“How I Met Julie Andrews” or “Braggy Braggy, Name Drop, Braggy”
I don’t want there to ever be a single day where I don’t realize how lucky New York City public librarians can be. Ours is a weird, privileged, one-of-a-kind world. When I moved to this city, I knew it believed itself to be the center of the universe and that by moving here I would slowly, over time, come around to its point of view. It also scared the crap out of me. My vision of NYC was formed by bad 80s films where you can’t walk the street without being mugged in an alley (Fun Fact: There are almost no alleys in New York City). But I took a position as a children’s librarian in Greenwich Village and it soon became clear that there was something awesome about this place.
One plus? Celebrities. They’re friggin’ everywhere. I mean, they live here so if you keep your eyes open you can spot them with great frequency. And in Greenwich Village they actually use the library. Our library guard was particularly good at catching them as they entered. Of course, she had her own specialized list of who ranked as a celebrity. Michael Richards, yes. That guy in the movie The Warriors who clinked the bottles and said “Oh Warriors, come out and playeeeeeee!!”, yes. I had the pleasure of helping Julia Stiles with a reference question about Long Day’s Journey Into Night on one occasion and doing a toddler storytime for Hope Davis and her tot on another.
Then there are the publishers with their celebrity books. Once I started getting on those lists I was able to meet folks putting out the books. Folks like the Vice-President’s wife (current) and her book about bringing the troops home, for example (see what I meant with the title of today’s post?). Or Chris Colfer from GLEE and his middle grade novel (which I was invited to and didn’t attend).
But through it all there was only one celebrity I ever wanted to meet. Only one that I wanted to see firsthand. The one . . . the only . . .
Friggin’ Julie Andrews.
I mean, come on. Who wouldn’t? We’re talking one of the greatest Broadway and movie stars of all time. The woman who manages somehow to be just as nice in person as she is in the public persona. I knew she was in New York City promoting her books from time to time. I was tempted to swing by to see her at Books of Wonder whenever she did something there. But all those people . . . surely my day would come. Surely I’d be able to meet her myself, if only for an instant. I just didn’t expect that it would happen when I was 8 months pregnant is all.
Little, Brown & Co. was kind enough to extend an invitation to myself and several other social media types to a lovely tea with Ms. Andrews in the building where their offices are kept. I had never actually been anywhere near the Little, Brown offices, and thus COMPLETELY neglected to look for the Mr. Tiger Goes Wild statue made entirely out of LEGOs. It reportedly looks like this:
In any case, I arrived to a little room full of cupcakes, teacups, and tiny chocolate desserts. This is a bad position to be in if one is a pregnant woman. Unlimited cupcakes. Think about that for a minute. The women (for they were all women) started to arrive and they included bloggers and writers from places like Parenting Magazine, PopSugar Moms, GeekMom, and others. That meant I was present as press, not as a librarian. Duly noted.
When Ms. Andrews did arrive she did so through a surprise door on the opposite side of the room. And she was not alone! In her presence was her daughter and co-writer Emma Walton Hamilton. Together the two have penned the Very Fairy Princess books over the years. You may or may not be familiar with them. Well, in this interview with Stephen Colbert from about two years ago she explains them better than I ever could:
As we got into the discussion I began to remember that Ms. Andrews began her career as a children’s author long before any other celebrities else thought it would be a good idea. And she didn’t just walk into it and start doing one off picture books, like so many lazy celebs of today. No, she started out doing honest-to-goodness novels. Mandy and The Last of the Really Great Wangdoodles, and books of that sort. The picture books she does today with Emma are just the latest in a long career that has spanned many a fine decade.
In terms of the Very Fairy Princess series, the books are co-written by Ms. Andrews and Emma, her daughter. And the story behind this collaboration is rather lovely. You see, when Emma was five her parents were separated but perfectly cordial. Then Julie had an idea on how to give their child something from the two of them. She wrote Emma story called Charlie the Englishman and then Emma’s father illustrated it for her. Years and years later this book found a new life as Simeon’s Gift, illustrated by Gennady Spirin, a book published in 2003 that appears to still be in print to this day.
But before that happened, Julie was, as I said, just writing middle grade books for kids. It really wasn’t until she started writing her memoirs that she was approached by publishers asking if she had any picture book ideas. And it was with the advent of her picture books that she started collaborating with Emma. And as they learned, writing picture book turned out to be much more difficult than novels. Early books included Dumpy the Dump Truck (created for her now 17-year-old grandson). Then Simeon’s Gift and a couple others. Then, in time, the Very Fairy Princess series. Also inspired by a grandchild (now 10), the series follows a girl who loves her some fairy princess-type stuff, but also has banged up knees and messy hair. The latest Fairy Princess book tackles the shock that comes when you’ve had female teachers all your life and then one day you find out that your next teacher is going to be a man.
In terms of their writing process, Emma is located here in NYC but Julie has to jet set around the country quite a bit. That means their collaboration must rely to a certain extent on webcams and Skype. Emma’s role in the writing relationship is structure. She gives the books their bones. Julie’s, in her own words, does “flights of fancy”. The little things that make it word “musically and cinematically”. And have any of the stories in the books been inspired by real life? You bet! For example, I didn’t know that Julie grew up a child of the Vaudeville circuit. Her mother and step-father were part of that life. Well, one day her mother let Julie pack her own suitcase when they were traveling. And by some quirk of fate she remembered everything . . . except her shoes. What to do? Well, the solution was to paint her socks for the performance to make it look like she was wearing shoes. And they might have gotten away with it too, had she not left a lovely little line of tiny white footprints in her wake. That story made it into one of the Very Fairy Princess books (albeit in a slightly condensed version).
I was initially astonished to hear that neither Emma nor Julie have ever met Christina Davenier, the illustrator of these books. I know that authors don’t always have the chance to meet their illustrators but after all these years I would have figured they’d have run into one another. This becomes slightly less surprising when one learns that Ms. Davenier is French (a fact I had forgotten, considering how many children’s books she does here in America in a given year). The fact that she is French doesn’t really come up, though she does have to be gently corrected when the kids in the book show up in cricket uniforms or something like that. When asked about the collaboration with the artist, Emma and Julie said that Davenier’s style is to take their notes when they have them. Gennedy Spirin, when he did his Julie Andrews book, is the kind of artist who gives you the product when it is finished. Notes are not part of the process.
Now is Ms. Andrews as nice as the world would have us believe? ‘Fraid so. And so, for that matter, is her daughter. The two couldn’t say enough about librarians and teachers and they were NOT pandering to that kind of crowd (which was mostly made up of 20-something women who work in the media). “They are in the trenches” was the librarian line. Dang right. Then later she said this: “Bookstores are disappearing, but libraries cannot.”
Citing her influences, Ms. Andrews confessed a predilection for A.A. Milne (though, as her 10-year-old granddaughter pointed out recently, “Eeyore’s really passive aggressive isn’t he?”). And in spite of the fact that like Kay Thompson Ms. Andrews is a movie star turned picture book author, Eloise wasn’t a real influence on her books. She did, however, play Eloise’s nanny in the movie version of the books, a fact I had completely forgotten! So though a reviewer of The Very Fairy Princess called the heroine, “Eloise meets Hilary Clinton”, that was just coincidence.
My sister said she wouldn’t believe that I met Ms. Andrews if I didn’t show her photographic proof. As such:
Note the strategic placing of the book. It hardly worked. Also, I broke the cardinal rule of not wearing black in NYC. Blame it on the maternity wear then.
Big time thanks to Little, Brown for the invite and to Ms. Andrews and Ms. Hamilton for taking time out of their schedules to talk to us. Oh. And yes. Ms. Andrews did mention my baby belly and we had a lovely conversation about my kiddos. I was reminded of something Ms. Andrews said when she was asked how one created such a close bond with one’s offspring. After all, she and Emma are a wonderful example of a mother-daughter partnership. Ms. Andrews’ response on how to bond with your kids?
“Read to them.”
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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