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Top 100 Picture Books Poll Results (#20)

#20: George & Martha by James Marshall (1972)
66 points (10 votes, #5, #4, #5, #2, #8, #3, #7, #3, #2, #5)

James Marshall’s George and Martha stories are a bit odd. Spare, funny little anecdotes about the friendship-verging-on-romance between two charming middle-aged hippos, they might have been written by a Virago Modern Classics author in the mid-50s. For this reason, they appeal very much to me. – Stephany Aulenback

Can’t help but love that description.

It seems unfair to include the spare dry text of George and Martha when Arnold Lobel’s equally spare and almost as dry Frog and Toad are relegated to a separate Top 100 Easy Books Poll that one day may or may not exist.  Be that as it may be, George and Martha was originally published in a picture book format.  Though they’d be shoo-ins for the Geisel Award if they were originally released today, they stand on their own.  Witty.  Urbane.  The true predecessors to characters like Mo Willems’ Elephant and Piggy or James Howe’s Houndsley and Catina.

The plot description, such as it is, from the publisher reads: "Two lovable hippos teach the meaning of friendship in five separate vignettes: ‘Split Pea Soup,’ ‘The Flying Machine,’ ‘The Tub,’ ‘The Mirror,’ ‘The Tooth’."

Maurice Sendak wrote the Introduction to the collection George and Martha: The Complete Stories of Two Best Friends.  As is right.  You may read it here if you like.  In it, Sendak says of the man, "With his first George and Martha book, James was already entirely himself.  He lacked only one component in his constellation of gifts: he was uncommercial to a fault.  No shticking, no nudging knowingly, no winking or pandering to the grown-ups at the expense of the kids.  He paid the price of being maddeningly underestimated – of being dubbed ‘zany’ (an adjective that drove him to murderous rage).  And worse, as I saw it, he was dismissed as the artist who could do – should or might do – worthier work if he would only dig deeper and harder.  The comic note, the delicate riff were deemed, finally, insufficient."

No Caldecotts for him.  Mind you, this is not to say ALA never honored him.  In 2007 he received the posthumous honor (he died in 1992) of the Wilder Award, given under the auspices of Chair and Horn Book editor Roger Sutton.  The Laura Ingalls Wilder Award, "honors an author or illustrator whose books, published in the United States, have made, over a period of years, a substantial and lasting contribution to literature for children."  Said Roger in honor of James, "Marshall conveyed a world of emotion with the placement of a dot or the wrinkle of a line.  In both his drawings and impeccably succinct texts, he displayed a comic genius infused with wit and kindness.”

That kindness was key.  It is one thing to put pen to paper, and another entirely to create whole words out of almost nothing.  And looking again at Sendak’s words regarding Marshall’s style, "The simplicity is deceiving; there is richness of design and mastery of composition on every page.  No surprising, since James was a notorious perfectionist and endlessly redrew those ‘simple’ pictures."

The saddest and most touching tribute to Mr. Marshall for me was this one from Jaime Temairik, "Yes, most everybody loves James Marshall. But do you have nightmares about him being your real dad and only finding out about that fact after he’s died? And I have the same nightmare about Jim Henson and wake up in tears. Anyone?"

There was a lovely Arnold Lobel exhibit at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art last year called Seeking a State of Grace: The Art of Arnold Lobel.  Within that exhibit there was a case, and inside that case was a little birthday book that James Marshall had made for Arnold Lobel’s birthday one year.  The only page visible showed George and Martha involved in a debate over whether or not to go to Arnold’s party.  I believe that the fact that he lived in Brooklyn was being considered as a possible deterrent to the trip.  A pity that little book not available somewhere.  Ah well.

Finally Publishers Weekly said of the books, "The secret of Mr. Marshall’s success lies not just in the freshness of his sense of the ridiculous, but in the carefulness of his control and editorial judgment." 

The man is missed while his books live on.

Previous Top 100 Picture Book Posts include:

















About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. He did get a Caldecott honor– for Goldilocks and the Three Bears. He deserved to win everything!

  2. Good point that. But never the Award outright. Of course you could say that for a lot of people.

  3. I’m a little disappointed this book wasn’t higher. Perhaps votes were spread among the different G&M books?

    This book is indeed light comedy, but by the time you’ve read every book the silly stories have added up to an illumination of the human condition as both fragile and wonderful.

  4. Dan Levy says:

    Marshall’s entire body of work is worthy, from The Stupids to Troll Country to Three By The Sea to Fox and his friends to Miss Nelson to his retold fairy tales. George and Martha are iconic, among the children’s book couples that best personify adult human relationships, along with Frog and Toad and Go Dog Go’s Do You Like My Hat canines. Marshall was a deep and disarmingly simple storyteller.

  5. I want to put a request in for the top 100 Early Reader books – I would love to see it. It’s made a huge difference for my daughter (and her parents!) finding quality early reader books. Less than a year ago I stumbled across the Geisel award – hadn’t heard about it before (I’m just a parent) and come to appreciate just how much of a difference quality early readers books can make. I’ve learned a lot about what makes a book a good early reader and am thankful that our family story times are no longer filled with inane tv-character books that my kids seemed to gravitate towards at the library.

    It would be fantastic to see a list of favorite early readers (we devoured the mock-Geisel list posted by Allen Co. last year and would love to know which older books we should check out) and to also learn a little more about the whole emergent/early reader too.

    Thanks for considering the list!

  6. Have you tried consulting a helpful local librarian (school or public) to select some good titles with you? It can help fill the void while you are waiting for the easy reader list–and can be tailored to your child’s specific interests.
    (School Librarian–putting in a shameless promo for what we do)