Earlier this week more than 100 booksellers, librarians, and other children’s book devotees attended a panel at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., to mark the publication of James Marshall’s George and Martha: The Complete Stories of Two Best Friends Stories (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Sept.). Billed as both a celebration of Marshall (1942—1992) and a look at humor in children’s books, the panel was moderated by Roger Sutton, editor of the Horn Book, which cosponsored the event with the Cambridge Public Library and HMH.

Although, as Anita Silvey noted during the panel, Marshall was one of the few children’s writers and illustrators to get a book contract after seeing one editor (Walter Lorraine) with one portfolio—and one of the first to get on The Today Show—he never was awarded a Caldecott. Neither panelist David Wiesner, who has received three, nor Martha Speaks author/illustrator Susan Meddaugh or school librarian Susan Moynihan could explain why, except to point to the humor in his work. Marshall was the recipient of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Lifetime Achievement Award, given posthumously in 2007.

Panelists Anita Silvey and David Wiesner. Photo: David Nelson.

Sutton suggested that part of the difficulty for awards committees might lie in the books themselves—true picture books that require both words and art for meaning, or what Silvey described as “a ballet between art and text” in 32 pages. Sutton also pointed out what he regards as the sheer artlessness of the work. “Walter Lorraine knew how to design a book so the design disappeared,” he said.

Meddaugh, who first met Marshall when she worked at Houghton Mifflin’s 2 Park Street offices, in the old days when people smoked at the office, described him as “a generous, gossipy, imaginative, one-of-a-kind. Every part of his personality came through in his books. Some part of Jim is George, a larger part is Martha. But they’re all essential parts of Jim.”

Moderator Roger Sutton.
Photo: David Nelson.

For Wiesner, Marshall’s concise storytelling and minimalist art, like the two dots and a line he used for the eyes, make his George and Martha storiesstand out. “He is one of the few people I think of when I’m doing a book. It’s always a matter of how simply I can tell a story.” He also made wonderful choices, Meddaugh added, like the pea soup and the loafers.

Although Marshall was known for his wild side, the panelists were discreet. In recalling a book tour with him on the West Coast, Silvey said, “What happens in California stays in California.” A former next door neighbor, however, spoke up during the Q&A session and told an anecdote about Marshall wanting to paint a mural on the wall of the nursery for her soon-to-be-born baby. His only request was that she get him Coke. On the appointed day, he arrived with a friend and asked if she had the Coke because he had the rum.

The sheer number of people who came out on a cold, blustery night to remember Marshall underscored the fact that more than 15 years after his death, his deceptively simple art and stories continue to touch readers.