Child's 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award Winner! - Julie Andrews, legendary star of stage and screen, talks about her other favorite roles--being a children's book author and publisher.
Children and parents all over the world love her as Mary Poppins in the Disney classic of the same name, Maria Von Trapp in The Sound of Music, and Queen Clarisse Renaldi in The Princess Diaries. Broadway enthusiasts remember her critically acclaimed performances in My Fair Lady, Camelot, and Victor/Victoria. But off screen and stage, Julie Andrews has also built a loyal following of young readers with heartwarming, fanciful books like Mandy, The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles, Little Bo, and Little Bo in France. She's also co-written books with her daughter, Emma Walton Hamilton. They include the bestselling Dumpy the Dump Truck series, Dragon, Simeon's Gift, and most recently, The Great American Mousical.
Not content to just write her own stories, Andrews, with her daughter as the editorial director, heads The Julie Andrews Collection, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. "The mandate of our imprint is to print quality books for children that speak to the world of nature and inspire children's imagination and sense of wonder," she says. With that in mind, the Collection publishes books by not only Andrews but new and established authors whose books fit her imprint's editorial mission.
Here, the beloved actor and author-and mother of five, grandmother of seven, and great-grandmother of two-shares with Child how she juggles her many roles, her favorite childhood books, and where she gets her inspiration.
Q: Like other working mothers, you juggled a career with your responsibilities as a parent. How did you make sure your children knew they were your priority?
A: I would always be there for breakfast. No matter what I was doing, I would see the kids off to school. And as much as possible-and this was a real discipline we managed to maintain unless I was filming-about 90% of the time, we all got together for the tradition of afternoon tea. We all knew we'd see each other no matter what, and everybody would swap their news of the day.
As long as I felt the family was in a secure place, as long as we had quality time together, I could work. There's always a lot of guilt involved. I admire any mom who can pull together being a mom as well as retaining a job. One's antennae are constantly chasing everything. But if your family is okay, the work is possible.
Q: Your first book, Mandy, was published in 1971. At the tim,, you were already a world-famous star; it's obvious you weren't doing it for fame or fortune. What inspired you to write Mandy and begin your career as a children's book author?
A: It came about as a happy accident. I lost a game, a dare, to my eldest stepdaughter, Jenny, who was around 11. I said, "Okay, what will my forfeit be?" She said, "Write me a story." And I thought, "Oh, sure, I can do that. I'll write a couple of pages." But then I realized she was my new stepdaughter and I could use this to bond with her.
We had rented this beautiful estate in Ireland, where we were also filming [Darling Lili]. So much about the estate inspired me: the look of it, the beauty of the Georgian façade, the magnificence of the woods and fields. Jenny had been raised more as a town girl than a country girl. I thought, "She doesn't know that much about the country and it's my passion. That's what I'll write about." My husband, Blake [Edwards], was helpful in that he kept saying, "It's a wonderful idea: keep at it." The original novel I gave Jenny was bound with small designs by Blake. I dedicated it to her. Then HarperCollins looked at it and liked it. They asked me to rework the ending a little and that's how the final Mandy that was published came about.
Q: Mandy was followed by The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles and Little Bo. Can you tell us the inspiration for these stories?
A: I so enjoyed writing Mandy that I felt a little lost when it was finished. I was looking through a dictionary and stumbled across the word whangdoodle. I said to my husband, "My God, look at this name. Isn't it a wonderful name for a creature?" And I said, "I'm going to write a book titled The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles. I found the title before I found my story. I then looked up what a whangdoodle meant and it was described as a humorous, mythical creature of fanciful and undefined nature. I thought, "Well, if it's undefined, maybe I can define it." It seemed like an open invitation to set to work, so I did.
Q: And Little Bo?
A: I had taken a holiday in Greece with my family. We had rented a boat and there was a little ship's cat on the boat. It was an orphan that had been found in Turkey and the crew had taken it aboard. They'd swim with it in the sea, and the cat got used to it. I thought, "What a wonderful basis for a story- a ship's cat that travels all over the world." I've written two of the books; I still have two more to write to make it a complete series.
Q: You've also written many books with your daughter, Emma Walton Hamilton. How did this partnership come about?
A: I was asked whether I would ever write for really young children. And I said, "Let me give it some thought." I went home and spoke to my daughter, Emma. I said, "If you had to go find a book at the library for [my grandson] Sam, and you could only choose one, what would be the theme of the book?" She said, "Oh, Mom, that's absolutely no contest. It would be about trucks because he's truck crazy." And she went on to explain that she was having trouble finding books about trucks that had a family theme or a nice message. I said, "Why don't you and I try to write one together?
Once we began the Dumpy books, we began to think of writing more together. We didn't even know if we'd be compatible when we started. We were both nervous. But what we discovered is that we had an enormous compatibility. We almost finished each other's sentences. We roared with laughter at the same things. We began writing together in the same room. Then a miracle occurred-we both got a camera that connects to our computers. And that's how we've subsequently been writing. As of this morning, I was plugged in and could see her face. The way we work is that Emma is tremendous with structure, the layout of the book, the number of acts it has, its highs and lows. I'm everything to do with the flight of fancy, that bigger-than-life creative moment.
Q: Did your children give you any helpful feedback for your stories? What about your grandchildren and great-grandchildren?
A: In the case of the Dumpy books, Sam, who was the inspiration for them, looked at the books. He allowed his mom to read to him and would give his input.
When my own kids were young, I passionately believed in reading to them. I credit a great deal of their knowledge of literature to the fact that they would sit on my knee and we would have stories at bedtime. It seems to me that if a mother would just trace the page with her finger and read aloud, a child will be able to read faster and become more able to identify words. You encourage a love of reading. And that was what I loved to do with my kids. When I began writing Mandy and Whangdoodles, they happened to be the right age. I would say, "Can I read you another chapter?" I could gauge from the three older ones-their mood, eagerness, or restlessness-as to when I needed to do more or explain more. They were a tremendous guide for how the books should unfold.
Q: Do your books have a common theme?
A: Funny enough, I find that all the books I've written, to some extent, have been about discovering the wonder of the world that has been under your nose all along. For instance, Mandy was about a young girl planting her garden and making a home for herself because she is an orphan. I hoped to interest children in what she did with her garden, so they might recognize the flowers, see the trees, or smell the grass. Whangdoodles is about seeing the world in a brighter light. My professor in the book points out that nobody ever looks up. Nobody ever really looks at rooftops and chimney lines. New York City is a wonderful example. At the top of buildings there are these wonderful cherubs and carvings. Most people are so busy getting along the pavement, they never think to gaze up. That's the kind of thing I like to make children aware of-that there's a miracle under your nose, if you care to look for it.
Q: What were your favorite stories as a child?
A: Oh, gosh-many. Obviously, imaginative books like The Wind in the Willows and Alice in Wonderland. But the one that really hooked me was a little book that I'm very proud to have published in our Collection. It's called The Little Grey Men. My father bought it for me when I was about 9 years old and said, "Here's a lovely book. I think you'd enjoy it." And I truly did. It's the first book that absolutely transported me to another world.
Q: So when you started your imprint, it was a good opportunity for you to reprint it.
A: Yes, it's as fresh today as it was then. The Little Grey Men just begged to be reprinted in America. It was available in England but not in America.
Q: Does being an actor influence your work as an author?
A: There is a crossover point. When I'm writing, I think in terms of a production of some kind. I envision it as a film because thinking of a story on a large screen somehow enlarges my view of it. It gives me a feeling of what I'd like to write. For instance, when I wrote Dragon, I enlarged it to a movie screen in my mind. The opening is this huge panorama of the French countryside-the dawn and the mist rising, and everything being a perfect June morning. I also employ music in my head when I'm writing. For instance, do you write a quiet entrance? Do you write with a fanfare? I've also learned from Blake that characters make a story. You can have a light theme if you've got phenomenal characters. If you think about it, so many great books translate to the stage or screen.
Q: One of your most beloved roles was that of Mary Poppins. Do you think that experience played a part in your desire to write children's books?
A: It may have. When I was a young schoolgirl, I used to love putting on plays with my friends. I was extremely bossy. I would want to write them and direct them. And I loved to write stories-huge fantasy stories, mostly about horses and all the things that appealed to a young girl. I've asked myself why I haven't done a book for adults. Partially, it's because now that I have my own imprint, there isn't that much time! I'm struggling with my autobiography as we speak. But, somehow, I do think things like Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music tipped me more into an understanding of kids and what they might require. Perhaps a part of me is still a child in that respect too.
Q: What is your favorite response from readers?
A: The greatest compliment is when readers come up to me and say, "You were the reason that I love books." It's the most wonderful compliment I could possibly receive. And when children say they loved Whangdoodles or Dragon or the Dumpy books, it's so lovely because usually they mention The Sound of Music or Mary Poppins or The Princess Diaries. If a child mentions the books, it's a thrill for me