Celebrating James Marshall and Humor in Children’s Books

moderator: Roger Sutton
author: Susan Meddaugh
author: David Wiesner
author: Anita Silvey
author: Susan Moynihan, Kennedy-Longfellow Library, The Kennedy and Longfellow Elementary Schools
published: May 3, 2013,   recorded: November 2008,   views: 2468

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Friends, colleagues and fans unite in loving praise of a children’s author who, though renowned, never got his due. James Marshall was writer/illustrator of the George and Martha and The Cut-Ups book series (he also illustrated Miss Nelson and The Stupids series, among many others). He died at age 50 in 1992, never having received the coveted children’s picture book honor, The Caldecott Medal. These panelists do their best to redress the injustice.

Susan Meddaugh of Martha Speaks fame, remembers Marshall from her days as a book designer. She has fond memories of him “trying his stories out on us as he went from office to office” at Houghton Mifflin, and credits him with launching her freelance career when he found her an apartment in Charlestown, MA for an improbable $75 a month. Meddaugh celebrates Marshall’s ability to “establish characters instantly,” and the way in which “Jim didn’t have to find originality, he just was. Every part of his personality came through in his books.”

“My appreciation for his work leapt exponentially,” says David Wiesner (The Three Pigs, Tueday) “after I began reading his books to my kids.” There’d be “the big smile, laughing and total connection.” When Wiesner repeatedly paused to marvel at how Marshall’s words and pictures came together, his children would have to remind him to get on with the story. Wiesner finds much to admire in the George and Martha books: “They’re so concise; there’s nothing extraneous going on.” He enjoys their “beautifully minimalistic art,” as well as the “ornate, almost dense” illustrations of The Stupids. Says Wiesner, “He’s one of the few people I think about when I’m doing a book: How can I take what I’m doing and keep it to its essence and not fill it up?” The beauty of Jim’s work, he says, is that “it looks like it was created in the moment.”

Anita Silvey has been reading, editing and reviewing children’s books for years, and had the pleasure of accompanying Marshall on book tours. Silvey has recently been exploring Marshall’s notebooks and studying his working style. He often pursued several ideas at a time, and his beginning sketches and text have a lot of detail. “There’s a long evolutionary process, with thumbnail sketches” and rewriting “and all of a sudden, he circles one word, the perfect word...” Yet his final sketch had “a lightness of touch,” the appearance of spontaneity. Silvey recalls, “I once saw Jim sketch an entire book out on a cocktail napkin. He could do a quick, creative thing, then he went to work.” That’s why his books “are so timeless.”

Roger Sutton notes how Marshall respected his audience: he never talked down to kids, and trusted them to pick up on things. Even sarcastic adult humor was okay. Librarian Susan Moynihan says that the kids to whom she reads get Marshall’s humor without requiring adult filtering, and they also get his “message of kindness.” In Marshall’s books, “nobody was made fun of.”

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