Margaret Hamilton – Interview with CKT

Margaret Hamilton

What five words best describe you? 

When we ‘retired’ from Margaret Hamilton Books in 2001, my husband Max and I answered 20 questions for the Bookseller + Publisher magazine. One of their questions was ‘Describe yourself at work’. I answered by listing ‘d’ words: dedicated, dogmatic, determined, direct, demanding, dauntless, decisive and discerning. That’s more than five words, but I guess these all still apply. I’m sure anybody who knows me would agree. Max’s reply was ‘disorganised’!

How did you get started in this industry?

I never knew what I wanted to do when I grew up and I still don’t know! I’ve said that my autobiography should be called ‘Falling Forward’ because that’s what I’ve done, fallen forward from job to job, to new opportunities and new challenges. I didn’t have any books as a child, so didn’t have an interest in reading at school. So it was purely by chance that I applied for a job at Parramatta City Library, which I got. I then undertook all the study to become a qualified librarian and specialised in children’s books because I discovered I loved them and liked relating to the children. I became Children’s Librarian, responsible for the Central Library and eight branch libraries. From that beginning, I then worked in a bookshop for three years, then moved to publishing at Hodder & Stoughton, where I rose through the ranks and became the only female director, responsible for the entire publishing program. I left Hodder in 1987 to begin Margaret Hamilton Books with my husband Max, specialising in children’s picture books. In the fifteen years we were publishers, we achieved considerable success, both in Australia and internationally and worked with some of Australia’s most talented, award-winning authors and illustrators.

Is there any part of the creative process you don’t like?

I love the whole creative process of publishing a book. We used to receive over 1000 manuscripts and it’s a joy to open one that’s got potential. I was thrilled to read ‘There’s a Hippopotamus on Our Roof Eating Cake’ by Hazel Edwards and am proud to have published that book at Hodders, which is still in print for today’s generation. In fact, there’s a new title out now for Christmas ‘Ho, ho, ho, there’s a hippopotamus on our roof eating Christmas cake’. How good is that? I’m also very proud to have been the publisher of the ‘Grug’ books – 24 titles in the series. Grug is once again an Australian favourite, the series has grown to over 30 titles and has sold over 2 million books in Australia!

So, as a publisher there’s nothing about the creative process that I don’t like. I have been very fortunate to have worked with some of Australia’s most successful authors and illustrators. I love the development of ideas and roughs, the work on the manuscript, the typography and design of a picture book (I did most of my own), the printing, and that very exciting opening of the box with the first finished copies.

I tell the story of the whole magical process during my one-day courses on creating children’s picture books at Pinerolo, the Children’s Book Cottage here in Blackheath. I’m usually joined by a major author or illustrator and we take participants through the involved and detailed process from idea to finished book and beyond. Some of those who have joined me are Freya Blackwood, Libby Gleeson, Margaret Wild, Lisa Stewart, John Heffernan, Tohby Riddle, Stephen Michael King, Glenda Millard.

This is my ‘retirement’ occupation! At Pinerolo I promote Australian children’s picture books and their creators and educate children and adults about them. This is supported by a large collection of original artwork from Australian picture books plus a large library of picture books and reference books. It’s the only centre for children’s books in NSW.

What advice would you give to someone who is trying to catch the eye of a publisher?

I’d like to know that myself! As a publisher for decades I never considered sending something I’d written to a publisher. One day I took my life in my hands and sent a manuscript to Little Hare. It was accepted! It became B IS FOR BEDTIME, illustrated by Anna Pignataro. It’s been incredibly successful, especially in the US, and it was followed by COUNTING THROUGH THE DAY. I’d like to have more books published but haven’t had any luck yet. So I’d like to know what catches the eye of a publisher!

As a publisher, I used to open envelopes and read the story submitted. It had to be beautifully written, simple but engaging, have a beginning, a middle and an end, and it had to build pictures in my head.

What excites you about the future of children’s books?

I love it that children’s books are alive and well. A few years ago publishers seemed very nervous about the advent of devices and children reading books on screen. We’d been through this kind of nervousness before with the threat of television, videos, etc. Books have won again! Sales of children’s books have increased remarkably over the last couple of years. Picture books are becoming even more beautiful. Nothing can replace the tactile pleasure of sharing a beautiful picture book with a child. The feel of a book, the smoothness of the paper, the treatments on the cover, even the smell of a book, cannot be replicated by a tablet. Long live books!

What’s the funniest thing a child has ever said to you during one of your presentations/talks?

I can’t really answer that question because I don’t do many talks to children except when they visit Pinerolo, and they’re very polite. Maybe one of the funniest things ever said to me was when our daughter said to us: ‘why aren’t you like my friends’ parents and get a real job? They all go to work.’ That was when we were publishing from our ‘office’ at home, where we thought we were perfect parents, being there every day when she came home from school!

What’s next from Margaret Hamilton?

I’ve been involved with the Children’s Book Council of Australia for many years. In fact, when I retired from the national board last year, I realised that I had been working for them in various capacities for fifty-seven years! It’s not over yet though, because I’m now heavily involved in organising the CBCA 13th National Conference, which will be held in Canberra 31 May to 2 June next year. The first national conference in 1992, when I was national president, was called ‘At Least They’re Reading’. Next year’s conference will be called ‘And Now They’re Laughing!’. There’s a rich and varied program coming together, but parts of it will focus on the incredible contribution writers of humour have made to Australian children’s literature.

I hope visitors continue to come to Pinerolo the Children’s Book Cottage. I welcome groups of children or adults and love nothing better than talking to them about picture books and sharing my collection. In these days of digital artwork there’s not so much beautiful hand-done original artwork to frame and hang on the wall. The cottage is also available as rental accommodation for a holiday break in the spectacular Blue Mountains.

I also hope there will be more of my manuscripts accepted so there are more picture books written by Margaret Hamilton!

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