working with playwrights on their plays. As I had my own theater that my husband and I were running together, I was working helping playwrights develop their plays, and studying and working with dramatic structure and content, and also teaching playwriting to kids in the area schools.
Then I had my own children. And that’s when everything really kind of turned around for me. The minute I became a parent myself – it sounds so sappy, but it’s so true for me – the minute I became a parent, the whole world became child-centric for me. I wanted to program theater performances for kids, so I created a young audience program at the theater for schools and local family audiences. And then I wanted to write for kids as well.
I was very fortunate in that my mom had already written actually four children’s books, the first, Mandy, followed by The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles, many years ago – in the 70s – and more recently the first two books in the Little Bo series. Her publisher had been asking her if she would ever consider writing for much younger children with picture books. She really didn’t have any idea about what it would take to write a picture book, and so she and I ended up having a conversation about it, and I was a new parent and she knew I was working with kids, and she asked what I would be looking for if I were looking for a book for Sam, for instance… What would it be about? I knew immediately that it would be about trucks, and be character driven, and that it would have some dramatic value. That was all Sam wanted to read – he was completely obsessed, and we were reading the same I Can Name 1000 Trucks or How Bulldozers Work or …
BETH: Factual things.
EMMA: Right; exactly. I wanted to be able to give him something with a little theme or substance and also entertain myself reading with him. So all those events converged, and once we started writing together I was completely hooked. Little by little I found myself moving away from theater and more and more toward children’s book writing. And as we were asked to write more books by our publisher, it finally became my primary focus. What was the second part of the question?
BETH: The second question – and you delved nicely into other questions – but we’re going to get back to them… Why are you so committed to helping emerging writers find their own voice?
EMMA: Well, the truthful answer is – a big part of the answer is – enlightened self- interest. I discovered about myself many years ago, 20-30 years ago, that I learn more from teaching than from studying. When I first started teaching acting, for instance, I found I learned a great deal more about the craft by teaching it and articulating it and helping others access that place within themselves of truth and authenticity than I ever did from all the years I studied. And that is certainly also true for me with writing.
I teach writing at Stony Brook Southampton now and I continue to find year after year that the more I teach the more I learn. So a big part of it, for me, is wanting to learn myself – and this gives me a wonderful sense of community and a way to do that. Truthfully, there are so many folks out there who aspire to and dream of writing for kids, and I want them to share the joy. It’s interesting, because you may remember from the interview I did with Lin Oliver a few months ago how generous the children’s book community is.
BETH: Amazingly so.
EMMA: Amazingly so, and what a sense of community there is and collegiality and mutual support, and that doesn’t exist in every creative medium. Many creative mediums are more competitive and cutthroat. But for some reason – I think because we are writing for children – there is more of a mindset of service, I suppose, of mission. It’s not just about “getting my book published,” it’s about helping kids read, helping kids learn something, discover something, feel empowered. You know, there is a larger picture for children’s book authors. So that’s a passion for me, that’s part of why I want to write for kids, and I think the more people who do that, the better place the world will be because there will be that many more bright, happy kids and that much more quality material available for them to read.
BETH: There is so much heart in children’s literature.
EMMA: And most children’s books have a thematic goal underlying the story, something that inevitably offers hope in some way, or helps them, offers tools for coping or helps them grow and learn about their world. The more we do that and the better we get at it, and the more people there are to do that, the better society we’ll have. Sounds sort of bold and dreamy but there it is.
BETH: It’s where we start, with kids. If they get a good start, that is going to inform their whole life.
EMMA: That’s right, and to me that’s the key to our future, our collective future. I am passionate about kids because (a) I adore them, because I was one, because I have them, because I work with them, because they are so innocent and open and pure and full of promise and potential, and (b) because they are growing up to be the next generation that will be helming our world, and I worry about that. I worry about who we are as a society and some of the choices we’ve made in recent decades and years, and the more we can nurture our youth the better chance we have for our collective future.
To be continued… Next week, Emma will talk about some of her favorite books and authors over the years.
To find out more about Emma, please visit http://www.emmawaltonhamilton.com
If you are interested in learning more about the Children’s Book Hub, please click here: http://www.childrensbookhub.com