"A book, too, can be a starů a living fire to lighten the darkness, leading out into the expanding universe."

Madeline L’Engle

Julie Andrews Collection
25 June 2007

ALA Speech Transcript

JULIE: Good morning everyone.  I feel honored to have been asked to speak to you today. You represent some of the finest and most dedicated librarians in the country, and I so applaud the work that you all do, and the difference that you are making in the lives of children.  Our youngsters of tomorrow will face more choices and have to make more decisions in their brave new world than you and I have ever known. 

Before I begin, I’d like to take a moment to thank Leonard Kniffel, Deidre Ross and Macey Morales and everyone at “American Libraries” and the American Library Association for inviting me here today. I’d also like to offer my congratulations to “American Libraries” on 100 years of publication.  Not only is this a significant milestone in our digital age, but it makes me feel terrific… I’ve been working in the performing arts for over 50 years, which by American Libraries’ standards puts me at about mid-career! And though it may seem a little unusual for an “immigrant” such as myself to speak at an AMERICAN Library Association event, I have made America my home for the past 45 years, am married to an American and have five American children and seven American grandchildren… so I have a huge appreciation for this country and the gifts and opportunities it offers people of all nationalities.

I also have tremendous appreciation for libraries. Some time ago I was fortunate to be on the same dais with the extraordinary author, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and he said something that has resonated with me ever since: four simple words that speak volumes.  He simply stated,  “Words matter, books count.”…It is what brings us together today.

Ray Bradbury talks about falling in love with books and libraries when he was five or six, especially “the way books looked and smelled.” He calls libraries a “holy place,” and says, and I quote, “Once started, the library is the biggest, blasted Cracker Jack factory in the world. The more you eat, the more you want!” I couldn’t agree more.

My own love affair with books started at an equally early age. My father was a teacher, and it was his influence that led to my life-long passion for reading.  He taught me to read, sharing his love of stories and poetry with me, and his appreciation for the beauty and power of language.

As a child performing in the theater, my education was limited, since I was never in one place long enough to attend regular school. Eventually a tutor was hired to travel with me and I have to thank that good woman for encouraging my early enthusiastic but clumsy attempts to write. She knew that I loved to create stories and would hold out the promise of allowing me to scribble all I wanted, provided I dealt with math and history and geography first. She guided me toward classic books, which I devoured with every spare second I had.

These days, I am well aware that in certain circles I am perceived as a “celebrity author,” and I have to admit - this really irritates me, as I have been writing children’s books professionally for over thirty-five years now.  Actually, if you think about it, my life in the arts has always been about evoking images - either through song or the spoken word.  Writing for me is an extension of that voice.

My first published book came about as a sort of happy accident.  I was playing a game with my children which required a forfeit -  and I lost.  I asked my stepdaughter what my forfeit was to be, and she said “write me a story”.  Because she was a step-daughter (and a fairly new one at that) I didn't want to just toss something off, so I tried to write something that would help us bond. I got carried away with the story, and it turned into the novel, “Mandy,” which just celebrated its 35th anniversary. I enjoyed the process so much that I have been writing ever since.

“The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles” - a book I wrote in 1973 – is, I’m happy to say, still an Amazon bestseller… and was a result of some research I was doing in my own library. I stumbled on the word “Whangdoodle,” described as “a humorous-mythical-creature of fanciful and undefined nature.” That was all the encouragement I needed to try to define it myself!  The book is about the power of our imagination, and I decided that rather than having illustrations I would encourage young readers to imagine the Whangdoodle for themselves.  I have never regretted that decision.  I cannot tell you the joy it gives me when teachers from all over the world send me their school projects - renderings of the Whangdoodle and maps of Whangdoodleland. I have kept every one – and I have trunks filled with wondrous drawings.

Ten years ago, my daughter Emma (who is an educator and theater producer) and I began collaborating as authors.  To date we have written sixteen books together for children of all ages.

In the year 2000 we formed The Julie Andrews Collection, an imprint at Harper Collins Publishers, for which Emma serves as the Editorial Director, and where we publish not only our own books but also those of other established and emerging authors – one, in fact, entitled “Blue Wolf,” is a first novel by a librarian and lovely author by the name of Catherine Creedon.  We also occasionally resurrect out of print books we believe to be worthy of being on your library shelves once again.

The mission of The Julie Andrews Collection is to provide quality books for young readers of all ages that nurture the imagination and celebrate a sense of wonder. I hope in time the Collection will become synonymous with the 3 words which you can see clearly printed on each of our books:  We call them our three W’s…Words, Wisdom, Wonder. Words illuminate – leading to wisdom - which must inevitably lead to wonder.  I believe there is no greater gift that we can give our children than a sense of wonder at the miracles that are under our noses everyday.  The best way I know to access that wonder is through words.

The books we write, and those we select for publication, embrace themes of integrity, creativity, nature and the arts.  We may be a little biased, but Emma and I believe that one of the most profoundly important and valuable ways to enhance reading enjoyment and skills is through incorporating and utilizing the arts, and theater arts in particular.

We have recently begun to develop our own ways of connecting reading to the arts.  In partnership with Bay Street Theatre, where Emma is Director of Education, and Stephen Gabriel at IntraMusic Theatricals, we are creating a “Classroom Partnership Program,” the goals of which are to introduce students and teachers to the wide variety of books in the Collection, to develop activities that encourage the connection of graded level reading with theatrical, musical, and artistic expression, to provide an opportunity for students to interact directly with us as authors, and to work in partnership with schools and performing arts centers around the country to develop stage adaptations of books from the Collection.

This year, “Simeon’s Gift”, our medieval fable about music and the power of giving, will be produced in November as a stage musical at Bay Street Theatre before going out on a national tour.  We are also developing a production of our latest novel for middle schoolers, “The Great American Mousical,” a book which directly connects reading to the arts – being about a troupe of theater mice who live below the boards of a great Broadway theater and who put on their own productions.

Librarians and educators frequently express to Emma and I their interest in finding ways to use arts-related activities to build reading skills and appreciation. The teachers guides we have created for both of these books are filled with recommendations in this regard, and “Mousical” has a fairly extensive glossary of theater terms which we hope will invite readers to want to learn more. The paperback, which is just about to be released, also includes tips on performance and audience etiquette for the passionate theater-goer or the aspiring performer.

I have been enormously fortunate in my professional career as an actress to receive the kind of media attention that has given me the opportunity to become an advocate for literacy, a privilege that I do not take lightly. As a matter of fact, the American Library Association asked just me if I would serve as the Chair for National Library Week for 2008.  It is an honor I am delighted to accept.

In today’s media and electronically-driven world, I feel that children run the risk of becoming very isolated…. I worry that we are spoon-feeding our young people such a steady diet of “manufactured” slices of life, that all they have to do is receive rather than participate in any way. The joy of reading is that it asks us to engage, to use our imaginations… and to play an active role in our environment.

Please don’t misunderstand…I love the world of filmed entertainment and filmed storytelling, and I think the internet is an extraordinary resource… but those things cannot and should not replace the joy of reading.  In the best of all possible worlds, one should enhance the other. 

A library takes the gifts of reading one step further.  In this day of standardized and homogenized education, a library offers individual and personalized learning opportunities second to none.  Perhaps most importantly, libraries offer a powerful antidote to the isolation of the web… providing connection, support, and community.  Rather than wading in a solitary fashion through the morass of potential misinformation available on the net, the student who conducts his or her explorations at a library has safe, professional guidance in their search for good books and accurate information.  I, for one, would far prefer that my children and grandchildren learn the meaning of the word “scrotum” from a library than from the playground, websurfing of the bathroom wall!

In closing, I’d like to quote from a very special librarian and author, the great Madeline L’Engle. She says, “A book, too, can be a star… a living fire to lighten the darkness, leading out into the expanding universe.”  How right she is!

I know it is your commitment, as it is mine, to keep that fire alive for future generations.  We share a special partnership, working to illuminate young hearts and minds every day.  It is an awesome responsibility - but I cannot think of one more rewarding, or more worthwhile.

Thank you.