Reasonable people can differ about books, and about authors. My Lee Child, your Walter Mosley. My Alice Munro, your Carol Shields. I am a reasonable woman but there is no differing with me about James Marshall’s brilliance in the George and Martha children’s stories.
First of all, he took their names not from the father of our country and the first first lady but from Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” Who would be inspired by that dark tragicomedy of marital strife and give the names of the miserable leads to two loving, inseparable, not-always-brilliant hippopotami? Who looks at tawdry, terrifying Elizabeth Taylor and ruined, smoldering Richard Burton and says, aha, those fun-loving besties? James Marshall, that’s who.
Maurice Sendak thought James Marshall was a genius, and the true heir to the 19th-century English illustrator Randolph Caldecott (after whom the Caldecott Medal for the most distinguished American picture book is named), Jean de Brunhoff (creator of Babar, the winsome, regal Parisian elephants) and Tomie dePaola, who’s won every children’s book prize there is.
“George and Martha” creator James Marshall.Credit…Houghton Mifflin Company
Here’s all I know about James Marshall, and it’s not for lack of trying: He was born in San Antonio, where his father worked for the railroad and had a dance band. He hated Texas. He studied to play the viola and intended to have a musical career. Following conservatory training in New England, he suffered nerve damage in his hand and his musical career ended. He went back to Texas for a while and later taught Spanish in a Catholic school near Boston after college.