In The New York Times this week novelist Amy Bloom has a piece, “For the Love of ‘George and Martha,’” praising the stories of the hippo duo created by the under-appreciated picture book genius James Marshall. George and Martha are my absolute favorite books to read to my boys — if I know you and you have a baby, I will probably gift you George and Martha: The Complete Stories of Two Best Friends Collector’s Edition. (Although, personally, I prefer the self-contained individual paperback editions.)
I am all for any praise for James Marshall, but there’s one thing that Bloom got wrong: she writes, “He hated Texas.” Now, I’m not one to defend Texas, even though I’ve lived here for over a decade, but this is false. He was actually very fond of Texas, especially west Texas and his hometown of San Antonio. (He was born across the street from The Alamo.) “[M]y roots are there,” he said. “I like the climate.” What he hated was Beaumont, Texas — in his words, “a swamp” — the town he had to move to in the middle of high school when his father got a job there.
In fact, if you pay close attention to Marshall’s books, you’ll find all sorts of Texas Easter eggs in the backgrounds, like the poster Baby Bear has taped to his wall in Goldilocks and the Three Bears:
There’s a wonderful 24-page interview with Marshall in Leonard Marcus’s book, Show Me A Story! Why Picture Books Matter. (The sketchbook images in this post were taken from the book.) He talks a lot about his upbringing and the art of making picture books, which he came to in his twenties after seeing Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are, Domenico Gnoli’s The Art of Smiling, and Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad series (from Lobel he stole the idea for picture books made up of super-short stories). He also loved Tomi Ungerer, Edward Gorey, and old Japanese prints. He tells lots of funny stories, like the time he had a dream in which Martha demanded better storylines or she was going to Maurice Sendak’s house. “I woke up in a cold sweat!” he said. (Michael Jackson once said if he wasn’t around to receive ideas for songs, God would send them to Prince.)
Perhaps my favorite part of the Marcus book is the inclusion of Marshall’s sketchbooks, which are just wonderful.
I have always thought my best stuff was in my sketchbooks. I have hundreds and hundreds of sketchbooks. I like to work at night, I suppose because that’s when my defenses are sort of low. I have my most creative ideas at night. I’m less inhibited and I really let it rip.
One day I would love to go through his papers (which seem to be scattered at several universities?) — oh, to be able to flip through his sketchbooks! He said he had hundreds of unfinished stories, and often thought about doing a workbook where children could finish them. (I wonder if some of these ideas were used in the terrific animated series from HBO?)
Finally, here’s a 6-minute video of the man himself in his studio: