The Power of Poetry: Interview with Emma Walton Hamilton

Julie Andrews Collection of PoetryIn their most recent collaboration, the dynamic mother-daughter team of Julie Andrews and Emma Walton Hamilton have created a place where poems, songs, and lullabies transform into family treasures. Brimming with selections by Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, Jack Prelutsky, Shel Silverstein, and Rodgers and Hammerstein, this dazzling collection includes nearly 150 enduring and contemporary classics.

From the first moment I laid eyes on Julie Andrews’ Collection of Poems, Songs, and Lullabies, I knew it would become a family favorite. After the eagerly anticipated arrival of this poetry anthology, it quickly became treasured bedtime reading. The girls love browsing through the table of contents as they consider which poem to read next. The thoughtful selection of poems combined with the beautiful illustrations make this book the perfect entry point into the world of poetry for young children. I was thrilled when Emma Walton Hamilton agreed to do an interview about her latest project. The stories behind Julie Andrews’ Collection of Poems, Songs, and Lullabies are just as lovely as the book itself.

Playful Learning: Congratulations on your new poetry anthology. You and your mother, Julie Andrews, have written so many wonderful books together. Can you tell us a bit about why you decided to focus on poetry for this project?

Emma Walton Hamilton: We’ve both always loved poetry. Being multigenerational, it really is the ideal shared family experience, wonderful for bonding and memory building. It’s also the perfect “read-aloud”—one of the best ways to introduce young people to the wonder and power of language. The music and rhythms of poetry delight the ear and can really help children fall in love with reading. For these reasons—and because we’re both such passionate advocates for reading and the arts—when our publisher suggested we create a treasury of our favorite poems and songs, we jumped at the chance. Poetry also has the power to change our perspective. It offers us a vision of beauty and meaning in our world and can comfort and inspire and even help us see things a little differently…all of which feels especially important to offer young people in these challenging times.

PL: What role did poetry play in your childhood?

EWH: Our family has always turned to poetry to help commemorate or honor key moments in our life—holidays, celebrations, transitions. Sometimes we read classic poems, other times we write them for each other as gifts. Almost everyone in my family has tried their hand at writing poetry from time to time, even if only silly (or naughty!) limericks. My grandfather on my mother’s side was a great lover of poetry and had dozens of poems committed to memory. He could call one up at anytime and recite it in full, which always amazed me. He used to say that having “a poem in his pocket” made him feel he had company on the nature walks he took every day in the English countryside. Actually, my dad has the same gift in terms of memorizing poems and is also a prolific poet himself. He’s famous in our family for writing wonderfully funny, epic poems, which he reads aloud at birthdays and weddings and anniversaries. I remember being particularly embarrassed by one he read at my own wedding, which started out “Isn’t it grand? Isn’t it great? Stephen has finally wed Emma Kate!” I’m very pleased and proud that we were able to include poems of my dad’s and granddad’s—and even my great-granddad’s—in this anthology.

PL: How do you incorporate poetry into the lives of your own children? Is there a specific poem that holds special memories?

EWH: I very much carry forward our family’s poetry traditions with my own kids. We continue to turn to poetry all the time in our house and also to write poems ourselves. There are two poems that I wrote—one for each of my kids—in the anthology, and my son Sam has lately begun to write some terrific poems himself. Particular favorites for me growing up (and equally enjoyed by my kids now) were those written by A.A. Milne, the author of the Winnie the Pooh books. They came in two volumes called When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six. I still have a pair of very old, treasured versions of those volumes. We’ve included a few of them in the anthology…but probably my most favorite was, and still is, “The King’s Breakfast,” which both my parents used to read to me with silly accents and lost of hamming it up!

PL: You have included such a wonderful collection of poems in this book. Can you tell us about your selection process?

EWH: It was a completely joyful experience. We spent over a year digging up old favorites, discovering new ones, and generally immersing ourselves in the wonderful world of poetry. My office floor was literally obscured by stacks and stacks of poetry collections—my own and those borrowed from various libraries and friends’ and family members’ collections. Each one was filled with Post-it notes marking favorite pages. The hardest part was winnowing the choices down. Our first pass had about twice as many selections as the final product and would have been prohibitive to publish, since you have to pay royalty fees for any poem that isn’t in the public domain (which is pretty much everything except Robert Frost and Robert Louis Stevenson!) Song lyrics—which we were so pleased to be able to include, as they are poems in their own right—are even more expensive…so at the end we had to be really choosy and let a few beloved favorites go by the wayside in favor of others. One fun and interesting aspect was allowing the categories to emerge for us. Our editor suggested we make all our selections first, and then see how they fell into natural sections, which we did. We expected, of course, that we would end up with sections on the sea, nature, animals, and growing up since so many children’s poems fall into those categories, but we were very surprised to discover we had so many poems about optimism, for instance, or that those poems that celebrated the arts, and other pleasures would combine into a category called “Leisure.” We were also delighted to discover we could use actual poem titles to separate our sections rather than having to come up with generic headings or something stylistic ourselves.

PL: The illustrations seem to be a perfect match for this book. Can you tell us more about your collaboration with the illustrator, James McMullan?

EWH: My mother and I were so fortunate to have the esteemed painter and children’s book illustrator James McMullan collaborate with us on this anthology. Jim is perhaps best known as the poster artist for Lincoln Center Theatre, as well as for the wonderful I Stink! series of truck books that he does with his wife Kate. He painted an astonishing number of pieces in a record amount of time for this book and did it all in sequence, meaning we laid out the poems in the order we wanted them, and then he painted each page in order. He did this because he didn’t want to duplicate anything or end up with two dark images back to back. One of the things I love about Jim’s art, besides the fact that’s it’s so luminous and beautiful, is that it’s often so unexpected. For instance, there’s a poem called “Wind” by Ted Hughes, which is all about a storm raging outside, but instead of painting the storm, Jim painted a cozy scene of two cats snuggled in front of the fire. His paintings take the poems one step further and make you see a story, even beyond the words.

PL: Do you see any more poetry books in your future?

EWH: Funny you should ask… Actually, our publisher, Little Brown Books for Young Readers, [has] already asked us to do a second anthology, this one dedicated to poems and songs to celebrate the holidays and seasons. We’re working on it right now and are inviting people to submit their favorite holiday and seasonal poems to us at If we end up including someone’s submission, they’ll get a signed, personalized copy of the book when it’s published.

PL: The book also comes with a CD. What was it like recording the poems you selected?

EWH: I’m very pleased that we were allowed to record the poems for a CD of about 20 selections to accompany the book and also for the full audio-book version. Recording all those poems aloud was a real revelation to us. We discovered, once again, the value of read-aloud when it comes to poetry. Some poems that we thought were just good turned out to be truly dazzling once we experienced the alliteration and texture of the language in voicing it aloud. For instance, when you read Tennyson’s “The Brook” on the page, it seems lovely but a bit dense and arch. But when you read it aloud, you realize that you can actually hear the river “chatter” and “bubble” and “babble on the pebbles.” It’s our hope that families will listen to the CD and be inspired to read the poems aloud themselves. I think the real magic of poetry is best experienced when it’s read aloud.

A warm thank you goes out to Emma Walton Hamilton for spending some time here with us at Playful Learning!