A life in children’s publishing: an interview with Margaret Hamilton

We managed to corner children’s publishing icon, Margaret Hamilton, to sit down and have a chat with us about her extensive experience working in children’s publishing in Australia.

MHamiltonPic_EditOver the years she has worked as a children’s librarian, a bookseller and as a publisher. In 1987 she left her position as director at Hodder & Stoughton Australia to begin Margaret Hamilton Books with her husband Max. The company built up a reputation for high quality children’s books and was dedicated to the philosophy ‘that children have a right to the best of everything, especially books’. Margaret Hamilton Books won many awards and had considerable success on the world market. It ultimately became a Division of Scholastic Australia in 1996, where the imprint remains to this day.

Margaret’s passion for picture books, her enthusiasm for Australian illustrators, and her recognition of the need for wider promotion of picture books, led her to establish Pinerolo. At Pinerolo she prides herself in promoting Australian picture books and their creators, educating children and adults about picture books, providing a venue for the exhibition of original artwork from picture books and bringing people interested in picture books together in an inspiring environment.

Just in case you want to know:
Pinerolo is an Italian word meaning ‘place of pines’
which is rather apt for this organisation which is located in
the picturesque Blackheath, in The Blue Mountains.

Here she shares a little more about her life and work in a field that she loves…


To begin with, can you tell us a little bit more about yourself?

I’ve worked in children’s books all my working life, beginning as a Children’s Librarian at Parramatta City Library. I then worked as a bookseller and moved into publishing at Hodder & Stoughton, where I eventually became a Director of the company responsible for their entire publishing program. But as children’s books were my first love my husband Max and I set up Margaret Hamilton Books in 1987.

Could you give us a brief summary of your professional
background and what you are doing now?

I was a qualified children’s librarian (ALAA). One if my teachers was the legendary Maurice Saxby. He was hugely inspiring and virtually shaped the whole of my professional life. Not only did I find working in publishing stimulating and satisfying, I also became involved in the Children’s Book Council of Australia (CBCA), having served in many capacities. Now I am a member of the CBCA National Board and on the management committee for the 12th National Conference in Sydney in May 2016.


What prompted you to get into publishing in the first place
– and why children’s publishing in particular?

I wasn’t a reader as a child but when I began work at the library I liked working with children and reading their books. For my Librarianship qualifications I read voraciously. So I gained a lot of knowledge about children’s books and when I began work in publishing it was children’s books I loved doing most. I learnt about all aspects of publishing by working on the job: editing, proof reading, design, production, art direction, marketing. So I moved quite naturally into my own independent publishing company.

Did you work primarily on illustrated titles
or did you also work with chapter books etc?

Margaret Hamilton Books specialised in picture books. We won many awards, both in Australia and internationally. However, with a total of ten to fifteen books per year we also published novels and non-fiction.

When you worked ‘inhouse’, how did you choose what to publish?
What were you looking for in a children’s book submission?

We received over 1000 manuscripts a year, so it was a big job for the two of us to read them all. We were always on the lookout for a story that immediately engaged us, was original, well-written and saleable. If it was a picture book we found the best possible illustrator and worked with them to produce books of the highest quality.

How do you feel the children’s book market is at the moment
– healthy, competitive, packed with rubbish?

The children’s book market at the moment is very successful, with sales of children’s books increasing, in fact the strongest sector of the book trade. Australian picture books especially are outstanding and among the best in the world. Despite some nervousness about ebooks, the trade has settled down and picture books especially have come back into their own. Reading a picture book is a tactile experience that cannot be duplicated on a tablet.

In your mind, what makes a great children’s book
– what is the key, if there is one?!

That’s the $64,000 question! Every publisher is aiming to publish best sellers, but every book they commit to does not necessarily sell as well as expected. It’s an extremely competitive market. Great children’s books are everywhere, especially many published by mainstream Australian publishers. These publishers are professional, committed and produce books of the highest standards.

Who was your favourite children’s author and/or
illustrator to work with, and why?

We were often asked what was our favourite book. We always replied that the books we published were our babies and we loved all of them equally and hoped they grew up to be award winners. I’ve worked with many of the best Australian authors and illustrators, Patricia Mullins, Dee Huxley, Glenda Millard, Margaret Wild, Julie Vivas, John Heffernan, to name a few! All were highly professional and passionate about their work. We produced some exquisite books together.

I am interested to hear more about Pinerolo, where did the idea to establish Pinerolo emerge from and why? How does it fit into the overall children’s publishing environment?

File created with CoreGraphicsAs a children’s publisher for over thirty years, I had collected artwork from many picture books I had worked on. When we moved to Blackheath all the artwork was in the garage while Max built the new house we now live in. The original two-bedroom cottage became my gallery, with artwork on the walls of all rooms. It is the only place of its kind in NSW, with not only the original artwork but a library of picture books and reference books, invaluable for anyone who is researching picture books. Our Picture Books @ Pinerolo series of one-day courses on creating picture books is now in it’s ninth year and still going strong. I am always joined here for the day by an award-winning author or illustrator. I also enjoy talking to groups of children and adults about how picture books are created.

How do you select your illustrator’s in residence?

Pinerolo’s Illustrators in Residence program is unique. There are several ‘Author in Residence’ programs but none for illustrators. They stay here for a week, have access to all the collection and I act as a mentor on a daily basis. Residents are chosen from applications they send in with examples of their work. It’s been extremely satisfying that several illustrators I have mentored have had books published.


You have just published your own children’s book, ‘B is for Bedtime’,
can you describe it in 100 words or less?

Basically, it’s a simple alphabet and it developed into a bedtime book which the publisher described as ‘soporific’. The blurb says ‘This timeless before-bed classic is a soothing meander towards the end of an evening. Beautifully told in gentle rhythmic verse, it leads us through a charming A-to-Z bedtime routine.’

What prompted you to write this book? Where did it come from?

It just came out of the blue really. I began thinking about a bedtime alphabet and which words I would choose to represent each letter. It became a reflection of what bedtime used to be like when our daughter Melissa was a toddler. So I guess it took thirty years to write. The rhyming text came quite naturally but I am so conscious of many rhyming texts that are not successful, do not read naturally and sound forced when read. It’s definitely more difficult to write a successful rhyming text, as there’s a lot of thought and trial and error involved.

B is for Bedtime CoverPic

What did you enjoy most about the publishing
experience from the perspective of an author?

Firstly, receiving the email from the publisher telling me the book was accepted. ‘Y is for Yes’ was the heading. Then being involved in choosing the illustrator – Anna Pignataro and working through roughs and seeing the book develop – her interpretation of my words. It was magic!

How did your manuscript develop, both in your initial
thinking about it and in the revision process?

My manuscript was virtually complete when I sent it to the publisher. There were only a couple of very minor changes suggested. I had done all the work before sending it off, so I was very excited that it was accepted and published.

What happened in writing that you didn’t expect would happen?

I didn’t realise until after the book had been published that a lot in it was there subliminally – things that actually happened during our daughter’s bedtime. V is for Vanishing I didn’t realise at the time is a throwback to the book by Patricia Mullins I published V is for Vanishing, an alphabet of endangered animals.

Where can we buy your book?
And is there anywhere else we can find out more about you?

It was published by Little Hare Books, which is a division of Hardie Grant Egmont. The book is available at most bookshops, but I also sell it at Pinerolo. Anna Pignataro has also allowed me to sell the original artwork, so it is listed on my website.


Do you usually read ebooks or traditional format?

Although I’ve got an Ipad I can’t read books on it. I much prefer the tactile pleasure of turning the page, smelling the book and knowing at a glance where I’m up to.

Where do you mostly buy your books from – bookstores, online… ?

Gleebooks, Blackheath mostly. It’s fabulous to have such a terrific bookshop so close to home.

Which authors do you most admire, and why?

If you mean adult authors, I have recently read Richard Flanagan’s Narrow Road to the Deep North, also Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. I also like Ian McEwan, Sally Vickers and Geraldine Brooks. Children’s writers I love are too numerous to name! I know so many of them personally and have worked with some of the best. I admire them all.


What one question on this topic do you wish I’d asked that I didn’t?
And how would you answer it?

‘Aren’t you suppose to be retired?’ The answer to this question is YES! I seem to be busier than I’ve ever been and am finding what I do very stimulating and fulfilling. I’m passing on the knowledge I gained from all those years experience, but I’m also learning new things from the people I meet. Life is good!


What are you working on next both in terms of
writing and in terms of Pinerolo etc?

B is for Bedtime has been chosen as a Notable Book in the 2015 CBCA Children’s Book of the Year Awards, which is very exciting. There’s also a US edition publishing soon. I have also been signed up for a second book, this time a counting book called Counting Through The Day – which will be illustrated by Anna Pignataro as a companion book to B is for Bedtime – depicting the same lovely family. The Picture Books @ Pinerolo program continues to be very successful. It’s now in its ninth year, with many satisfied customers and several books published by authors and illustrators I have mentored. Mentoring people and watching them succeed is one of the most satisfying aspects of my work.

About Kit Carstairs

Kit Carstairs has background in book and magazine publishing, academic research, marketing and broadcasting. She has almost a decade of experience working with a wide variety of content including: fiction (adult and children’s), general non-fiction (craft, gardening, home improvement, general DIY, food titles, natural history, general reference, photography) as well as working with corporate (marketing and sales material, business reviews and papers) and academic content (research publications and thesis). Having worked both as a freelance editor and as an in-house editor and project manager in publishing, Kit has a comprehensive understanding of the importance of content development and the need for authors to be proactive in developing manuscripts that represent their full potential. As well as providing manuscript assessments Kit is also able to offer her editing and proofing services (POA) as well as fast and accurate transcribing services (POA). Contact Kit to discuss these services in more detail. Kit lives and works in the inspirational surroundings of the Blue Mountains, in Australia's New South Wales.


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