James Marshall: An Appreciation

“For me, as an illustrator, it often comes from what will look funny. The idea of a character pouring soup into his loafers is a funny kind of thing. It’s visually funny. The words come to me later.” — James Marshall.

I’ve been hitting the links lately, discovering and embracing this vast community of children’s book fanatics. I encourage you to check out the links on the right sidebar, there’s so much energy and insight. One of my recent discoveries is “Read Roger,” a pithy platform for Roger Sutton, editor-in-chief of The Horn Book, Inc.

On Friday the 7th, he announced that he’ll be “moderating a panel honoring James Marshall’s contributions to children’s literature.” For full details of the event, which will be held in Cambridge, Mass., click here. Sutton continued:

Panelists include author-illustrators Susan Meddaugh and David Wiesner, former HB editor and Houghton publisher Anita Silvey, and Cambridge school librarian Susan Moynihan. We will be reminiscing about Jim (my own favorite story is unprintable but perhaps not unspeakable) and talking about his place in the canon, his legacy to children’s literature, and how his books have fared among children. Hilarity, I hope, will ensue.

I wish I could be there, because James Marshall is one of my all-time favorites. So many great books: George and Martha, The Stupids Step Out, Miss Nelson Is Missing, Three By the Sea, and his many adaptations of classic folktales.

Now I don’t know if I’m erudite enough to discuss his place in the, cough-cough, canon, but damn, his books are funny. I miss funny in children’s books. There isn’t enough of it. Marshall was that, and more. He was the real McCoy.

I interviewed James Marshall over the phone in the early 90’s. I can remember exactly where I sat when we talked. I got all the quotes I needed within a few minutes, but we happily chatted for more than an hour. He enjoyed talking about the business and the people in it. And because it couldn’t be any other way with James Marshall, we laughed and laughed. I didn’t want it to end. He told me how much he hated toast when he was a kid. “Instead of eating it, I would hide it,” he confessed. “The closet in my bedroom was stacked with toast!”

We talked about the difficulty of ending stories well — “If the book fizzles at the end,” he said, “they remember the whole thing as a fizzled book.” He recalled his friendship and great admiration for Arnold Lobel. His working habits: “The later, the better,” Marshall said. “My ideas are usually fresher and funnier at night.”

One of the things we discussed — the thing I’ll always remember — was what James called “the cool technicians” in children’s literature. We commented on the extraordinary technical skill that had been appearing with increasing frequency in recent children’s book illustration. It was as if surface gloss, however expertly rendered, was threatening to overwhelm story itself. So many slick books, sniffed at in stores and purchased, yet yawned at in the home and hands of young readers.

He told me:

I’m glad that I never went to art school, because I would have ended up copying the style of other illustrators. People love a Maurice Sendak or an Arnold Lobel book because of the special, very individual vision they bring to their work. This is why the artists I love are not the cool technicians but those who have a vision to share with others.

As Maurice Sendak recalled in a beautiful essay, the forward to George and Martha: The Complete Stories of Two Best Friends: “James the perfect friend was indistinguishable from James the perfect artist. The voice, the pulse, the heart of his words and pictures were always pure, authentic Marshall. You got the whole man.”

Note: If you enjoyed this appreciation, click the links for passing thoughts on other favorites: William Steig, Arnold Lobel, Raymond Chandler, and Bernard Waber.

2 comments

  1. Karen says:

    I could not agree more with you about missing the “funny” in books.

    James Marshall really is a one of a kind!!

  2. jimmy says:

    Yes, I agree with myself, too!

    A couple of things: It seems like bibliotheraputic books became a big trend in the late 80’s, and continued on through today, with so many books serving to address/solve some higher social problem. Second: funny is hard, way easier said than done. Third, and this is just me typing out loud, I wonder if the price of hardcovers contributed to the seriousness/importance of some modern children’s books. A comic farce perhaps too slight for $16.95? Not important enough? The price point has probably helped move the business toward coffee table books, keepsakes, enduring treasures.

    What we probably need is for some smart publisher to start a lively, cheap, accessible paperback line dedicated to humor. However, I don’t know if there’s a market for it or not. And like I said: Easier said than done.

    Thanks for commenting, Karen!

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