You probably know him for his illustration work on the “Miss Nelson is Missing!” picture book series and on the far more polarizing (though equally popular) “The Stupids” series. However, as much as I love his illustration work, I love James Marshall most for one thing…that “one” thing being 35 stories about two hippos named George and Martha. (Of course, I’m not the only one.)
George and Martha were not named after the Washingtons, but rather the couple from the Edward Albee play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? James (let’s call him Jim, as his friend did) purportedly first sketched Martha while laying in a hammock outside his mother’s house, while she was watching the Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton movie of the same name.
As he lived only a few miles from the UCONN Storrs campus, between 1976-1990 Jim gave yearly lectures to students in Francelia Butler’s Children’s Literature course there. The talks were recorded on audiocassette (remember those?), which have since been digitized so you can listen to Jim’s off-the-cuff lectures online. Though there is a lot of repetition, I found it fun to listen in on them as he reads from his books, discusses his process and answers audience questions.
It’s clear that George and Martha are not just my favorites; he talks about them deeply, frequently and always with great affection. If you stick with the entire lecture series (which I realize takes a certain amount of time and neediness), you will hear fascinating stories and details. Even the many repeated stories I found rewarding; I noted over the years how he honed his stories, adding and omitting (in some cases very interesting) details, sometimes in telling ways.
According to his sharing during these sessions, he was something of a prodigy-style viola player in his younger years and planned on being a musician; however, during what he referred to as a “plane accident in Puerto Rico in 1960,” he suffered nerve damage in his hand and his musical career ended. Instead, he took on a job as a high school teacher, which he referred to as “the hardest thing in the world,” teaching French (which he knew) and Spanish (which, by his own admission, he definitely did not). His drawing was a hobby he picked up again as a stress reliever during that time.
Jim’s mother and he had a loving but complicated relationship; she apparently never accepted that he was gay. Though the family claimed in his obituary that he died of a brain tumor in 1992, his sister and Maurice Sendak later said that Jim died of AIDS-related complications, another wonderfully creative life cut tragically short by that epidemic.
Rather than dwelling on the sadness of that, though, let’s celebrate what he did in his 50 mere years on Earth: 92 published books (at least) that he either illustrated or authored (often both) within a span of only 21 years in the business. Isn’t that amazing? And, even more impressively, I think most picture book lovers could spot his work from 100 paces–that’s how distinctive a style he had. It’s remarkable, and so was he.