Award-winning children’s book author Jim Murphy, best known for his carefully researched nonfiction documenting dramatic events in history through the experiences of young people of the time, died suddenly on May 1 at his home in Woodstock, N.Y. He was 74.
Murphy was born September 25, 1947 in Newark, N.J., to James K. Murphy, an accountant, and Helen Irene Murphy, a bookkeeper and artist. He grew up in nearby Kearny where he and his friends got into their fair share of mischief and enjoyed exploring Newark and New York City, which were both just a short bus or train ride away.
As a boy, Murphy enjoyed writing and illustrating his own comic books, sometimes during class, a pursuit that often got him in trouble at his Catholic elementary school, he wrote on his website. He was admittedly not very interested in reading until he was in high school and often recounted the story behind how he became a reader. One of Murphy’s high school teachers “announced that we could ‘absolutely, positively not read’ Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms,” he said. He took that as a challenge and read not only the forbidden book, but also “any other book I could get a hold of that I felt would shock my teacher,” he recalled. Around that time, Murphy also began to write—mostly poetry, as well as a few stories and plays.
Murphy studied English literature, history, and art history at Rutgers University where he set records in track-and-field and earned his B.A. in 1970. He completed the Radcliffe summer publishing program that same year, then returned to New Jersey to work for his uncle, a construction foreman, and earn some money while he looked for work in publishing. “In high school I wrote a bit, but I didn’t think I was smart enough to become an author,” he told PW in a 2016 interview. “I thought about becoming a children’s book editor, because I loved illustration, but I wasn’t a good enough artist to illustrate professionally.”
Murphy recalled his mother as being instrumental in his taking steps toward his career goal. “My mother, who at four foot 11 inches refused to accept the word ‘no’ from anyone, out of the blue invited Harold Latham, president of Macmillan and editor of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, to our house for dinner, so that I could talk to him about working in publishing.” After he graduated college, Mrs. Murphy also insisted that her son write to 40 children’s book editors and schedule informational interviews with them, whether they had positions open or not. “But no one would hire me because I couldn’t type!” he told PW.
While he was working at one of his construction jobs, Murphy got a fateful phone call. Jim Giblin of Seabury Press (which became Clarion) offered him a job as an editorial secretary, despite his lack of typing skills. Through the early and mid-1970s Murphy worked his way up the ladder to managing editor and did some of his own writing on the side. But by late 1977, he decided that he’d rather try his hand at writing and publishing his own books. He left the editing desk and became a fulltime writer.
Murphy’s first manuscript was a work of fiction that he submitted to Norma Jean Sawicki at Crown. After several passes, they both agreed the project wasn’t working, and, as Murphy recalled to PW, he put the manuscript in the trash as the garbage truck was coming along. Sawicki suggested he submit a nonfiction idea and the result was Weird and Wacky Inventions, which she published at Crown in 1978.
Nonfiction became Murphy’s stock in trade. By the early 1980s he discovered that the first-hand perspective was what made his books click, and that particular element became pivotal in his subsequent works. In all, Murphy produced more than 35 books for young readers, including several historical novels for middle grade readers and a collaboration with his wife, writer and children’s TV producer Alison Blank: Invincible Microbe: Tuberculosis and the Never-Ending Search for a Cure (Clarion, 2012). Among his many accolades, The Great Fire (Scholastic, 1995), exploring the Chicago Fire of 1871, and An American Plague (Clarion, 2003), about the Yellow Fever epidemic in 1793 Philadelphia, both received Newbery Honors. An American Plague was also a National Book Award finalist. Murphy received the Margaret A. Edwards Award in 2010 in recognition of his “significant and lasting contribution to young adult literature.”
In reflecting on his career as a writer, Murphy once wrote on the Scholastic website, “Life is made up of many kinds of journeys. Some are physical... but most are interior journeys of the heart or soul. The important thing is to face each with a positive attitude. And to try and learn as much about yourself and others as you can along the way. Oh, yes—and to have fun while you are experiencing all these things.”
Murphy’s literary agent, Nancy Gallt of the Gallt and Zacker Literary Agency, shared this remembrance of her longtime client and friend. “I first met Jim when he married Alison Blank, who at the time worked at Scholastic with my husband Craig Virden. Jim had written dozens of books by then, books he had sold directly to his many colleagues in the industry. He had also won his first Newbery Honor for The Great Fire. Some would say he didn’t really need an agent at that point, yet when I hung out my shingle, he was one of the first to join. I am forever grateful for that show of confidence and the privilege of working with him for all these years. I was proud to help him celebrate a second Newbery Honor for An American Plague and the Margaret A. Edwards Award. After authoring so many books that helped young readers understand life better, his awards and honors were very well-deserved, but it is his friendship that I will miss most.”
Dinah Stevenson, former v-p and publisher at Clarion Books and Murphy’s editor there for many years, paid tribute with these words: “Jim was an inquisitive and passionate researcher. He had a remarkable talent for finding the voices that would bring his narratives to life, in letters, diaries, and periodicals, as if he had personally interviewed people from the past. Jim was also one of the funniest people I ever met. For readers wishing for a more rounded picture, Jim’s novel Revenge of the Green Banana offers a glimpse of his comic side and his years as a mischief-maker in elementary school. I’m sad to think I won’t have the pleasure of working with him again.”