Picture Book Creators Dear and Dead – Readers Theatre Style

I haven’t yet done a post about how much James Marshall meant to me as a kid (and how much he still means to me as an old, festering adult) but the short version is that I was (and am) obsessed with his books.  It was just me and my mams growing up so I spent all of my time either reading or engaging in high-concept, multi-part dramas with my Maple Town figurines.  I found Marshall uproariously funny and would spend hours trying to draw Fox and Eugene and Emily (note: I am not artistically inclined).  This obsession bled into my adult life in the form of my easy reader thesis and hyperventilating in the Kerlan Collection.  Oh, and my general, all-encompassing personal and professional interest in young people’s literature.

I get giddy anytime I see anything about James Marshall; a new tidbit of information, a mention, anything.  So, when I stumbled across Multi-Grade Readers Theatre: Picture Book Authors and Illustrators by Suzanne I. Barchers and Charla R. Pfeffinger, I was so excited to see James Marshall’s name in the Table of Contents.  I scrambled to the page and found the header “The Trouble with a Pen Name: James Edward Marshall 1942-1992.”  Then there was “Summary and Background Information,” “Presentation Suggestions,” and some “Introductory and Follow-Up Suggestions”  followed by a three and a half page interview script with “James Marshall.”  I was so excited to see Marshall’s name that I didn’t really even bother to understand the premise of the book.

The premise of the book is this:

The scripts in Multi-Grade Readers Theatre: Picture Book Authors and Illustrators provides students with a snapshot of the lives of thirty-six well-known authors, illustrators, and poets.  Drawn from biographies, autobiographies, interviews, news articles, obituaries, and Internet sources, the essential facts of each person’s story have been carefully researched.  The conversations, however, are largely fictional.

Each picture book creator essentially has one “theme” that sums up the trajectory of their readers theatre script; Hans Christian Andersen’s dad was a shoemaker, Kate Greenaway liked dolls, and James Marshall sometimes used a pen name.

Oh yes, and every single person featured in the book is dead.

My initial reactions went something like this:

“Aaahhhh!  This book is chalk-full of  made-up words of dead people!  Children’s book zombies!”

“What the $*%*)@*!?  Marshall used a pen name, like, a handful of times!  Why the *#)($** would they have a **%(*#! pen name define the career of a #@)@## genius like Marshall!?  This is so reductive, I could spit.”

“HUH!?  Marshall would have never said that.”

“Oh, that’s convenient.  Leave out the part where he was tipsy when he made up Edward Marshall’s back story!  Looks like someone didn’t read page 98 of Leonard Marcus’ Ways of Telling!” [This is, of course, a ridiculous response, as primary grade children probably don’t need to know what is imbibed at lengthy publishing lunches.]

After having a good steam, and hunting for omissions and inaccuracies, I realized that my evaluation was, perhaps, coming from the wrong place – the place in me that thinks of James Marshall (and many of the other authors in this book) as someone I love and know, and therefore feel I must protect. Because the truth is, I would have loved to play James Marshall in my Grade 2 class (God help the teacher if she had selected someone else) and I think educators could really find this book useful.

But no matter how hard I try, I can’t shake my protective feelings.  Why invent words when, more often than not, these authors and illustrators left behind brilliant words on their own work and craft?  Aren’t there so many other, more authentic ways to get children excited about picture books?

Perhaps these feelings would be less acute if James Marshall (and all the other geniuses in the book like Lobel and Steig, etc.) were still alive and were still able to speak for themselves.  Or if my love and respect for Marshall’s work wasn’t cranked up so high.

My mom made me get super embarrassing "casual" photos when I got the mandatory picture for the graduation composite. I'm holding a Marshall book in every one (note that I stole the crappy, low-res version of the photo from the company website via the power of the screenshot! Stickin' it to tha man...)

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