A while back I had the immense pleasure of having tea with a small group of writers, Dame Julie Andrews, and her daughter and writing partner Emma Walton Hamilton. The tea was hosted at Hachette’s offices in New York (parent company to mother and daughter’s publisher Little, Brown Books for Children) to celebrate The Very Fairy Princess: Graduation Girl!, the newest book in Ms. Andrews and Ms. Hamilton’s popular princess series of picture books.
I should have written about this afternoon ages ago, truly. But sometimes you have one of those experiences that leaves you feeling so warm, inspired, and bright-eyed that you want to sit with it greedily for a bit before sharing it with the world. You know that saying that you should never meet your heroes? If Julie Andrews is your hero, and you ever have the chance to meet her, then meet her.
She is in no way disappointing, and in all ways completely magical. When she arrived to our little event and settled herself down with a cup of PG Tips (her favorite), she graciously put all of us nervous tea-drinkers at ease in her presence by declaring, “No pinkies required.”
I had tea with Julie Andrews.
I listened as Andrews and Hamilton talked about their writing process, their own personal relationship, their advice for parents of young children, and their thoughts on literacy and education. The mother and daughter gushed about French illustrator Christine Davenier, who perfectly captures their Very Fairy Princess (and they have never even met her). It hit on every fascinating topic I could have hoped they would talk about. They were both fascinating, lovely, warm women.
But, I was there as a writer, so it’s time to write.
Julie Andrews has been authoring children’s books since the early 70s, and she’s been collaborating with her daughter Emma for two of those decades. Well, professionally at least. In truth their first collaboration happened when Hamilton was five. Andrews and set designer Tony Walton divorced amicably, and Andrews thought if she and Hamilton could write a book together that Walton could illustrate, it would be a family project to show that they were still a family even in divorce. That book was Charlie the Englishman, and years later the story was reincarnated as Simeon’s Gift.
When you watch Andrews and Hamilton share stories, you can see that this is a pairing that goes beyond mother/daughter love into a real life collaboration. They have a shorthand with each other, and they finish each other’s sentences. When Dame Andrews winds up to tell a story about her incredible life, she smiles a bit, then closes her eyes and looks up a little (it is breathtaking to witness). Ms. Hamilton keeps the flow of conversation grounded, bringing her mother back to the topic if necessary. I could happily spend the rest of my days listening to Julie Andrews tell stories as my professional job, but there was a limited amount of time for us to ask our questions, so a bit of grounding was also truly appreciated. When the pair told us that Hamilton’s role in the collaboration was to provide the story with structure while Andrews’ provided “the flights of fancy,” I was not a bit surprised. I feel like this with my own mom, who is the grounding force to my “what ifs.”
Because, as Dame Andrews put it, she “has a day job,” most of their work together happens through email, webcam, Skype… however they can reach each other with Hamilton based in New York and Andrews all over the world. Their process is very organic. “I think musically and theatrically,” says Andrews. Hamilton, a noted educator and literacy advocate, helps provide the balance and the problem that the book’s protagonist must overcome.
Their first book together was Dumpy the Dump Truck, written when Hamilton’s now seventeen-year-old son was going through a toddler obsession with trucks. It was hard to find “friendly stories” about trucks, and when Hamilton and Andrews discussed the need for a book about “a warm little truck” rather than just pictures of trucks, they decided the only thing to do was write one together.
Their latest series, The Very Fairy Princess, is inspired by Hamilton’s precocious daughter Hope. “She’s really the diva in the house,” says Andrews. She also has perfect tone and perfect pitch, which Andrews says “melts my heart.” I cannot describe how sublime her expression is when speaking as a proud grandmother.
Geraldine (Gerry) is an empowered little girl who truly sees herself as a princess. But she’s a different kind of princess, not focused on tiaras and outward fanciness. “She is really about the inner sparkle,” says Andrews.
The books are incredibly funny. “It’s not that either of us are so funny, it’s that Gerry is so funny,” says Hamilton. In the latest installment, Graduation Girl!, Hamilton says they wanted to address the fear that children have when something new is about to happen. For Gerry, this means graduating from one grade and one teacher to another. They wanted to show children that these big changes can also be wonderful.
And this book is a love letter to teachers. “Teachers are unsung heroes. They’re in the trenches. We did want to celebrate and honor that,” Hamilton said.
The pair are big supporters of libraries, too. “Bookstores are disappearing, libraries cannot,” said Andrews. (This literally gave me a heart palpitation.) When Hamilton’s son Sam was younger he was ready to give up on reading altogether. Hamilton shared, “He really had the presence of mind to say to his English teacher, ‘I respect these books, but I’m just not enjoying them. They’re too depressing.'” His teacher let him choose his next book, and they consulted with the local librarian to try and match her son with books that interested him. “He said ‘nonfiction, humor, and animals.'” Their librarian gave him My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell. “That did the trick,” says Hamilton.
The bond between this mother and daughter is so strong that we wondered how it was built, and how we can bring it to our own families. “Have an adventure in the garden,” said Andrews, telling us that some of her best times with her children were small outside explorations. “Let’s see how much red we can see in the hedgerows.”
But their biggest advice for bonding with your children? “Share stories,” said Hamilton. “Read to them,” said Dame Andrews without hesitation (squee!!!!).