on george and martha

Sunday, September 19th, 2004

It’s great when you have kids and “happen” to relish the books you read them. You leave those books then return to them after a long time (as if you missed something). An example is Jame’s Marshall’s George and Martha “picture books,” to use Maurice Sendak’s term from the forward to Haughton Mifflin’s collected works, in which he writes, “The picture book is a peculiar art form that thrives on genius, intuition, daring, and a meticulous attention to its history and its various and complex components.” I agree with all gusto (especially given our fondness for the complexity of Harold and the Purple Crayon).

Marshall’s picture books are about two hippos, George and Martha, and their andventures as friends are ripe with connections between writing and art. In addition, Marshall has a particular way with the “text” that uses all of its properties. White space, framing, page against page and page to page reading, visual composition, dialogue, and the structure of the linear book. There are times, of course, when you wished you had a scanner.

In a story called “The Clock,” George gives Martha a cuckoo clock and the adventure ensues. Each scene is rendered in his books “in facing,” that is text is given on one page, while the facing page (the page that closes over the left page) renders the accompanying art, one providing context for the other. Here’s the initial writing for “The Clock”

George gave Martha a present for her birthday. “It’s a cuckoo clock,” said George. “So I see,” said Martha. “It’s nice and loud,” said George. “So I hear,” said Martha. “Do you like it?” asked George.

In this brief but incredible example, all the elements of story are at play, a small sense of tension, character development, and a rendering of closure with the question that George asks, an element of suspended relief. Judging from the words, the reader, typically a child, wouldn’t know where the action is taking place, what a cuckoo clock looks and sounds like, but there are some things that we can “infer,” drawing from the history of noise clocks (the adult’s response) as typical annoyances and from inspecting the dialogue with care. The accompanying illustration, however, answers none of these questions, but I’ll get to that a little later.

The first sentence goes, “George gave Martha a present for her birthday.” The next goes, “‘It’s a cuckoo clock,’ said George.” We can guess from what George says that Martha is a little stunned at the gift; there “has been” hesitation between the giving and George’s response. You give someone a gift for their birthday. They stare at it; there’s that odd pause. They either love it or are trying to come up with something nice to say. You “tell them what it is.” Not good. This calls up an image that doesn’t get painted or drawn. The reader may or may not visualize Martha the hippo accepting the clock with a “oh no, a cuckoo clock” look on her face. She responds, “So I see.” George continues with, “‘It’s nice and loud.'” Loud and nice: exactly! She says, “‘So I hear.'” The prior discomfort is sustained all the way through. The dialogue (which could be happening over a long stretch of time, between other moments, and scene are brief but the question at the end raises the temperature, answer or no answer. The writing provides a piece of the puzzle. What isn’t said is critical. White space follows.

Now to the accompanying image. One the facing page, Martha, drawn in ink and watery gray, is seated on a chair, reading a book. She looks annoyed. The clock is on the wall, the hour hand at 3:00. The coop doors are sprung and the cuckoo’s spring neck is at full stretch. The illustration doesn’t answer George’s question, but it does “dispose” of it in an unexpected way. On its own, the illustration gives the time and presents a situation. We don’t know what Martha’s reading, the day, nor the reason for her annoyed expression; there’s no reason necessarily to conclude that it’s the clock that’s bugging her. We have a piece of the puzzle.

Read and viewed in context, the writing and the drawn image nurture a compact and complex sequence of events, reaction, and arc. On one page, Marshall “closes” the question without “stating” the answer directly. The image and the writing are interwoven with delicate care. Taken together, a sequence is put together. Martha is seated after the gift has been presented. Her initial reasons for surprised hesitancy at the presentation of the gift has seen fruition. The ironical “‘Nice and loud'” echoes and washes over both pages, as does George’s “‘Do you like it?'”

Every page of Marshall’s story displays this incredible nuance of play between what is read and seen in whatever order. The art and the writing are nuanced and complex on their own, but they are companions; they could be taken on their own, but without the image, the writing is incomplete, and vice versa. Later, on the final page, at 10:40, George can be seen seated at a chair, reading a book. He has a contended, oddly unknowing look on his face, the neck of the cuckoo clock fully extended behind him.

Snug frame.


5 responses to “on george and martha”

  1. Neha says:

    Warm fuzzies.

  2. Maureen says:

    When I first saw the two names “George and Martha”..I thought for a moment you were referring to the Edward Albee play, “Whose afraid of Virginia Woolf”…;) Silly me…

    Then, I read on and find that George and Martha are two hippos. I wonder if the names George and Martha are random or intentional. Though, would a child make the connection to Albee, or even to the names of our first family? [George Washington and Martha Washington]

    I am out of the loop on most picture books, since I do not have children… Though, I do like the “Good Dog Carl” picture books. They are adorable and sweet. However, there is not a lot of text, much of it is visual.

    In the dialogue between George and Martha..perhaps it is brief because it is supposed to reinforce certain concepts in the mind of a child..

    The “So I see” and “So I hear” stuff is kind of reminiscent of “See spot run”…[The old Dick and Jane books]…

    The child begins to understand the concept of “seeing and hearing” through the adventures of George and Martha.

    Most Graciously,

    Maureen
    *A Mayde in her own little autumnal woode…

  3. steve says:

    I don’t know Maureen. Perhaps, perhaps not about the “child’s mind” issue.

    It could be that the form and the characters are driving the work.

    In other words, George says what he says because that’s what he would say and no more. What say you, mayde?

  4. Clarissa says:

    Ah Steve, so you suggest that the “form” of the picture book drives the work? Marshall is not purposefully constructing his book to suit the needs of a child?

    Indeed, the concept of a “picture book” is replicated in adult fiction, perhaps with only a change in subject matter.

    Note too that the picture book concept has elements of “stage” or “staging”. We are dealing with particular “scenes” more than chapters, passages, etc. As you stated, the art provides immediate context for the text. Thus, we are asked to concentrate on one or several ideas or thoughts, not one overall theme.

    There are elements of drama. Steve, as you noted:”On one page Marshall ‘closes’ the question without ‘stating’ the answer directly. The image and the writing are interwoven with deliate care” This has elements of theater. One the stage, one scene may close..the curtain falls..onto the next scene..without a clearly stated answer or resolved question…

    Fascinating…

    Most Graciously,

    Maureen
    *A mayde in her own little autumnal woode…

  5. Maureen says:

    Ooops! I posted under “Clarissa” again.. I swear I get more confused as the days go by… Well, by now most of you know that “Clarissa” is me…

    So if you see a post by her again, you know it is Maureen being absent-mindedly whimsical again…

    Most Graciously,

    Maureen
    *A Mayde in her own little fall woode…