James Marshall: Dean of Doodlers

“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.”

From: Ways of Telling: Conversations on the Art of the Picture Book, edited by Leonard S. Marcus. p. 96; pp. 82-106 are on James Marshall

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, James Marshall’s whimsical drawings added humor to dozens of children’s picture books.  While many were made for other writers’ works, including classics such as Mother Goose, Edward Lear, and Ogden Nash, he was also a talented writer on his own.  Indeed,  he became one of the most popular and prolific illustrators in children’s publishing.  In high school, however, he wasn’t so much about the art--though he did doodle, as he called it--as about the music which he saw as a way to get a scholarship to college far away from swampy Texas town where his family lived.

This he succeeded in doing, but a hand injury prevented him from staying with music.  After so many years working at it, however, he was ready to make a Miss Nelson is Missing!change anyway. For a little while he worked as a teacher in an inner-city high school, but he discovered what he really liked to do was draw and write stories for young children.  This worked out well for him, and pretty soon he was making a living doing what he enjoyed until his too early death in 1992. Although it’s been twenty years since his passing, his gentle silliness and good humor live on in some of our libraries’ best-loved picture books. According to the New York Times, "The miracle of Mr. Marshall's work is that so often his stories are as profound as they are simple."*

Fast Facts:
Born: James Edward Marshall on October 10, 1942, in San Antonio, Texas
Education: New England Conservatory of Music, Boston, 1960-61; Southern Connecticut State College, New Haven, B.A. in history 1967; Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut, 1967-68.
Career: French and Spanish teacher, Cathedral High School, Boston, 1968-70. After 1970 freelance writer and illustrator
Most Famous Series of Books: Miss Nelson Is Missing (illustrator); The Cut-Ups; The Stupids (illustrator); Fox beginning reader books; George and Martha books
Selected awards: Goldilocks and the Three Bears--Caldecott Honor Book, 1989; Laura Ingalls Wilder Award, 2007
Died: October 13, 1992, of a brain tumor

Funny Fairy Tales

Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, and The Three Little Pigs all received James Marshall’s comic retouching.  There are The Three Little Pigsfolklore specialists who believe that these stories are serious, broody, psychological stuff--and must be retold that way. With his gleeful pictures and witty writing, James Marshall took a livelier approach much to the delight of young readers. Some of his fairy tale retellings are gathered together on a DVD, Red Riding Hood and More James Marshall Fairy Tale Favorites.

Meet Miss Nelson... and Viola Swamp!

One of the best-loved series in modern picture books features the sweet, put-upon teacher Miss Nelson and her horrid alter-ego Viola Swamp.  Miss Nelson Is Missing finds the class confused and upset when vile Viola Swamp is called in to substitute for Miss Nelson.  Harry Allard wrote the series, so look for them at the beginning part of the picture book section, but James Marshall’s illustrations really bring the lovely and loathsome ladies to life.  Other books include Miss Nelson Has a Field Day and Miss Nelson Is Back.

George and Martha: Tons of Fun

When James Marshall began doodling large, jolly creatures one afternoon whilst lying in a hammock, he didn’t know he was designing what would become two of his most popular characters. He didn’t even recognize at the time that he was drawing hippos. Yet, George and Martha’s silly antics became theGeorge and Martha stuff of many laugh-out-loud picture books. She, dressed in large lady finery, and he of the gold tooth had tremendous adventures together.  Good friends always and innocent in their ways, George and Martha went to the beach, played practical jokes, went to the movies, and just hung out together.  They learned the lessons of friendship in such gentle and funny ways that kids could easily relate to them and still enjoy doing so.

From Our Online Research Collection:
Want to learn more about James Marshall for a report or just because?
These reference articles are found through Biography in Context.  You will need a CRRL card to read them.

"James (Edward) Marshall." St. James Guide to Children's Writers. Gale, 1999.
"James Marshall." Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale, 2007.

On the Web:
No card is needed to use these resources:

Carol Hurst's Children's Literature Newsletter Spring 1999.
Gives quick summaries of some of his most popular books and has suggested classroom activities.

New York Times Obituary: “James Marshall, 50, an Illustrator and an Author for Children Dies”
His obituary includes some overview of his work and remarks from a critic.

*Penguin Author Page for James Marshall
One of his publishers has a page with interesting biographical notes.