Top 100 Picture Books #48: George and Martha by James Marshall
I know this is a Marshall-heavy list, but it’s not my fault that he is the greatest thing to ever happen to picture books. – Shannon Ozimy
I didn’t read George & Martha until I became a librarian, but it was irreverent love at first sight. – Jessalynn Gale
Though recently republished as Easy Books for the early reader market George and Martha was originally published in a picture book format. Though they’d be shoo-ins for the Geisel Award if they were originally released today, they stand on their own. Witty. Urbane. They are the true predecessors to characters like Mo Willems’ Elephant and Piggy or James Howe’s Houndsley and Catina.
The plot description, such as it is, from the publisher reads: “Two lovable hippos teach the meaning of friendship in five separate vignettes: ‘Split Pea Soup,’ ‘The Flying Machine,’ ‘The Tub,’ ‘The Mirror,’ ‘The Tooth’.”
Maurice Sendak wrote the Introduction to the collection George and Martha: The Complete Stories of Two Best Friends. As is right. You may read it here if you like. In it, Sendak says of the man, “With his first George and Martha book, James was already entirely himself. He lacked only one component in his constellation of gifts: he was uncommercial to a fault. No shticking, no nudging knowingly, no winking or pandering to the grown-ups at the expense of the kids. He paid the price of being maddeningly underestimated – of being dubbed ‘zany’ (an adjective that drove him to murderous rage). And worse, as I saw it, he was dismissed as the artist who could do – should or might do – worthier work if he would only dig deeper and harder. The comic note, the delicate riff were deemed, finally, insufficient.”
No Caldecotts for him. Mind you, this is not to say ALA never honored him. In 2007 he received the posthumous honor (he died in 1992) of the Wilder Award, given under the auspices of Chair and Horn Book editor Roger Sutton. The Laura Ingalls Wilder Award, “honors an author or illustrator whose books, published in the United States, have made, over a period of years, a substantial and lasting contribution to literature for children.” Said Roger in honor of James, “Marshall conveyed a world of emotion with the placement of a dot or the wrinkle of a line. In both his drawings and impeccably succinct texts, he displayed a comic genius infused with wit and kindness.”
That kindness was key. It is one thing to put pen to paper, and another entirely to create whole words out of almost nothing. And looking again at Sendak’s words regarding Marshall’s style, “The simplicity is deceiving; there is richness of design and mastery of composition on every page. No surprising, since James was a notorious perfectionist and endlessly redrew those ’simple’ pictures.”
The saddest and most touching tribute to Mr. Marshall for me was this one from Jaime Temairik, “Yes, most everybody loves James Marshall. But do you have nightmares about him being your real dad and only finding out about that fact after he’s died? And I have the same nightmare about Jim Henson and wake up in tears. Anyone?”
There was a lovely Arnold Lobel exhibit at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art last year called Seeking a State of Grace: The Art of Arnold Lobel. Within that exhibit there was a case, and inside that case was a little birthday book that James Marshall had made for Arnold Lobel’s birthday one year. The only page visible showed George and Martha involved in a debate over whether or not to go to Arnold’s party. I believe that the fact that he lived in Brooklyn was being considered as a possible deterrent to the trip. A pity that little book not available somewhere. Ah well.
Finally Publishers Weekly said of the books, “The secret of Mr. Marshall’s success lies not just in the freshness of his sense of the ridiculous, but in the carefulness of his control and editorial judgment.”
The man is missed while his books live on.
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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