Childhood Hippos

This post is about the series of books that is closest to my heart: James Marshall’s George and Martha stories.

These children’s stories are simple and straightforward and true. If you go back and read them as a grown-up, you’re liable to laugh and maybe tear-up. I picture them connected by a golden thread to stories like The Little Prince, The Princess and Curdie, and The Wind in the Willows. Above all, George and Martha stories are merry.

James Marshall’s friend, Anita Silvey, recounts that “Jim” never planned on becoming a children’s book author. He played the viola and attended the New England Conservatory of Music until an accident ended his musical career. He went on to get a master’s degree at Trinity College and taught high school French and Spanish. Although he “loved to doodle,” he’d never received formal art instruction. Then:

One day, lying in a hammock in San Antonio, he found himself sketching two intriguing hippos. On the radio he had been listening to Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and hence named these characters George and Martha.

James Marshall at work

Through a friend who worked at Houghton Mifflin, Marshall met Houghton’s children’s book publisher Walter Lorraine. Lorraine recognized Marhall’s potential and gave him a job illustrating Byrd Baylor’s Plink, Plink, Plink. Marshall went on to illustrate and write dozens of other stories, including seven collections of short stories about the hippopotamus friends, George and Martha.

Some of my earliest memories are of reading George and Martha stories with my family. In the first story of the very first series, Martha makes George split pea soup. She doesn’t realize he can’t stand it, and he doesn’t have the heart to tell her. So while she’s out of the dining room, George tries hiding the soup in his shoes. The picture of George leaning under the table and pouring the green liquid into his little loafers is one of the funniest images I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s stuck in my mind for the last twenty years, along with other classic George and Martha moments, and with all the funny exclamations read in my parent’s voices.

Of course, Martha catches George:

“How do you expect to walk home with your loafers full of split pea soup?” she asked George.
“Oh dear,” said George. “You saw me.”
“And why didn’t you tell me that you hate my split pea soup?”
“I didnt want to hurt your feelings,” said George.
“That’s silly,” said Martha. “Friends should always tell each other the truth. As a matter of fact, I don’t like split pea soup very much myself. I only like to make it. From now on, you’ll never have to eat that awful soup again.”
“What a relief!” George sighed.
“Would you like some chocolate chip cookies instead?” asked Martha.
“Oh, that would be lovely,” said George.
“Then you shall have them,” said his friend.

Each story has some sort of moral, but the stories aren’t excuses for the morals and George and Martha aren’t just vehicles for Marshall to drive a point home on. Marshall has a wicked wit and draws with a kind of dead-pan humor, but no description can do these stories justice. Here are just a few images from the collection. I hope you get to know George and Martha; they are treasures.


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