Tag Archive for Maurice Sendak

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.

Fathers & Sons & Baseball

Fathers and sons and baseball. You can almost hear the violins, the sap rising from the roots. It’s a tired cliche, of course, but that doesn’t render the dynamic meaningless.

My father wasn’t a sports guy; I can’t remember him ever turning on the television to watch a game of any sort. Hey, I can’t remember having catch with him. But I had four olders brothers, and my baseball-loving mom, and a dozen kids on the block for that. Dad was Old School. I think of him as more CEO/CFO in Charge of Household as opposed to today’s helicopter-styled parent, forever hovering, eager to bond and share and become best buddies. That wasn’t my father’s way.

So, basically, I played Little League and my father did other things. And I want to make this clear: It was perfectly okay. But one year, when I was ten years old and playing for the Cardinals — astonishingly vivid memories of those games — somehow my father got roped in as a coach. He didn’t know a blessed thing about baseball. Didn’t care to know. The manager, hard-nosed Larry Bassett, taught my father how to keep the scorebook and I’m fairly certain that was the full extent of his usefulness.

I found it embarrassing. Not horribly so, but it felt odd to see my father on the ballfield, clueless and unathletic. What did the other boys think? It was 1971 and my dad was painfully uncool. I loved baseball deeply, passionately. In that sense, we lived on separate planets. Of course now, years later, I see it from a different perspective. And it boils down to this: He was there. As a parent, isn’t that 98% of the job? Just showing up, day after day. Being there. My father is gone now, died almost two years ago, fell on the front lawn and never got back up. Maybe that makes you (me) appreciate those times, those presences, all the more. For he will never “be there” again.

He never read Six Innings, either. If he did, I would have told my father that I loosely modeled a character after him, Mr. Lionni, Alex’s dad, right down to the thick-framed glasses and questionable attire, the black socks, brown loafers and shorts. There’s a scene when Mr. Lionni takes his baseball-loving son, Alex, for extra batting practice. That scene sprang directly from my childhood; I remember the one and only time my father pitched batting practice to me — awkwardly, poorly, like he was hurling foreign objects. But I was struggling with the bat, the same as Alex in my book, and that man, the father, tried to help the best he could.

In Six Innings, it’s a minor scene (pp. 56-58), just a little backstory about one of the boys on the team. But for me, it resonates across the years, like an echo across a vast canyon. My dad and baseball. Our moments together on the diamond, a burnished memory, glowing like hot coals almost forty years hence. He was there. I didn’t appreciate it then, though I certainly recognized the uniqueness of the event; I was just a boy. But that’s what writing gives us, the opportunity to revisit, revalue, remember in the root meaning of the word — to re-member, to make whole again, to bring those disparate things together. Me and Dad and baseball.

Postscript: Oh, yeah, about the name Lionni. That’s another tribute to a great children’s book author by the name of Leo. Someday I should put together a full roster. I see James Marshall manning the Hot Corner, nimble and loose; Maurice Sendak on the hill, strong-armed and determined; maybe sure-handed Bernard Waber over at second base . . .