James Marshall’s George and Martha books have a permanent spot on my bedside table. I read them when I’m trying to get to sleep, or for a laugh in the morning, or when I’m wanting inspiration, or feeling low. They’re everything I think children’s books should be, from the hilarious illustrations to the pitch-perfect dialogue to the comic timing to the heart.
Everything is wonderfully deadpan in these hippos’ respective worlds, and their problems — from Martha’s diminishing confidence as she walks a tightrope, to George’s hatred of the endless split-pea soup he’s served — are treated with the upmost importance and sincerity. The action begins from the very first sentence and, two or three pages later, everything is resolved. Well, sort of.
Much like a comedian, Marshall generally opens with an absurd premise, and then simply commits to it until it makes a certain skewed amount of sense. But these aren’t just absurdist stories — they have plenty of warmth and emotion, as the hippos demonstrate genuine feelings and what it takes to maintain a real friendship.
Marshall writes and draws with a seemingly effortless touch, making humor look easy. But according to his friend, Maurice Sendak, in his foreword to the posthumous Marshall collection, George and Martha: The Complete Stories of Two Best Friends, Marshall labored over his work, endlessly redrawing his hippos, to achieve just the right expressions, the right looks, the right moments.
George and Martha books never disappoint me. No pressure, but please immediately add them all to your collection if they’re not already on your bedside table.
Jory John is the author of Goodnight Already!
and co-author of The Terrible Two series and
the national bestseller All My Friends Are Dead,
among many other books.