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.