Julie Andrews's Daughter and Her Love of Reading

Emma Walton Hamilton, the daughter of singer and actress Julie Andrews, grew up with the sound of words—not just the sound of music. A self-described bookworm, she was raised by bookworm parents and became an avid reader. She and her mom have co-written 16 children's books, including "Dumpy the Dump Truck" and "The Great American Mousical." (Her dad, Tony Walton, a set and costume designer who in 1980 won an Oscar for "All That Jazz," illustrated both titles.) Hamilton, 45, is still co-writing kid lit with her mom, but next month she introduces her own title, "Raising Bookworms: Getting Kids Reading for Pleasure and Empowerment." She talks with NEWSWEEK's Karen Springen about her new book and other future projects. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: "Raising Bookworms" suggests many good kids' books. What were your own favorites as a child?
A few that I went back to on a regular basis were "The Phantom Tollbooth" and "The Wind in the Willows." I also loved fantasy.

You have two kids, Sam and Hope. How old are they, and what are their favorite books?
Sam is 12, and Hope is 5. They are completely opposite in their tastes. Sam is everything nonfiction, everything science and factual. He loves memoir. He loves books about sports—he's a baseball fan—and music, and a lot of humor.

What about Hope?
Hope is everything fairies and mermaids. "Pinkalicious" [about a little girl who loves pink] is one of her top favorites these days. And "The Little Mermaid."

You advise parents to listen to their kids' own tastes, right?
That is one of the prime messages of the book. It's so much about knowing your child and figuring out what turns them on, what makes them tick.

Rather than forcing them to read "Little House on the Prairie" if they don't like it?
Exactly. If your child is not a child who responds to fantasy or fiction even, that doesn't mean they're not going to be a reader. It may be as simple as finding a different genre. One of the biggest problems today is reading has become associated with chore instead of with pleasure and joy.

You've written 16 children's books with your mother, and now you're moving into nonfiction. Should we expect more of both?
Yes. My mother and I continue to write together. We have two new books in the pipeline, for Little, Brown. "The Julie Andrews Collection of Poems, Songs and Lullabies" coming out in fall of 2009. Then we have another picture-book series that we're launching the following spring [2010] called "The Very Fairy Princess."

What about "Dumpy the Dump Truck"?
We continue to develop Dumpy. At the moment, there's the possibility of a television series with Dumpy, which would be quite wonderful. We do continue to write together and love it. I'm also working on an independent children's book project by myself, perhaps also more in the nonfiction realm.

Can we expect more collaborative efforts with both your parents?
Yes, absolutely. In fact, the poetry anthology that we are finishing up now includes three of my father's poems. He's not just illustrating. [And it includes] a poem of my mother's father and her grandfather, in addition to all our favorites by the classic poets.

What do you think about some popular forms of kids' fiction, such as graphic novels?
Graphic novels are great, audiobooks are great. Different kids have different ways of learning. It's about trying to identify what works for them.

You give lots of good of advice, such as keep books everywhere, including the bathroom, car and kitchen. Did you grow up doing everything you write about, or did you learn on the job what worked, from being a mom?
A bit of both. A lot of the advice I give is targeted toward managing the challenges of a digital age. Time has changed dramatically. Much of it, I have to say, I had learned and continue to learn on the job as a parent. And also from my background as an arts educator. I have a theater background, and for 15 years I ran arts education programs here in Sag Harbor, N.Y. I still do a playwriting program with kids. That's taught me a great deal about kids and reading and writing and the arts. A lot of my ideas stem from my arts background and bringing arts techniques and arts influences to bear on awakening a passion for reading.

Does your own family take your advice, such as listening to audiobooks and going to movies based on books like "Peter Pan" and "Bridge to Terabithia"?
Yes, absolutely. My son is actually listening to an audiobook right now—"My Family and Other Animals." My daughter is a big fan of watching the movie and reading the book.

You don't mention some lowbrow kid faves like "Goosebumps" and "Captain Underpants." Do you think they're OK?
Getting them to read anything they love, even if it's comic books, is great. Listen, what we want to do is underscore the primal, subliminal connection between books and pleasure. We want to associate reading with joy and fun and pleasure. The more experience we have that tells our brain that this is fun, the more likely we'll grow up to be passionate readers.

You do mention a bunch of funny books by authors like Robert Munsch, who wrote "The Paper Bag Princess" and "Thomas's Snowsuit." Is humor key to hooking young kids?
It depends on the child. But most kids respond well to humor and are drawn in by humor. I talk in the middle school section about my son and how difficult he finds it to read dark books. He loves humor. Many of his friends love that stuff, the darker the better. Bring on the vampires. It's so individual.

I can't resist asking what your own mom read to you—and whether she sang "Edelweiss" as a lullaby?
It wasn't "Edelweiss" so much as it was old English campfire songs. It was the songs from her childhood. She grew up in the vaudeville era, so there was a lot of humor.

So you sang and read together?
Singing was more a family thing we'd do, it wasn't so much lullabies. Definitely books and bedtime stories.

Does your family cuddle up and read together before bed?
That's like a ritual in our house. Before bed and before school, quite frequently. It's a challenge for me because I have a big age difference between my kids. It's hard to find material that they both enjoy. My son will listen to anything as long as we're all snuggling together in bed. I've been reading a lot of Beverly Cleary. My son hears it from the point of view of the oldest sibling. The little sister Ramona [in Cleary's books] is driving everyone crazy. My daughter just loves the antics.

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