"My dad gave me whatever sanity I have in my life, and my mother gave me the spirit and passion "

Julie Andrews

Newsday - 09 May 07
By Aimee Fitzpatrick Martin

Mother-daughter music

Julie Andrews finds a new voice as she writes with her daughter

Last Mother's Day, while families around the globe were celebrating the complex, powerful and far-reaching bonds of motherhood, Julie Andrews Edwards and her daughter, Emma Walton Hamilton, were finishing the first draft of "Thanks to You: Wisdom from Mother & Child," the 16th book they've co-written for the Julie Andrews Collection, an imprint of HarperCollins Children's Books.

"And this Mother's Day, Emma and I are celebrating the lovely gift of its publication," said Edwards, best known for her roles in "Mary Poppins," "The Sound of Music" and "Victor/Victoria," during a rare in-depth interview at a Manhattan hotel recently. Snuggling up on a couch together, Edwards and her 44-year-old daughter talked about what makes their own mother-daughter relationship so gratifying and how writing this keepsake book was "something of an awakening" for them.

"Everybody knows that kids are influenced by their parents, but how much you learn from your kids as a parent is not often talked about. Our mothers may shape us, but it's our children who define us," said Edwards, 71, who has five children, seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

"Since we're both daughters and mothers, we were able to look at both sides of the equation with gratitude and wonder," added Hamilton, a mother of two who is also a co-founder and director of education and programming for young audiences at the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor.

Nature ... and love

Their shared love of nature is evident throughout the book, from recognizing the majesty of trees to jumping in puddles on a rainy day and awaiting the promise of a rainbow. Themes of courage, strength, generosity and the power of love fill the book's 40 pages.

Edwards credits her love of books and writing to her father, a teacher and naturalist who taught her - and later his granddaughter Emma - to read at an early age. Growing up in Surrey, England, Edwards' imagination was transported to other worlds, she said, thanks to such classics as "Winnie the Pooh" and "The Little Grey Men," an English novel about the last four gnomes in Britain (recently resurrected by the Julie Andrews Collection).

"My dad gave me whatever sanity I have in my life, and my mother gave me the spirit and passion," said Edwards, who began writing short stories as a child.

Any early aspirations she had of becoming a writer, however, were put on hold when her singing voice - with its perfect pitch and four-octave range - was discovered when she was 7. Making her professional debut on the British vaudeville circuit at age 12, Edwards came to America seven years later to star in "The Boyfriend" on Broadway. Tony-nominated performances in "My Fair Lady" and "Camelot" helped propel her to international stardom.

Sharing little-known trivia about her career, Edwards said that, when Walt Disney invited her to make her motion picture debut in "Mary Poppins" - a role that earned her the 1964 best actress Oscar - she initially declined because she was pregnant with Emma, her daughter with scenic-costume designer Tony Walton. (Edwards divorced Walton in 1967 and married director Blake Edwards in '69.)

"Its a little hard to imagine Mary Poppins pregnant, so I had to turn him down," she said, laughing. "But how lucky can a girl get? Disney waited for me until after Emma was born."

The first book

In 1971, Edwards penned her first children's book, "Mandy." Three years later, she wrote "The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles," which remains a big seller. Her "Little Bo" book series followed.

"Up to that point, Mom had written young adult novels, but never picture books," explained Hamilton. "That changed when my son, Sam, was born and became infatuated with trucks."

Finding an absence of picture books about trucks on the market, Hamilton and Edwards wrote one. "Dumpy the Dump Truck" was published in 2000 and spawned a series of books about the adventures of a lovable dump truck that lives in Apple Harbor (a town patterned after Sag Harbor, where both women have homes). The "Dumpy" series is illustrated by Hamilton's father. Walton also illustrated the pair's 2006 bestseller, "The Great American Mousical."

"When Mom and Dad separated, they were looking for a way to make me feel that we were still a family. Mom suggested we begin writing a story at our home in California, which I could have my dad illustrate when I visited him in New York," Hamilton recalled.

That childhood story - about creativity and the power of giving - provided the seeds for "Simeon's Gift," the New York Times bestseller that the mother-daughter editorial team published in 2003 - the same year the Julie Andrews Collection imprint was launched. This November, a musical adaptation of "Simeon's Gift" will have its world premiere at the Bay Street Theatre before going on national tour.

Although Edwards is providing the recorded narration for the production, the performer's singing career was virtually silenced in 1998, following botched vocal surgery.

"To have a voice matters so much to me," said Edwards of the devastating experience. "But Emma said something that has made an enormous difference. She told me, 'Mom, you've just found a different way of using your voice.' I realize it's all about words - whether I'm singing them or writing them."

Still in demand as an actress, Edwards is the voice of Queen Lillian in the new DreamWorks film, "Shrek the Third," opening in theaters next Friday, and in the Disney action film "Enchanted," coming out later this year. She's also finishing her long-awaited autobiography, which Hyperion will publish next year.

"It wouldn't have happened without Emma helping me with the research and spurring me on," the proud mom said.