Emma Walton Hamilton
Meet Emma Walton Hamilton
Hi. I'm Emma Walter Hamilton and I'm a children's book author and an editor and an arts educator. With my mother, Julie Andrews Edwards, I've authored such children's books as the Dumpy the Dump Truck series, Dragon: Hound of Honor, The Great American Mousical, Simeon's Gift and Thanks to You: Wisdom from Mother and Child.
Recently, I wrote a book called Raising Bookworms: Getting Kids Reading for Pleasure and Empowerment, and my mother and I will soon be coming out with a poetry anthology called Julie Andrews' Collection of Poems, Songs and Lullabies.
The Young American Writers Project
I've been teaching young writers in both middle school and high school for about fifteen years and just recently have been invited to create a program called the Young American Writers Project for Stony Brook South Hamptons. Their M.F.A. in writing literature program is sponsoring this wonderful writing program which will go out and is, in fact, already going out into area middle schools and high schools to bring professional writers into the classrooms to work with students.
At the moment, we're doing playwriting, but by the end of the year, we will be including screen writing and poetry and personal essay and fiction. It's a wonderful and exciting program. Right now we're launching it with playwriting, which is what I've been doing in my previous incarnation as running the education programs at Bay Street Theatre which I was a co-founder of. I ran a program there called the Young Playwrights Program.
That is a piece I know well, and we were able to translate for this particular new program, the Young American Writers Project. We're starting with the playwriting, and then we'll branch out from there. By the end of each semester, what we do is we push into the classrooms for seven weeks, twice a week in teams of two teaching artists per classroom, and we essentially take the students through the basic concepts of dramatic writing.
Introduce them to ideas like character and conflict and theme and dialogue construction and so forth. By the end of the semester, every student has written his or her own short play. At that point, the focus shifts away from writing and more towards production and one play is selected from each school by a selection committee.
We then produce the plays. The students act in them and we hire professional directors and we actually create a real professional performance from these plays. It's the most exhilarating, wonderful program to be a part of and to teach because I have the great good fortune to see how it impacts these young people's lives.
Over the years, I have to say I have seen kids make the decision to attend college who, at the beginning before the program began, didn't think that was an option for them. I've seen students decide they were gonna be writers. I've seen students decide they would become journalists, performers, directors.
One student started an actual newspaper, a local newspaper, adjunct to our existing local newspaper, and went on to become a political correspondent. It's just such a gift to work with these young people and see what writing and the arts brought together can do for young minds.
The play's the thing for developing critical thinking
Playwriting is particularly good for developing critical thinking skills because there's a great deal of problem-solving involved in crafting a play and in thinking creatively about the imperatives of theatre. Theatre's a collaborative medium. It's not a solitary medium such as, perhaps, writing fiction is or painting or some other artistic disciplines.
Theatre really depends upon the actors' feedback once the play is up and on its feet and being staged and produced. The director's conceptual approach in tying all the elements together, the designer's contributions. All of that comes together to create this whole that doesn't exist without each piece contributing to it. As a result, the playwright has to think creatively about all of those elements.
The playwright has to think, "I need to convey a car chase here, but this is theatre." How do I solve that problem given the confines of theatre and the fact that this isn't a movie and this isn't a novel. I can't just write whatever I want. I have to think about the limitations. It forces a kind of problem-solving and a kind of creativity within the confines of the structure that one has to work within that I think is unique to playwriting and to theatre.
Writing for theatre
I think the collaborative nature of theatre serves to strengthen writing skills considerably because it forces the writer to think multi-dimensionally. You have to ask questions about the material that you don't necessarily have to ask if you're writing just straight fiction.
You have to figure out will a designer be able to You don't have to solve the problem for the designer, but you have to be able to open your mind to the question of what challenges will this pose for a scenic designer, for a lighting designer, for a sound designer, for a production designer? Those kinds of questions, the writer has to be wrestling with while they're writing.
There's also the element of suspension of disbelief that is unique to theatre. When you go into a film, when you go and see a movie, for example, everything is pretty much fed to you, spoon fed to you. It's all there on the screen, and the student who's watching a film is just receiving, in a sense, not necessarily being asked to actively participate other than to receive and to listen and to absorb and integrate the story.
The theatre — you have to, by nature, walk into the space and say, "I surrender my disbelief. I am willing to sit here in the dark with these people to the right and to the left of me and believe that that one wall that is the backdrop of the set is actually extending all the way around. And this is a real room where this scene is unfolding or in fact, we're not indoors, we're outdoors or we're in space or wherever we may be and that that sound effect is, in fact, a helicopter or whatever it might be."
There is a real level of participation with the imagination that an audience member is required to do in the theatre. I think the writer writing for theatre needs to always keep that in mind, needs to write with the audience in mind and the audience's journey in mind in a way that is different than other writing disciplines.
Extending a story through theatre and music
Whether you're telling a story orally or on the page or on the stage, you're still dealing with a beginning and a middle and an end. You're still overcoming a conflict of some sort or solving problems. You're still exploring relationships and ideas and themes and messages and so forth. They are completely related to each other. I like to think of them as wonderful complements to each other.
One of the things that excites me and my mother and I when we write together is thinking creatively about how each of those disciplines can support each other with a particular idea. For example, can this book be adapted for the stage? Might there then be another opportunity for a young person to experience the ideas in this book or in this story from a different perspective?
We had this experience recently with one of our books, Simeon's Gift, which is a picture book that we wrote together. It happens to be a book about music or about a musician — a minstrel who goes on a journey in search of his craft and his muse in order to win the love of his lady and — I should say the approval of her father. The love isn't a problem; it's whether they are allowed to be married.
We had the extraordinary experience of adapting that original story and book into a play for a stage and then a musical, I should say, with songs that were inspired by the story and by the characters and so forth. Then taking that one step further, we were asked to develop the piece for a symphony. Those songs and that score were then extended that much further for an 82-piece orchestra. We developed it for symphony.
At the same time, we also explored creating a Web game around the journey that this young musician takes in the book where children can go online and make their own mini symphonies from the sounds of nature which is essentially what Simeon does in the story. All of these pieces were wonderfully synergistic with the book itself.
Our fantasy and our dream was that the young person who read the book might then come to the theatre or to the symphony and have different senses and different ideas awakened and then go back to the book with that new perspective and new awareness and then perhaps log on and experiment with creating their own symphony online. It would be a real sort of multi-dimensional, multi-creative experience that starts with the book and ends with the book but goes all over the place in between.
Raising a bookworm
I wrote the book Raising Bookworms because I was finding that whenever I went on public speaking appearances, author tours, book signings, into classrooms, into libraries, what I was hearing the most often, the single most consistently asked question that both my mother and I would often, when we traveled together and appeared together were hearing was, "How to I get my child reading again? How do I get my child reading to begin with or how do I get my child reading again? He or she used to be a wonderful reader, but I've lost them to the Internet or I've lost them to the Game Boy or whatever it may be. And how do I get my kid to turn off the Game Boy and pick up a book?"
We were hearing this question with such frequency and urgency that I began to think, "Boy, this is really becoming a serious issue in our society and in our community." As a parent, I could relate because I have two kids. I have a son who is twelve and daughter who's five. Certainly, the digital world is a big part of our life.
I'm fortunate in that both my kids love to read and are terrific readers. But I didn't want one thing to replace to the other. I wanted that to continue, that joy of reading in our life. I thought let me see if my experience as an author and as particularly an arts educator, if I can do some research and see if I can address this question in a way that may be more accessible to parents and to people who are short of ideas as to how to bring that back to life.
Finding the joy
To me, the single most important element in Raising Bookworms, in raising a bookworm or several bookworms is keeping the joy alive in reading. This is the whole focus of the book. It's the whole premise of the book. If we ask ourselves only one question as parents in relationship to this idea, I think it should be am I serving the joy with this activity or am I serving something else? Am I killing the joy?
It's an interesting dilemma because children when they're babies and they're toddlers, we tend to read to them much more, I hope. The ideal situation when we're babies and toddlers, we are read to, we are snuggling and cuddling and being loved with our family members.
Maybe we have a snack or we're nursing or we have a bottle, and reading is equated with all things wonderful and warm and fuzzy. Reading equals love. Then we go to school and we begin to learn to read for ourselves and sometimes it's a struggle. Often it's a hard thing to do to learn how to read.
There's a certain amount of pressure and expectation from teachers and perhaps from parents as well. Maybe the material isn't as scintillating as the favorite story at home that's being read to us by our beloved family members. Little by little, we begin to associate reading with pressure and with responsibility and with chore and with duty and with frustration or with boredom.
Around that same time that this is happening, what we tend to do as parents is back off of reading to our kids so much, thinking I need to promote independent reading skills, and I need to let the child go and do their own reading rather than reading to them.
Nothing could be further from the truth. This is the time when we need to read more to keep the joy alive because if we back off of reading and all they're doing is experiencing the frustrations of learning to read and the pressures of learning to read, then reading is no longer associated with joy; it's now associated with struggle and chore.
The book's premise is let's bring back the joy. Let's look for ways — and I call them stealth mode activities because I think kids have a wonderful way of knowing when we have an ulterior motive and just because they think it's an ulterior motive, pushing back against it.
I think one of the challenges for us as parents is to be a little bit subtle about our approach and crafty and find stealth mode techniques to keep the joy alive. For example, with the youngest readers, it's as simple as making sure that the reading environment is inviting, making sure that the lighting is good to read by, making sure that it's cozy, that there aren't too many distractions of sound or visual distractions.
Having the TV on in the other room can be very distracting to a child who is reading or being read to. The basic environmental support, creating a reading nook, a place to go and read together and establishing reading rituals and those kinds of things for younger children are very important. Reading everywhere and anywhere, whenever possible. I'm a great believer in reading at the dinner table, reading in the bath, reading in the car, reading when you're waiting in line.
Connecting books with life
For older children, it starts with keeping books available everywhere: in the kitchen, in the living room, in the bathroom is a great reading place, in the car. Just having reading material available, surrounding kids with books as much as possible. Trips, regular trips to bookstores and to libraries are hugely important in terms of exposing kids to the tactile pleasures of books and reading and all the opportunities that they provide. Then looking for these wonderful, creative opportunities to build on reading experiences.
If a child is reading The Little Engine That Could, for example, or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory if it's an older child or Harry Potter, looking for, perhaps, a train exhibit to take them to or train music or train art or going to see the Harry Potter films or exploring other books by Roald Dahl or other books in the same genre or cooking a recipe from a book together or creating a crafts project that might be inspired out of a story or a particular experience in a book.
Those kinds of activities are just wonderful ways to play and keep the spirit of joy alive around the reading experience. It's also very important, I think, to demonstrate for kids how reading contributes to life skills. Things like reading recipes together, reading manuals as we build things together or models or household products that need to be assembled or whatever it may be, reading ingredients when we're shopping on the backs of boxes.
Those are all wonderful ways to support reading skills without pressure in a way that is showing a child how important reading is to our lives and that makes them feel involved and included and gives them a good sense of the degree to which reading skills play a role. Taking our kids with us to vote those kinds of little activities send powerful messages to our kids about the value of reading in our lives and the need to have that as a part of our life skill base.
Reaching reluctant readers
I get asked a lot about, "What about reluctant readers?" A lot of parents are concerned that my kid is a reluctant reader. No matter my best efforts, what can I do? I think there are many ways to help reluctant readers to bring them along to reading and to rediscovering the joy of reading. It only takes one book to hook them in.
It only takes one really successful, thrilling, joyful, wonderful, losing oneself in the magic reading experience to captivate that child's imagination and then if we're smart to take that moment and that opportunity and parlay it into other wonderful reading experiences. It's not about a relentless journey. It's about finding that one thing that will help that reluctant reader spark their imagination and be the portal into opening their curiosity to other reading experiences.
There are some very practical ways that we can encourage reluctant readers. Anything from reasoning with them. Quite simply saying, "Look, I understand this is something that you feel that you're not particularly interested in at this time. This is hugely important to us. This is a value we hold as a family. Let's just for one week, let me read you this story, and if at the end of the week you're miserable and you don't want to read it anymore, that's fine. I've done my part."
Chances are if you pick the story right, by the end of one week the child will be begging for more. That's one way. Another way is to suggest, to use a little bit of incentive. You can stay awake a little bit longer, you can as long as you're reading in bed you can stay up until such and such a time tonight, using reading as a motivation. Giving books as gifts is a great way to associate reading with receiving a gift and love and pleasure for any age reader.
The reluctant reader oftentimes resists the read aloud experience because they think they're too old for it or they've outgrown it or what have you. Bringing in altruism — asking them to perhaps read to a younger sibling or read in a Big Brother/Big Sister Program. Read if they're babysitters or their mother's helpers or so forth to their younger charges can be a great way to get them involved in the story without their realizing that they're actually becoming involved and thinking that they're doing it for other reasons.
I think we have to be very careful not to use reading as a weapon or as something that we hold over their heads. For example, we have to be very careful not to say, "If you don't stop that behavior, no bedtime story tonight. If you don't do such and such and such, no reading tonight." That then is creating a negative association with reading.
That's then building the connection between reading and pressure or reading and punishment or reading and something negative, and though it might seem like a logical consequence, there are plenty of other logical consequences that I think we can choose that aren't intentionally eroding that connection between reading and joy for a young person which is so important to keep feeding and nurturing and to keep alive.
Listening to books
There are a number of different ways to read that aren't just limited to books on paper. My son, for instance, is an avid lover of audio books. There's a bit of an argument about whether audio books is really reading. I say absolutely, it's really reading. You are absorbing story and idea and character and all the things that reading entails. Just because you aren't actually doing it with your eyes, one wouldn't say reading brail isn't really reading. Why is reading audio books not — why is that any different?
Audio books can be a wonderful tool for a reluctant reader. For my son, he has some vision issues. Reading is fatiguing for him. Audio books are a wonderful solution for him. Audio books are also a terrific way for the older child to experience the value of read aloud without necessarily feeling like they're being read to by their parent or what have you.
All of the additional support in terms of comprehension and absorbing the story and meaning and nuance are all being gained subtly in that stealth mode I was talking about before by hearing the story told to them by somebody who is modeling tone and wonderful reading skills and so forth in a way that the child might not necessarily be able to do in reading it for themselves.
The other important piece is that we know that until about eighth grade, our listening skills and our reading skills haven't converged, so it's terribly important to keep reading to older kids because we can still absorb much more from hearing a story than we can from decoding it ourselves on the paper. And so audio books are a wonderful way to continue to help kids do that, and they will always gain so much more from hearing it or being told a story or listening to the story than from fighting through reading it themselves.
Tough books for tweens?
This is a purely personal thing that I have, I have to say, and I know that there are probably many people out there who disagree with me. I — full disclosure up front — but I have a real question about the problem novel in today's — it's very fashionable to today's children's literature market to write for kids books that are very dark, deal with extremely difficult, complex, complicated issues like death and addictions and body issues and all sorts of things.
I'm absolutely not suggesting we not present kids with complicated material or that we not invite them to stretch up to stuff that they're ready to cope with or that if a child needs that kind of support for an issue that they're wrestling with that that isn't valuable.
But there are kids out there for whom the relentless onslaught of darkness in contemporary children's literature is turning them off of reading, and I see this a lot in the kids that I teach in schools right now is that they're reading assignments, what is currently being assigned on the reading lists and the curriculum, through the curriculum in schools, are these sort of — oftentimes tied in with the curriculum of whatever the grade level is.
These books about sacrifice or about war or about death or about loss, and one after another, after another can really erode a child's joy in reading. I think we have to really know our kids. To me, that's the key. What works for one child and really sparks their imagination and makes them feel I'm not alone, somebody understands, somebody's life is worse than mine, whatever it may be, may not work for another child.
Maybe that other child needs fantasy or needs humor or needs a little bit of levity in their life. I worry about the degree to which the problem novel is being sort of touted as the future of children's literature because I think there are so many kids out there. I will say in the interest of full disclosure, my son is one of them. My son is a very sensitive boy who finds it very tough to read books in which parents die, children die, miseries are abounding all over the place.
He finds it really tough going, and really what he would like to do is read stories that inspire, stories that engage his imagination, stories that make him laugh, characters that make him laugh and stories that teach him something or make him think or make him learn. He gravitates towards memoir and non-fiction and so forth. But when for school he has to read these books about Mayan sacrifice or whatever it may be, he has a really tough time with it.
To his credit, he actually once spoke up to his English teacher and said, "I'm really finding that the reading material that we're being given is turning me off of reading," and fortunately she had the presence of mind to say, "Okay. Your next read can be a free read," and he was able to choose his next book as a result of speaking up and saying, "I'm having such a trouble with this relentless stream of negativity." It became all about, what's the free read gonna be? You've got one chance to pick something that's gonna really be a joy to experience. We had to help him with that, finding the right one.
Helping your child choose books
My advice for parents in helping kids select material is to first and foremost know your child. We all know that if we have more than one child, we know how individual each child is. If we were part of a family with more than one child. We know how unique we are from our siblings. What one book worked for this child won't necessarily work for that child. What one book we may have loved as children won't necessarily work for our kids. It's about knowing our children and helping to fuel and to feed their individual passions.
There are clues from our kids as to how we can support that. For example, what posters are on your kids' walls in their bedrooms? Who are his or her heroes? What are his hobbies? What does she most love to do in her spare time? Those activities, those heroes are clues to what they're drawn to. My son is a baseball fan and a musician, and he loves baseball memoir. He also loves books about science and nature and so forth. My daughter is all fantasy, and if I were to give her a science story or a sports story, she would be bored to tears.
But give her something with princesses and fairies, she asks for more and more and more. It's really about knowing our kids. It's interesting, every year Scholastic does a wonderful survey, Kids and Family Reading Report, in which they assess some of the reading climate, and one of the things that came out of the most recent report is that something like 82% or 85% of kids say one of the reasons they don't read more is they have trouble finding books they like.
I think we assume, particularly with older kids, that they know how to choose books for themselves, that a child should be able to go into a library or a bookstore and find something that interests them based on its cover or based on what they might read on the jacket flap. But that's not necessarily true. I think kids really need support and guidance in finding out what books work for them and what authors inspire them and what styles and what genres they respond to. A case in point is when my son had this free read experience that he was given the chance in school to have this free read and he was so relieved to be able to choose something he wanted.
He then was paralyzed with, "What do I choose? Anything, the whole world of books is now available to me. Which one?" I could see that he was struggling so I said, "Well, tell me what would you ideally like it to be and then throw out some adjective or some ideas or some words so that I can get a sense. What kind of book are you thinking you'd like it to be."
He said well, "I'd like it to be funny." So, "Okay," he said. "And I'd like it to be real, like realistic. Doesn't have to be non-fiction but it'd be nice if it were sort of realish, memoirish. And I'd like it to have something to do with nature." Then I had to put my thinking cap on and help him figure out something that had all of those components, and we settled on Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Animals because it's funny and it's a memoir and it's full of stories about animals and it was just the right choice for him. It was wonderful.
But by himself, I don't think he ever would have come to that choice or that decision. Now, we the parents don't have to be the person to do that. There are librarians. There are teachers. There are wonderful resources of people out there to help us find those perfect books for our kids if we can understand what they respond to.
If we see that our child loves ballet, we can ask the librarian, "Do you have any great books about ballet and stories about ballets, backstage ballet stories?" Or if we know that our child loves baseball, "Do you have any great baseball memoirs?" And we can ask the librarian to ask our child pointed questions, leading questions to help figure out what might turn them on as well. So there are a number of ways that we can help lead kids to books they love. I think the task is that we have to remember that they need us to do that and that we can't expect them to just know what they love right off the bat.
Writing with Julie Andrews
I've the great good fortune of writing much of what I write with my mother. My co-author is my mother, and in fact, we've written together now seventeen books and with several more in the pipeline. And it's interesting. When we first started writing together, we weren't sure how it would work. We weren't sure if we would be compatible writing together. We're both fairly opinionated, bossy women. Fairly strong women I should say, is a better word, and we thought we might clash a little bit. We weren't sure.
The happy discovery has been that we seem to have very complementary strengths, and we are very good at knowing when to defer to one another. Mom tends to be very much more the kind of big ideas, big picture, visual person. I tend to be more about the structure and the details. And so those strengths are greatly complementary. The process is quite wonderful and it's become much easier as the years have gone by. When we first started writing together, it was a little bit more labored.
We felt we always had to be in the same room together and we would do everything longhand on yellow legal pads with pencils and endless cups of tea and so forth. Now we've actually started incorporating technology quite a bit into our work, and since we live in separate states, we actually live on separate coasts most of the time, we do most of our work together via webcam.
The webcam has revolutionized how we work together because the fact that we can actually see each other as well as hear each other means that we are able to work with a kind of shorthand that somehow the phone didn't provide. And so there's a great deal of sign language. "It's more like this than like that." There's a great deal of body language that comes into play. She's in her home office in Los Angeles and I'm in mine in Sag Harbor, and we agree to log on at a certain time and we get to work.
It's very funny because the first time we did it, the first time we started working on the webcam she said, mom said she put on perfume before logging on and then suddenly realized what a ridiculous thing it was that she had just done. "Oh, I must just put on some perfume before I get to work with Emma." We haven't come that far yet with our technology! But the process is essentially what we do is once we have a sense of the idea of what we'd like to try to write about.
For example, if we use The Great American Mousical as an example, we knew we wanted to tell a story about theater mice in which the theater would be in jeopardy and mice would save the day. Once we have our outline that we're working from, then it literally becomes a process of finishing each other's sentences. At that point, we go very organic, and one of us will just jump in and start free associating and the other one will say, "That's so close, but it's not quite the right word. It's more of a blue word or a red word."
It becomes this incredible sort of very fluid give and take process of writing and finishing each other's sentences. Meanwhile, I'm typing furiously. Once we've transcribed whatever we've done for the day, then there's a great deal that goes on in the editing process and it's back and forth and changing this word and that word and typing sentences and realizing what's missing and so forth. A huge amount of our work is done in the aftermath of the writing.
But it's become a very organic process, and both of us feel now that when we try to write alone, we miss each other. It's funny because people, solitary writers, solo writers, often say, "How do you write with a writing partner? I can't imagine writing with someone else." We're at the point now where it's sort of like how do you write by yourself? How do you write without that person to bounce ideas off of, without that sounding board, without that give and take of ideas? We've become very attached to writing together, and hopefully we'll continue to do it for a long time.
The other thing I should add is that one of the wonderful discoveries, a lot of times people will say to me, "I can't imagine writing with my mother. What is that like?" Or, "With my daughter, what is that like?" The happy surprise for both of us is that it has actually strengthened our relationship, and I think it's because before we were working together and writing together, time spent together or phone calls and so forth were often weighted with news of the day, discussions about family issues, politics, health concerns, problems whatever they may be, the normal things that one discusses and deals with and grapples with in families.
Now a huge portion of our time, in fact most of our time together because we don't have a great deal of time together so we have to work very concentrated, is creative, and we're in this wonderful world of children's literature where it's all interesting characters and fun ideas. It's like being in a sandbox and playing when we get together now. It just feels like we get together and play and throw ideas around and have a great time instead of talking about arthritis or some of the other things that might come up in a conversation with one's parent or one's child — adult child.
All kinds of reading
I think it's really important when we talk about and think about kids and reading that we not limit ourselves to thinking about just fiction. We tend to think of children's books and then immediately make the leap to fiction and picture book and novel and so forth. In fact, depending on the child, non-fiction can sometimes be much more engaging for an individual than even fiction might be.
It also doesn't need to be a huge tome. It doesn't need to be a biography or memoir or what have you. I mean non-fiction can encompass reading the paper, reading magazines. A wonderful thing to do for kids is to give them subscriptions to magazines of particular areas of interest.
There are magazines on every subject imaginable, I mean, everything from bead collecting to baseball to horses to fashion to quilting. I mean the just endless subjects. It's a great way if that your child responds to a particular activity — a great way to marry that activity with reading and with literacy is to give them a subscription to a like-minded magazine or journal or newspaper or literary publication.
My view is that again it's whether a child reads non-fiction or fiction, there's no ideal, there's no prescription that says you should read this much fiction and this much non-fiction and you should read this many books per year on this subject or on that subject. It's all about the individual and whether we are speaking to that individual's passion and building upon the opportunity that that creates. In other words, finding out what sparks the imagination, what makes the heart sing, what makes the appetite for reading come alive?
Then looking for ways to support that, and that might be non-fiction. It might be fiction. It might be newspapers. It might be magazines. It might be audio books. It might be graphic novels. It might be comic books. It might be reading online. There are any number of possible ways to engage the imagination and the mind with reading as long as we keep the focus on the joy.