Margaret Hamilton A.M. Born: 23 June 1941. Died November 24, 2022.
Margaret Hamilton's autobiography, Falling Forward, Books. A Passion. A Lifetime. begins with a quote from Hunter S Thompson:
'Life's journey is not to arrive at the grave safely, in a well-preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways, totally worn-out shouting, 'Holy shit ... What a ride!'
Margaret has died after a long illness. Whether she was totally worn out can be debated, certainly knowing Margaret Hamilton put you in contact with one of Australian Children's Books most passionate promoters and supporters. She was unparalleled in her knowledge and experience of the way books, particularly children's books, are imagined, created, produced, and sold.
This lifetime of working with books began when Margaret went from her final year of school to a job at Parramatta library. She wrote that everyone in her class had applied for a teaching scholarship, but she had had enough of study and opted for something different. She knew nothing of what that new job would entail. She has also written that she knew nothing of how this career choice would lead to the opportunities that were to come her way.
In 1959, at the age of eighteen she was put in charge of the children's library at Parramatta. This began her discovery of children's books, reading them, enjoying them, and advocating for them to both children and adults.
Margaret's next professional career was bookselling. In 1971 she joined June Smith in her Macquarie Bookshop in Parramatta. She, Margaret, organised the children's section, buying from the publisher's representatives and then liaising with school librarians and teachers.
She spoke with authority after her eleven years at the library. She was also part of the promotion of celebrations for new books and their authors and illustrators as the shop expanded.
Publishing was the next venture that Margaret became involved in, and she was to witness great change. In her 50 years in the industry, she saw the dependence on British and American publishers and their publications give way to Australian, national products.
Eddie Coffey, the managing director of Hodder and Stoughton invited her to meet and discuss a possible position at the company: production manager. In that role, Margaret set herself the task of learning as much as she could from everyone she encountered. Designers, typesetters and printers, were invited into her office to have their brains picked. It was there, in that role, that she developed the feeling of joy, as she described, 'as I hold a new book in my hands, smelling it, inspecting it and flipping through the brand new pages - one of the most satisfying aspects of publishing.'
During Margaret's time at Hodder, in 1975 she was invited to attend the Bologna Book Fair, the annual fair for children's book publishing. She was to take charge of the Australian stand and represent Australian publishers. This showed her having become a highly regarded member of the Australian publishing world. She continued to represent Australian publishers and the companies she was working for at subsequent book fairs. Her love for the Fair led to a love for Italy as she and her husband Max regularly travelled there and made long lasting friendships with Italian people. The Bologna Fair has now grown from the small event when she first attended to now being held in six huge pavilions, with 1,400 exhibitors and 30,000 visitors from over 80 countries.
Margaret Hamilton Books, an independent publishing company, owned and run by Margaret and Max was launched in 1988.The philosophy that drove the company was that 'children deserve the best of everything, especially books.' In picture book publishing that meant that there needed to be 'originality, a well-rounded plot, believable characters and language suitable for the age level, but not condescending, that evoked an emotional response and presented a challenge for the reader.'
The passion to produce the best drove the success of the company and as Margaret already knew Australia's top writers and illustrators, she and Max had no difficulty in finding creators who wanted to work with them.
The result was a catalogue of beautiful picture books that not only pleased and excited readers but also impressed judges in competitions and often sold widely overseas.
The Children's Book Council of Australia is the organisation that exists to 'promote and advocate for the sharing of quality literature for young people across Australia.' It was a natural fit for Margaret who had supported and worked for the CBCA in many different roles for many years. This culminated in 1991 and 1992 when she became national president.
A tradition she began at this time was the first national conference with the provocative title 'At least they're reading.' Writers, Illustrators, publishers and others interested in children's literature took part. They were joined by many from New Zealand as well as the UK and the USA.
Every two years a subsequent conference takes place. Margaret was involved in the organising of six of these and she said in her memoir that she always found it a satisfying task.
Another of her great achievements with the CBCA was the establishing of the CBCA Awards Foundation. The organisation had always struggled to have sufficient funds to pay the creators of the books deemed winners in the annual CBCA Book of the Year awards. Margaret and June Smith suggested the establishing of a CBCA Awards Foundation in 1995. Their idea was accepted, and they became the joint awards foundation managers. A fundraising campaign began with donations from publishers and others. Illustrators decorated bears that were auctioned and by 2006, $1,000,000 had been raised. The fund is currently almost $2,000,000.
Margaret and Max had dreamed of retiring to live in the Blue Mountains. In the early years of the 21st century they purchased land on the Shipley Plateau, Blackheath and set about building a home: a Tuscan farmhouse. That dream was realised. The fibro cottage that was also on the land was turned into a space where Margaret was able to hang the artwork she had been collecting from picture book illustrators for many years.
The property was named Pinerolo acknowledging both the love of Italy they had developed over many visits and the pine trees that surround the houses.
The cottage not only housed the artwork, it also became the residential site for those wanting to become picture book illustrators. Margaret joined with WestWords, the writing Centre in Western Sydney and created a competition to select a winner. That person then lived in the cottage for a time and was mentored daily, by Margaret, as they worked on the artwork that had won them the award. This has been the only opportunity of its kind in Australia and a number of its participants have gone on to some successful publications.
Successful publication came to Margaret herself. Her picture books B is for Bedtime and Counting Through the Day, both illustrated by Anna Pignataro have achieved great acclaim in both Australia and the USA. A third title Rainbow Days will be published posthumously in 2023.
In her memoir Margaret has referred to her partner in business and life, Max with a host of superlatives. She writes of her admiration of him and her pride in his achievements. He is 'wonderful', she said as she wrote of their celebration of their Golden Wedding anniversary in 2017 in Canada.
She also wrote of her daughter Melissa who she said had made her life complete and taught her the joys of motherhood.
Everyone in the world of books, especially children's books in Australia is mourning Margaret Hamilton.
She gave so much, not only in her chosen professions of librarianship and publishing but also in causes that celebrated those fields. She helped in the saving of May Gibb's home Nutcote, she was part of the delegation of Australian Children's Literature to China in 1987 and a major organiser of the return visit by a Chinese delegation subsequently.
She and Max travelled widely and wherever children's books were, there you would find them.
So much more could be written of this woman. Her knowledge and support, her sharp mind, her advocacy, her warm smile, and welcoming embrace.
She did indeed have a great ride. Think of her and smile. We have been so lucky to have known her.
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.