James Marshall interviewed by Anita Silvey

The Horn Book Radio Review


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Child’s voice: The Horn Book Radio Review, commentary on books for children and young adults.

Anita Silvey (AS): I’m Anita Silvey, editor in chief of Horn Book Magazine. If you’ve been reading any picture books to three-, four-, or five-year-olds recently, you may be very familiar with my guest today, James Marshall. About fifteen years ago, Jim Marshall started his publishing career with a series of books about two best friends, George and Martha, who just happen to be rather endearing but quite ungainly hippopotami. Jim has gone on to create about sixty books and some other marvelous characters: the members of the Stupid family; Miss Nelson, everyone’s favorite teacher; and Miss Viola Swamp, everyone’s most dreaded substitute teacher.

Jim, I’m pleased you can be here with us today. How did you get started as an illustrator?

James Marshall (JM): I was sitting in a hammock at my Mama’s house in Hilotus, a little town outside of San Antonio, and I was doodling on a page. Actually, it was just a blank page and there were two little dots already in the paper and I recognized them as eyes and I started developing around the character that has become Martha, my hippo. And inside at that time — inside the house — my mother was watching a televised version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. And the characters are George and Martha. And I thought to myself, “well, those are two pretty good names,” so I borrowed from Edward Albee, who I’m told is not amused by this.

AS: Now, the books are a great deal of fun to read, and children have a great deal of fun to read. Are they as much fun to create, or is it a lot of hard work?

JM: No. No. Sometimes — it’s a law of nature — actually, it’s a law of art, I think — sometimes when I’m working on a book — and I think this is true of a lot of people, because I have a number of friends who are illustrators and authors — if you think the book is going very, very well, and you’re creating a masterpiece, nine times out of ten it will be just the opposite. The books that I’ve done that look — I hope look like they’re fun to do, are the ones that made me throw up ten times a day. I mean, the Miss Nelson books: I really thought I was going to die doing those books. Very, very hard stuff. Because humor, which I do — comedy — is very tricky. You can’t show how hard you work. You can’t call attention to yourself. You can’t show the wheels turning. It’s got to be like a balloon that floats up into the air. You don’t make the reader, the viewer aware of anything but the story.

AS: What are the favorite characters that you’ve created, of your own world?

JM: Oh, Viola Swamp. Viola Swamp is my second grade teacher who laughed at me. When Harry and I were doing Miss Nelson is Missing, we devised the scenario so that a wicked substitute arrives on the scene. And Harry said, “I want you to draw the most awful teacher you ever had.” Well, it took me five seconds to get Viola Swamp down. She’s the spitting image of my second grade teacher, who is still alive in San Antonio, Texas. In April I saw her in the supermarket in San Antonio. I was pushing a cart and around the corner came Viola Swamp! And I felt my knees weaken. There she is! She has seen the book and she finds it very amusing, so I don’t feel too terrible. And of course I’m very fond of the George and Martha duo. And I like a little character I did named Emily Pig who likes to eat a lot, as I do. And she’s sweet and good-natured.

AS: And she was starred in, what, Yummers?

JM: She starred in Yummers and I’m doing now Yummers 2, the Second Course.

AS: Thank you, James Marshall for being here with us today. For reviews of Jim Marshall’s books, who’s the author of George and Martha, Miss Nelson has a Field Day, and Stupids Step Out, and other fine children’s books, check your September/October Horn Book which is available at your local public library, your school library or your favorite local book store. I’m Anita Silvey, editor in chief of Horn Book Magazine.


Child’s voice: This series of reviews is produced by Greg Fitzgerald and is made possible in part by funds from the Horn Book Incorporated, publishers of the Horn Book Magazine and books concerning children’s literature.horn book radio review


This program originally aired on National Public Radio in July or August of 1986. The Radio Review was moderated by Anita Silvey and produced by Greg Fitzgerald.

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