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Today, Mummum has the pleasure of speaking to seven-times New York Times bestselling author, educator and writing coach Emma Walton Hamilton. Her full bio extends pages, so I will just point you to her website. Did I also mention that she is daughter of Hollywood actress Julie Andrews and both mother-daughter team have written several immensely popular children’s books together?

New York Times bestselling children's books author

1. You have a stellar career in the children’s books market, as bestselling author, educator and writing coach. What would you say has been two most satisfying moments in your involvement in this market?

New York Times Bestseller

New York Times Bestseller

Ans: Of all the fields I’ve worked in, I find children’s lit to be one of the most rewarding. Unlike much adult literature, no matter how dark the subjects that children’s books tackle may be, they are ultimately, inherently, hopeful… offering some sense of resilience, or championship of the human spirit. And the people who write them and illustrate them and publish them and sell them are some of the nicest people in the world – which makes it a very lovely world to be a part of. It’s hard to narrow all the satisfying moments down to just two specific incidents, so I’ll give you one general and one specific one.
First of all, there is nothing more rewarding for a children’s book author than doing a school visit, and seeing the joy or interest on children’s faces as you read a story you have written for its intended audience. The questions, comments or enthusiasm of even just one young reader can provide me with enough energy to go back to months of sometimes solitary slogging away at the computer.

New York Times bestseller too

New York Times bestseller too

I am also fortunate in that I work as a teacher, editor and coach for aspiring children’s book authors, and I get so much pleasure out of seeing a student or client achieve their dream of getting published! Just recently, a former student and editing client of mine (and also a good friend), Susan Verde, had her first picture book, “The Museum,” illustrated by one of my favorite author/illustrators, Peter H. Reynolds, and published by Abrams. Because I introduced Peter to Susan, his dedication in the book was to me. I felt like the world’s happiest midwife. Talk about a thrill!
2.When did you first decide that you wanted to be an author? Can you name a specific moment that triggered that?

Ans: I wrote prolifically as a kid – poems, stories, novels – yet whenever someone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said things like “a vet,” “an actor,” etc.

My Mom would always counter, “She says that now, but she’s going to be a writer.”

I ended up being an actor for a while, and then became a director, and a producer, and an arts educator (never a vet, though!). But all the while I kept writing, mostly children’s books.

18 years ago, my Mom and I started writing together, and I’ve never looked back. To date, we’ve written close to 30 books for kids of all ages, and all those other jobs (with the exception of arts education, which I still do) fell by the wayside.

 
3. I have to ask this question. What’s it like writing books together with your mother?

A discovery of self and one's gifts

A discovery of self and one’s gifts

Ans: Mom and I are both enormously grateful for the joy our collaboration brings us… we didn’t necessarily know that would be the case when we first started writing together, although we had worked together successfully in other mediums, such as film and theater. But we’re both fairly opinionated ladies (read: bossy!) and we were well aware that it could be problematic.

Happily, we have found we have different and complementary strengths, which seems to be the main factor in keeping the collaboration smooth, and our professional relationship has also done wonders for our mother/daughter relationship. We’ve been very aware of the benefits of time spent being creative and brainstorming together, as opposed to indulging in less productive mother/daughter stuff, like discussing health issues, weight management, or family dramas!

Generally speaking, when we begin a new story, we brainstorm the big idea first. We talk about theme, and dramatic arc – the beginning, middle, and end – what the central problem is, and how it gets solved. If it’s a chapter book or novel, we’ll do a chapter breakdown. Then we start writing. At that point it becomes a process of finishing each other’s sentences. We literally think out loud, and I take it all down on the computer – I’m the scribe. Ideally, we’re in the same room together, but we often work via Skype or iChat. At the end of every session, I’ll email the day’s work, which we then review and edit separately. We compare notes at the beginning of the next session, and press on from there.

Emma with mother Julie Andrews

Emma with mother Julie Andrews

Can you share one golden moment when you were completely in sync and one moment where you had divergent views on a story? 

In terms of moments of being particularly in sync, it happens all the time. As I said before, we typically finish each other’s sentences when we’re working, and often shout out the same word at the same time if we’re searching for something specific. I think that comes from being mother-daughter, and also from the longevity of our collaboration now.

We rarely have really divergent views – but if we do, we have a sort of tacit agreement that “the best idea wins.” That means if one of us is particularly passionate or articulate about a certain idea, then the other one generally defers. There’s a lot of give and take, and a lot of mutual respect – and as I said, we are very aware of our differing strengths. So far, that system has really worked for us and we’ve never (touch wood!) really come to blows.

 

4.What is your favourite book from childhood? Why?

Amazon.com #1 Bestseller

Amazon.com #1 Bestseller

Ans: The book I returned to most often as a kid was Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth. It was my rainy-day book – I loved nothing more than curling up with it in front of the fire on a rainy day. It’s about a bored little boy named Milo, who one day discovers a tollbooth in his room, drives his toy car through it and embarks on a great adventure. The book is a total celebration of language. Milo visits places like Dictionopolis and Digitopolis, where he literally “eats his words” and “jumps to Conclusions” and befriends a Watch Dog named Tock, among other strange and wonderful characters. All the abundant wordplay really captured my imagination, and thinking about it now, it may well have been one of the contributing factors to my wanting to be a writer.

5. What are your first words of advice to aspiring authors?

Ans: OK, here are the essentials, in my opinion:

1) Read. Steep yourself in the culture of the world or genre you are writing for by reading everything you can. That’s not to say you should imitate anyone else – but it is a business, and I think it’s hugely important to really know and understand what the standards, formats, and market trends are… and, as Billy Collins says, to think about what you can contribute to the ‘conversation.’ People often make the mistake of thinking “I was a kid once, and I know what I liked” or referencing books from their childhood, but children’s publishing has changed dramatically in the last 20 to 30 years. You have to know what the market is like today, and stay plugged in as it evolves – no matter what genre you write for.

2) Hone your craft. Take classes and workshops, attend conferences. Keep stretching, learning, sharpening your skills – even (or maybe especially) after you’ve sold your first manuscript.

3) Find community. Writing can be a solitary business. I’m lucky – I write with a partner, work for a graduate writing program and host a membership site for children’s book authors, but it’s really important to find your tribe and connect with them regularly. Find a supportive critique group, join forums, take classes, attend conferences, whatever it takes to connect with other writers. It will keep you sane, and honest.

4) Diversify your strengths. It’s the rare writer that makes a living solely from writing. Even the most successful writers in the world have to augment their income with things like teaching, editing, or speaking engagements. Find ways to support your writing habit. Be willing to have a day job, to do whatever it takes… but whenever possible, try to make those other sources of income writing-related, such as freelance writing, editing, teaching, etc. It makes it easier.

 

Future Mum-and-son writing team

Future Mum-and-son writing team

Mummum: Emma, thanks for a treasure mine of practical advice. I’m at the final lesson of your on-line 14-week Just Write for Middle Grade course. It’s been so valuable in helping me shape, frame and structure my Big Idea for my manuscript. I love the worksheets, questions and bite-size worksheets which stretch my mind and yet, does not overwhelm me. That really gives me a good foundation given that I’m trying to expand from 500-word picture book manuscripts to 20 times the number of words in chapter book writing! Read more about Emma here!

Today, I am taking part in the It’s Monday, What Are You Reading? meme hosted by Jen of Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee of Unleashing Readers.

mondayreading1

Monday Reading2

 

I have not been able to blog on my Monday Readings over the past few weeks with various things happening. For starters, my latest picture book is out. Yay! Tibby & Duckie will be launching at the Singapore Writer’s Festival in early November.

Friendship, discovery and swimming!

Friendship, discovery and swimming!

Over the weekend, I read A Boy, A Bear and A Boat.

Early Chapter Book on Journeys, Patience & Perspectives

Early Chapter Book on Journeys, Patience & Perspectives

 

* Winner of Branford Boase Award

Published by Corgi Yearling, Random House

7 years & up

I bought this book on the cover, the title and John Boyne’s front cover praise which said “One of my favourite books of the year”. Yes, book covers make all the difference in being picked up and bought!

On reading, I then realised the entire book is literally about a boy and a bear on a boat.

A bear picks a boy up on shore and captains him to his destination. Except they get lost and learn to get along with each other on a tiny rowboat. I was intrigued by where this was going so I finished the book in one read.

This is a chapter book/early reader (one level below middle grade). It has juicy verbs and fun language and I love the illustrations sprinkled every 5-10 odd pages throughout. I have to say the author masterfully pulled off quite a difficult premise by coming up with enough challenges in a single scene book. Very clever and original for sure.

A Boy A Bear on a Boat page

I like the characters who are very strong. A ukulele-playing, tea-sipping bear who takes great pride in rowing his boat, with his captain hat and briefcase of weird flavoured sandwiches (eg. one sandwich had broccoli, sherbert and gooseberry). A young boy who was bored to tears by the days of nothing but seamless blue skies, blue seas and no entertainment beyond getting along with an eccentric bear who enjoys the nothingness of the sea.

It’s a fun and well-written read with certain chapters that I really like. But towards the end, it felt a bit long for me and I kept wondering when they will get off the boat. (Think Sandra Bullock in Gravity and Tom Hanks in Cast Away.)

It’s been a while since I counted my blessings here. But with such an eventful past week, I thought it was a good time to pause and thank God:

1. Littworld 2015

Recently, I had the privilege to be invited to serve on the Asia board of trustees for Media Associates International. We had our first new-board meeting over the weekend and I will be part of the Host Committee making preparations for Littworld, a key Christian publishing conference to be held in Singapore for the first time next year. More on that soon.

One Big Story - artwork by Malaysian Illustrator Emila Yusof (AFCC 2013)

One Big Story – artwork by Malaysian Illustrator Emila Yusof (AFCC 2013)

2. AFCC 2015

As part of the programme committee for the Writers and Illustrators tract of the Asian Festival of Children’s Content (AFCC), we had a meeting this week to discuss speakers for next year’s festival. I wrote my first children’s book manuscript Prince Bear & Pauper Bear as a result of my Book Council’s First Time Writer’s Publishing Initiative in 2007 and the support of its Executive Director Mr Rama, who is also Founder of the AFCC. Being able to now assist Mr Rama, for whom I deeply respect, in whatever small capacity I can, is something I am thankful to do.

3.Tibby & Duckie

I’m thrilled and thankful for my latest book Tibby & Duckie, which I wrote earlier this year. It was the fastest manuscript which I have written and revised with the most number of critiques in the shortest time, thanks to my amazing critique group from the 12×12 community (all the way across the world in the U.S. and yet just one email click away!) and Singapore writer friends.

 

4.The Word in Finding My Voice

And finally, something completely unexpected. A church friend texted to tell me that her 14-year old daughter’s Secondary 2 listening comprehension exam in school last week was on my personal story of how I started writing after struggling with a rare voice disorder Spasmodic Dysphonia.

Finding My Voice – a true story of setbacks, new beginnings and toy characters was my memoir which I had been apprehensive to write. It’s one thing to write allegorically using stuff toys as characters. It’s something else writing in first person about things personal.

Thank God for encouragers like Geraldine who gave me a timely reminder that my small seeds of writing do serve a purpose though I sometimes forget and recently burrowed myself back into a big rabbit hole!

P.S.
Had dinner with some friends last night and they told me that their daughter’s Sec 2 listening comprehension exam (in a different school from the first friend) also had an excerpt based on my personal story. Looks like it may have been standardized use and not set by one school?! I’m surprised, amazed and humbly honoured if that is the case.

 

Today, I celebrate Happy Hatch-Day for Tibby & Duckie, my sequel picture book to Tibby The Tiger-Bunny. I picked up my copies from my publisher Epigram Books shortly after they received it hot off the press today!

Friendship, discovery and swimming!

Friendship, discovery and swimming!

 

Tibby & Duckie Hatch-Day

Tibby & Duckie Hatch-Day

Now comfortable in his own skin from his journey in Picture Book 1, Tibby the Tiger-Bunny lends a paw to Duckie, one very confused sinking duck! Tibby finds ways to help Duckie swim – but nothing works. Tibby wonders if Duckie is a swimming kind of duck and helps his friend discover who she really is.

Tibby & Duckie will be launched at the upcoming Singapore Writers Festival on Saturday 8th November 2014  at 2.30-3.30pm. I’m excited to be doing a joint launch with fellow Epigram author Jason Erik Lundberg and illustrator Patrick Yee and their new books too! Details here.

 

Free downloadable children's e-bookAlmost two years ago, I was approached by a creative agency to write stories for their client’s new Canon Pixmatown website with a variety of arts and crafts available by several well-known artists for an Asian readership.

When I asked how they came to know my books, I was told my name had come from a senior agency person. As it turned out, his daughter loved Prince Bear & Pauper Bear, my debut picture book. I was thrilled to hear that it came from a reader :)

I have since written several e-picture books for Canon Pixmatown:

- Little Kancheong Spider

- Kuching & Kura

- The Colours of Tao Huay

- Tiger Tiger!

- The Giving Garden

- Jaja’s Treasure (out end of this year)

The first 5 stories can now be downloaded and printed out for FREE from the Canon site.

As an aside, there are other printable crafts which the Canon Pixmatown printer can execute as well.

Today, I am taking part in the It’s Monday, What Are You Reading? meme hosted by Jen of Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee of Unleashing Readers.

 

Middle Grade Novel with  magic & treachery

Middle Grade Novel with magic & treachery

 

I Coriander autographed copyI, Coriander

Sally Gardner

Puffin Books

8 years and up

This weekend, I finished reading Sally Gardner’s very first novel “I Coriander”. It’s a middle grade read about a young girl Coriander, whose idyllic life is thrown into disarray with the mysterious death of her beautiful mother and her father leaving to escape arrest, for his loyalty to the King. This story is set in the time of the Commonwealth, after the Royalists lost the Civil War and King Charles I had been executed in 1649. Beyond the setting and weaving in some values imposed by extremists in the Puritan camp who took over after the King’s demise, this is not a historical kind of book.

It is one which weaves in a magical world that exists in parallel with the human world, which Coriander journeys to, in her discovery of the mystery about her mother’s death, her own destiny as a child of a fairy and the magical silver shoes that transport her there.

I bought this book at the Asian Festival of Content this June, along with a few more of Sally Gardner’s books, which she kindly autographed for me. Sally gave an amazing keynote speech at the Teachers/Parents’ tract of the Festival about her journey with dyslexia, which just makes her story of Coriander, who goes from distress to triumph, that much more powerful.

I’m looking forward to reading Gardner’s other titles.

Today, Mummum is pleased to speak to Marjorie Coughlan, Founder of Mirrors Windows Doors, an online magazine spotlighting children’s and Young Adult books with cultural diversity, as resource for librarians, educators, parents and caregivers.

Marjorie was previously editor of the well-regarded Paper Tigers. I first met Marjorie at the Asian Festival of Children’s Content where she was invited as speaker. She returned to AFCC this year to conduct a book review masterclass with renowned children’s books critic Leonard Marcus.

MarjorieCoughlan

Marjorie: Hello, Emily – thank you for inviting me to take part in your wonderful High Chair Conversations series.

1. What are 2 things you want everyone to know about Mirrors Windows Doors? What inspired the name?

Marjorie: MWD celebrates multi-cultural diversity in children’s and YA literature from around the world, and promotes good books that open young people to an increased sense of empathy with the world, whether close by and familiar or across the globe.

MWD is aimed chiefly at adults – parents, teachers, librarians – choosing books for young people, though it would be great to introduce an area on the site for young readers at some point down the line.

MirrorsWindowsDoors_Logo

Mirror_SuzyLeeThe name Mirrors Windows Doors is taken from the metaphor that children need to find themselves in books, as well as gain an outlook on different worlds, whether real or imaginary – and that books provide a conduit for young people to go out into the world confident of their own place in it; stretching out their hands in friendship; and respecting and celebrating the rich diversity of our wonderful human race.

I give a bit of background to this metaphor, and why I love it, on MWD’s About page.

 

2.How is it different from PaperTigers which you were previously with?

Marjorie: In terms of the ethos of the site, it is no different; and indeed, I hope that MWD will be able to build on PaperTigers’ legacy – and I’m grateful for the support that MWD has received from the wonderful network of PaperTigers supporters in the kidlit world. Like PaperTigers, MWD has a global outlook, highlighting good books in English, wherever they are published, and their creators and publishers, as well as literacy promoters across the world. The PaperTigers site is still available as a very rich archive, and MWD will certainly link to it on a regular basis.

TheHelloGoodbyeWindowA few years ago, PaperTigers set up the Spirit of PaperTigers project, which sent out specially chosen sets of books to schools and libraries in different parts of the world. This aspect of PaperTigers has evolved into the non-profit WaterBridge Outreach (http://www.waterbridgeoutreach.org/) , which combines water projects with the book giving, still at a grass roots level. I am sure that MWD will maintain strong links with WaterBridge Outreach, as regards the books chosen for the book set, and perhaps with more active support in the future.

I suppose the difference, really, is that while PaperTigers was a project of Pacific Rim Voices, MWD is independent. This means that the last few months have been a steep learning curve for me on the technological side! So, on a personal level, it’s great to be able to concentrate on the books properly again, now that the site is up and running.

 

OldmanAndHisDoor3. What kind of books are you interested to review?

Marjorie: I am interested in reviewing books from any genre and written for any age-group from 0 to YA that exemplify one of the three aspects of the Mirrors Windows Doors metaphor, with a particular focus on ethnic diversity and opening up the world. This often means that a book’s setting may be in a particular country/culture, but the themes will be universal. I don’t usually review books that I don’t like – not because I won’t write a negative review, but because the purpose of MWD is to promote good literature and I have a limited amount of time to write my reviews. I am open to reviewing self-published books, as well as books in English or bilingual with English from publishing houses anywhere in the world.

 

4. What’s your favourite book from childhood? Why?

Marjorie: Oh dear, one book? I am definitely going to have to cheat on this one! There are quite a few books from my childhood that still resonate with me as an adult but I’ve whittled it down to these few… I grew up with Beatrix Potter and Alison Uttley’s Little Grey Rabbit books (illustrated by Margaret Tempest) and I still love the illustrations especially. As a child, the stories and the characters really lived for me. I still think of Timmy Tiptoes every time I see a grey squirrel; and teasel will always be Little Grey Rabbit’s hair brush (http://www.plantlife.org.uk/wild_plants/plant_species/teasel). It probably helped that I was surrounded by the English Lake District/countryside landscapes they were set in too. Some of our family’s copies had belonged to my mother, mostly, and some to my father, when they were children; and even when I was small, I loved the thick, old paper that had blank pages – I think my love of the physical book, and especially old books, right down to the smell, started then.

Gobbolino the Witch's CatI loved all the Babar stories – my Dad’s old Babar and Father Christmas, a much bigger book to hold than any of my own, was at my Grandad’s house. I remember vividly the day I was finally able to read the strange curly font for myself, rather than getting Dad to read it to me – and elephants have always been my favourite animal.

I read and re-read Ursula Moray Williams’ Gobbolino the Witch’s Cat and The Little Wooden Horse – their terrible ordeals and their consistent faith that they would get through them – and the fact, of course, that they did – and without their characters being blighted – are all aspects that I must have lived at the time, though I might not have been able to say it then. The books both made me cry when I read them to my sons a few years ago.

I suppose the stories that have stayed my companions since first reading them as an older child are Anne of Green Gables, Emily of New Moon, and Little Women – I read them and their sequels every two or three years. I think Anne, especially, has offered something new at every reading as I have got older and I empathise with her at the different stages of her life. And one day I will visit Prince Edward Island!

 

5.What’s the first word that describes your reading style?

Marjorie: I would say ‘absorbed’: within about five seconds of getting my nose in a book, I become oblivious to my surroundings. This can be annoying for the family and has its inconveniences like missing train stops, but is great when you’re waiting in a long queue!

Thank you, Emily, I’ve enjoyed ‘chatting’ with you and look forward to welcoming you to MWD.

 

Mummum: Marjorie, thanks for sharing about your exciting new site. I look forward to seeing myself in the mirrors, looking through the windows and walking through the doors of your impactful book reviews!

I usually end with a photo of Caleb on my High Chair Conversations post. But thanks to Marjorie, I’m putting a different face to childish behaviour here.

Marjorie3 (DavidSeow&me)

Eagle-eyed Marjorie glimpsed how kidlit rivalry can get when children’s authors get “up in arms” trying to get “ahead” of one another and captured this storyboard through her reviewer lens.

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