The Princess Stories

TFK catches up with the authors of the Very Fairy Princess picture book series—actress Julie Andrews and her daughter Emma Walton Hamilton

May 20, 2011 | By TFK Kid Reporter Sahil Abbi

You may remember Julie Andrews as the grandmother in The Princess Diaries. Or perhaps you've heard her voice the role of Queen Lillian in the Shrek films. But she is best-known for her role as the singing governess in the 1965 hit film The Sound of Music. Now the legendary actress is writing children's books with her daughter, Emma Walton Hamilton.

TFK Kid Reporter Sahil Abbi interviews Julie Andrews, right, and her daughter Emma Walton Hamilton about their new Very Fairy Princess picture book series.
COURTESY ABBI FAMILY
TFK Kid Reporter Sahil Abbi interviews Julie Andrews, right, and her daughter Emma Walton Hamilton about their new Very Fairy Princess picture book series.

The Very Fairy Princess Takes the Stage is the duo's second picture book about Geraldine, a character based on Andrews' granddaughter. In the story, Geraldine is disappointed at first that she doesn't get the role of fairy princess in an upcoming ballet recital. But she ends up playing her part as the jester perfectly anyway. She learns that your true sparkle comes from inside, and not from what you're wearing.

TFK Kid Reporter Sahil Abbi sat down to breakfast with the mother-daughter team to discuss their inspiration for the Very Fairy Princess series, where they get ideas for their stories and what it's like to write books together.

TFK:

What first inspired you to write children's books together?

Emma Walton Hamilton:

Mom was a writer of children's books before we started writing together. She wrote several middle grade novels, including The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles. About 15 years ago, her publisher asked her to consider writing for younger children. I had a small son at the time, so she and I had a conversation about what kind of book my son might love. Our first book was Dumpy the Dump Truck, based on my son's love of trucks. We've been writing together ever since.

TFK:

Could you describe your writing process?

Julie Andrews:

When we first started writing together, we sat down side by side in the same room. But I live on the West Coast and Emma lives on the East Coast, so sometimes it's difficult to get together. We started to talk on iChat on our webcams and that became our lifesaver. It's almost as if you're in the same room.

Emma Walton Hamilton:

Our writing is very collaborative. We don't say, for example, 'You do this chapter and I'll do this chapter.' We usually start by brainstorming the idea and then we start writing. It becomes a process of finishing each other's sentences literally.

Julie Andrews:

And sometimes the book tells us what it wants to be.

Emma Walton Hamilton:

Right. It surprises us.

TFK:

Did you ever disagree while writing this book?

Julie Andrews:

That's very interesting. We didn't know if we would be compatible because we are both fairly bossy people. But we learned from the start that we each had slightly different strengths. Emma is very much the structure of the book, the nuts and bolts of the books. I deal with the flights of fancy and openings and closings and chapter beginnings and things like that. And if one of us is really passionate about something, we both understand that we have to listen. We're not defensive or possessive.

Emma Walton Hamilton:

We have never over the course of writing 23 books together had a really tense moment or disagreed strongly with each other.

TFK:

Is the character Geraldine based on anyone you know?

Emma Walton Hamilton:

Geraldine, the very fairy princess, is very much inspired by my daughter Hope, who is 7 years old. She is an utter fairy princess at all times. She is always in costume and always in character, and often has...

Julie Andrews:

...something sparkly to wear.

TFK:

Which of your books did you most enjoy writing?

Emma Walton Hamilton:

The one we're working on right now. There is something wonderfully satisfying about writing a series of books. Once you establish the characters, you get to have some more fun with them. You get to take them on adventures. I like that you don't have to say goodbye to them in a sense. We just finished the third book in the Very Fairy Princess series, and we're brainstorming the fourth right now. It's so much fun to get to know the characters so well and know what they would do and wouldn't do.

Julie Andrews:

You kind of flesh them out with each book.

Emma Walton Hamilton:

They become very real.

TFK:

Has writing together brought you closer?

Emma Walton Hamilton:

We've always been very close, but I think there's a special bond now.

Julie Andrews:

We're not really so much mother and daughter when we're writing. We're two women meeting on an equally challenging project and putting our minds to it. It is such fun to bounce ideas off of each other, make the other one laugh, or get an idea creatively. It's freeing, in a way. We have the best time. We can shut out the real world while making our new world.

TFK:

What have you learned about each other from writing these books?

Emma Walton Hamilton:

I think that more than learning about each other, we learned about writing. We both were fairly new to writing. Every book teaches you something more and takes the whole experience to the next level.

Julie Andrews:

And we're still learning. You never stop learning about writing. One thing we've learned is that when you're doing a picture book, you don't need to write what is being shown in the picture. You don't need to describe it twice if you know what I mean. The illustration will do it for you.

TFK:

Have you read the book to your children?

Emma Walton Hamilton:

When mom was writing The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles she would read it to us each time she finished a chapter.

Julie Andrews:

And I'd get a sense if the chapter was too long, especially if the kids became a little bit restless.

Emma Walton Hamilton:

We do the same thing with my kids. They are the first ones to read our stories.

Julie Andrews:

And I have another daughter, Joanna, who is tremendously helpful and wants to read everything.

TFK:

Which allowed you to "sparkle" more, writing or acting?

Julie Andrews:

Ultimately, it's all deeply satisfying. I hope what I do gives joy to others. It certainly gives joy to me, a lot of joy.

Emma Walton Hamilton:

In the end, it's all storytelling.

Julie Andrews:

When it's your story and you're telling it, then it's your responsibility to tell it well for young children and young adults. Each word matters. You're passing on a legacy of a love of words, a love of writing and a love of reading. We're both passionate about that.

TFK:

What words of advice do you have for aspiring authors?

Julie Andrews:

Write.

Emma Walton Hamilton:

Read

Julie Andrews:

Read and Write. But reading is the first key because that will tip you in to style and the writing you love the most.

Emma Walton Hamilton:

I'll tell you some things that are very important to know as aspiring authors. I don't think one ever stops learning. I don't think any writer would ever say I know all there is to know about writing, not even the most successful writers in the world. They think that the learning process continues all your life. The more you write, the more your brain opens to the learning and the better writer you become.

Julie Andrews:

Don't ever say, 'I'm done. I don't need to think anymore. I don't need to worry anymore.'

Emma Walton Hamilton:

A good writer is a sponge who keeps on waiting, watching and studying the world.

TFK:

Is there a favorite children's book that you remember your mom reading to you when you were little?

Emma Walton Hamilton:

One of the books that I remember Mom reading to me was a favorite book of hers when she was a little girl. It's called Little Grey Men and it's about the last gnomes in Britain. They're four brothers who live in the woods and they're completely forgotten about. One of them disappears and the other three have to go off and find the missing brother. It's a beautiful nature study.

Julie Andrews:

And a rollicking adventure.

Emma Walton Hamilton:

The characters are hilarious. They're such little old men but so wonderfully written, engaging and endearing.

Julie Andrews:

I think it would make the best-animated movie, I really do.

TFK:

Do you think you'd like to write a book with your daughter some day?

Emma Walton Hamilton:

I would love to. She's a very good budding writer even though she's only 7. I just said to her yesterday as we were getting our mother-daughter manicures that it's so much fun to spend time together. I told her I look forward to more of this as she gets older. I was thinking about me and Mom and wondering if I will one day have the same type of creative relationship with my daughter.

Julie Andrews:

There's no doubt.