The author's twist on a classic ballet tale is given life by his friend Maurice Sendak

The release next month of James Marshall's last book will surely rank among the bittersweet moments in the history of children's publishing. Swine Lake (HarperCollins/di Capua Books) signals the closing of an era during which Marshall created many of the most memorable characters in children's literature: George and Martha, the Stupids, Viola Swamp, Fox and the Cut-Ups. Adding weight to this publishing event is the fact that the book is illustrated by Marshall's close friend Maurice Sendak, thus fulfilling plans the two had of collaborating on a project prior to Marshall's death in 1992.

Marshall was a well-loved storyteller with many devoted fans of all ages, and his reputation in the industry has grown steadily since his 1971 debut as

Swine Lake
A THEATRICAL TONE pervades Marshall's story.

illustrator of Byrd Baylor's Plink, Plink, Plink. But although Marshall's Goldilocks and the Three Bears received a 1989 Caldecott Honor, much of this recognition has come from his young audience; most of the awards he received were selected by children themselves.

The story of how Marshall's posthumous publications (Swine Lake and last season's The Owl and the Pussycat) evolved adds significantly to a full appreciation of these last books from the author, according to editor Michael di Capua, who offered Marshall a contract for both manuscripts in 1991, soon after di Capua joined HarperCollins and shortly before Marshall died. "There was a completed full-color dummy for the Owl but Jim never did a dummy for Swine Lake," di Capua said. "We only had a manuscript. In my mind, Jim's texts were so married to his illustrations that I thought after he died, well, that's that." After a while, though, it occurred to di Capua to ask Sendak to illustrate Swine Lake.

At about the same time that "the lightbulb came on," di Capua said, Sendak reminded him that he and Marshall, who met in 1974, had for a number of years discussed doing a collaboration in which Marshall would write a text and Sendak would illustrate. "We talked about [a collaboration] while he was alive," Sendak said. "Even so, it was hard to do when he was gone. He wanted me to enjoy doing it, and once I got over the hang-ups, I did enjoy it."

The contrast between Owl and Swine Lake, both in content and editorial background, is significant as well. For Owl, Marshall had completed a full-color dummy in which the characters and scenes were fleshed out, and he had discussed publishing the dummy with both Sendak and di Capua. All of Marshall's energy was spent on the dummy, di Capua said, and the manuscript for Swine Lake remained in di Capua's files at the time of Marshall's death.

In addition to the difference in the state of the projects at Marshall's death, di Capua and Sendak each noted a marked divergence in tone between the two books. Di Capua described the preparatory work Marshall did for Owl as much more developed than Marshall's other dummies, while Sendak said he saw a passion and maturity in Owl that came, perhaps, from Marshall's intuitive grasp that it might be his last work. "Jim's work in [The Owl and the Pussycat] is more painful and suggests what was to come," Sendak said. "It also marked a new [artistic] period for him and points to a future that wasn't to be."

But in Swine Lake, readers will likely notice an upbeat, theatrical tone, reflective of Marshall's love of the arts -- music, drama and literature. The story opens with a hungry wolf searching for a meal. Fortunately, there are pigs a-plenty at the Boarshoi Ballet, which is featuring a production of Swine Lake. At first tantalized by the pigs dancing on stage, the wolf soon forgets his hunger in favor of a chance to dance.

Readers may also notice a different side of Sendak in the tongue-in-cheek visual asides and droll depictions of the wolf and the porcine cast. "I had to match [Jim's] sense of comedy, but my themes are not his themes," Sendak said. "I needed to make my mark on the story, but it also had to be a Marshall book." Di Capua commented that there is an unusual mixture of light and dark themes in Swine Lake, the dark being atypical for Marshall and the lighter touches in the art atypical for Sendak.

At the Drawing Board

Initially, the most formidable obstacle in preparing illustrations for Swine Lake, according to Sendak, was the length of the text. Marshall's texts are storybook length, while Sendak said he has mostly worked with shorter picture-book texts and in a more concentrated, succinct style. Once he got into the project, however, he said he felt a sense of happiness. "Working on [the illustrations] allowed me to prolong the myth of having him here as a friend," Sendak said. "It was hard to allow it to end."

Di Capua and Sendak agreed that there were moments that they wished Marshall had been there to confirm their choices and judgments. "We made very minor changes in the text," di Capua said, ones that Marshall himself would likely have made in the process of polishing the manuscript.

Marshall's final book is, di Capua noted, as strong a testimony to his subtle genius as a storyteller as anything else he created. "If Jim had never drawn a picture in his life, he would have been known as a great writer of children's books," di Capua stated. Having created a stable of unforgettable characters, one that now includes the crafty dance devotee of Swine Lake, Marshall's legacy as a storyteller will surely live on.