James Marshall, We Love You
Jim Marshall, and who he was
When James Marshall died in 1992 at the age of fifty, many felt someone special was prematurely subtracted from our lives. In a tribute in the New York Times Book Review, Maurice Sendak lamented the loss of his friend and styled him the last in the line of great picture book artists. In the fall of 2008, Houghton Mifflin republished Marshall’s “George and Martha” stories (some 35 of them) in a single volume, along with remembrances from a number of his friends.
My own memories, I must admit, are tinged with regret because when we first met, I was a foolish young man in my twenties who would not realize until later the riches I was being afforded. In the 1970’s, Marshall was renting a room from Francelia Butler, a professor of mine living in Mansfield Hollow, Connecticut. I got to know him in that way. One time I gave him a lift back to Boston. Another time, we spent a week together in San Diego where, among other things, he deliciously gossiped about his and Sendak’s visit to the home of Dr. Seuss (Ted Geisel).
We finished that rainy drive up to Boston in his apartment on Beacon Hill. There he drew pictures in two books for my newborn daughter and then signed them: “For Breca, from Jim Marshall.” Those books (George and Martha Rise and Shine and George and Martha Encore) remained among Breca’s favorites when she was growing up.
The George and Martha stories are fables about two hippo friends. For example, when George doesn’t want to get out of bed to have fun, Martha drags his bed outside to a picnic. When Martha is discouraged about her garden, George buys cut flowers and plants them in the dirt. All of them are about what friends do for each other.
Looking for these books on my shelves, I made a discovery. There are, needless to say, loads of children’s books in my house. But there are more picture books by Jim Marshall than by any other author. More than those by Seuss, Sendak, Lobel, and DeBrunhoff. That says something about my family’s enthusiasm for Jim Marshall.
I think my kids’ favorite book was Space Case, a Halloween story featuring a robot-like alien who is greeted by adults (from absentminded parents to a distracted schoolteacher) in a dumb and ho-hum manner. Another popular one with my offspring was the hilarious Stupids Step Out, which reads like a series or moron jokes (from the mislabeled pictures on the walls to its conclusion where the family gets dressed for bed by putting on clown outfits).
Of course, the one book that teachers love–elementary school educators in my neighborhood voted it their favorite book–is Miss Nelson is Missing! because it neatly pictures their dilemma: how they love their students but have to discipline them. My own special favorite, however, is It’s So Nice to Have a Wolf Around the House because I think it comes closest to who Jim Marshall was. In this book, Cuthbert answers an advertisement for “a charming companion” and claims to be a German Shepherd. It turns out he is a whiz at making desserts for the Old Man and his pets, plays the viola, and (every Saturday) organizes a fancy costume party. When it is belatedly discovered that he is (in fact) a wolf, Cuthbert confesses to his misdeeds and everyone happily moves together to a retirement home in Arizona.
Jim Marshall was like his books. He was “a charming companion,” all his friends would say, and a little edgy like Cuthbert the Wolf. And his books, full of tulips and comic wallpaper, are immensely funny and loving–that special tone inherited from their author, and that those who knew him now prize in retrospect.
A version of this essay originally appeared in Parents’ Choice (November 2008).
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