I don’t think any work of art, literature, theater, or film captures a purer or more honest distillation of what it means to be a friend than the George and Martha picture books, written and illustrated by the incomparable James Marshall (1942-92). George and Martha are best friends (they are hippos) who star in seven picture books published between 1972 and 1988. Each one is divided into five astonishingly economical yet profound mini chapters describing scenes from their lives. George and Martha never define their relationship; we only know they are “best friends.” It doesn’t really matter if they are platonic, romantic, or somewhere in between because the lessons contained in the thirty-five stories have wisdom applicable to any close relationship. In true James Marshallian fashion, I’ve laid out five of the major lessons I have taken away from two decades of reading about these two great chums.  

Story Number 1: Communication is KEY and contextual

I recently read a New York Times article that praised the oft-maligned genre of romantic comedy because it is

the only genre committed to letting relatively ordinary people . . . figure out how to deal meaningfully with another human being . . . They make you believe in the power of communion.

The same could be said about George and Martha. Many of these stories are about communication or miscommunication, compromise, and the travails of sharing life with another person. Take the very first story, “Split Pea Soup” (1972) (1). George is afraid to tell Martha that he doesn’t like her split pea soup, so he pours it into his galoshes. Martha catches him in the act, confronts him, and then admits she doesn’t like the soup either. The two enjoy cookies instead.

It fascinates me that George and Martha don’t always solve their differences through confrontation. Sometimes the resolution remains unspoken, or they work things out through actions. Much like real life, how they communicate or how much or little they say (or do) depends on the context of a given situation.

Story Number 2: Friends never say, “I told you so”

One of the most straightforwardly didactic G&M tales, “The Beach” (1973), describes how Martha refuses to wear sunscreen, despite George’s warnings, and turns a nasty shade of pink. George doesn’t reprimand her: “But George never said ‘I told you so.’ Because that’s not what friends are for.”

The accompanying illustration is just as important as the verbal conclusion. George carries a glass of water to a forlorn Martha, demonstrating that George supports his friend through words AND actions. Word and image work seamlessly to prove a subtle point: good friends don’t use the other’s misfortune to make themselves feel superior or right.

Story Number 3: Good friends have boundaries

Some of the plot points hinge on the tensions that arise when two closely connected individuals assert their autonomy. Martha doesn’t want George to peek in her diary (1978); George doesn’t want Martha to invade his secret club (1976). These two stories resolve quickly, but they touch on a phenomenon key to relationships—no matter how well you know a person, he will always be his own, inherently mysterious person. Much conflict in relationships stems from the simple fact that even as we confide in each other we will always remain somewhat unknowable to our closest companions. And that’s okay, if sometimes frustrating.  

Story number 4: Friends make you laugh (and that’s a special gift)

By all accounts, James Marshall had a wicked and winning sense of humor. This is most patently manifest in the visual depictions of George and Martha. (Consider: a picture of a hippo on a tightrope deserves at least a chuckle! 1978).

But Marshall also understood the emotional importance and complexity of humor. My favorite episode on humor is in two connected chapters. First, in “The Photograph” (1980) Martha takes a picture in a photo booth. Marshall fills an entire page with the photo in a brilliant gesture of visual irony. Martha thinks she has “never looked prettier”!

In the “Special Gift” (1980), Martha loses the present she bought for George’s birthday and, improvising, gives him the photograph. George is delighted, exclaiming “It’s wonderful to have a friend who knows how to make you laugh.” The story ends:

“Martha decided to swallow her pride. She saw that the photograph was pretty funny after all.”

These two stories comprise a mere twenty-two brief sentences, but they contain an elegant and sophisticated plot. There’s the ironic disconnect between Martha’s vision of herself and the reader’s knowledge of her actual ridiculousness. There’s a dramatic turn of events when she loses the original present, and then a tidy conclusion that recalls a previous chapter. Moreover, the story perfectly exemplifies the redemptive power of laughing at yourself. Martha’s ability to relinquish her pride is just as big a gift to George as the photograph. Her humility strengthens their friendship.

The Last Story: Forgiveness is fraught (but important)

Realistically, most of us forgive through unspoken or indirect means—a squeeze of hand, a smile, a concerted effort to reach out. Sometimes we quietly choose to let some things go. This kind of conflict resolution may seem too sophisticated to tackle in a picture book, but Marshall does it with flair.

In “The Misunderstanding” (1980), George tells Martha to go away so he can practice doing handstands. Martha leaves in a huff and decides to play her saxophone in bed. She is having so much fun, she doesn’t hear the phone when George calls. She forgets about being mad. Boom. The story ends. Conflict resolved through the mercy of a distractible memory.

Conversely, George scares Martha in “The Surprise” (1988), and she subjects him to the silent treatment. But as Martha goes throughout her day she is constantly reminded of things she wants to tell George. When she sees the first leaf of autumn (George’s favorite season) fall to the ground, Martha gives in and forgives George.

But on the next page, Marshall complicates the ending: “But when summer rolled around again, Martha was ready and waiting.”

Maurice Sendak described Martha in this image as “demented.” He wrote in a tribute to Marshall, “How did Marshall convey dementia, malice, and get-evenness with two mere flicks of his pen for eyes?” (2) I also marvel at how Marshall captured the subtle reality that forgiveness doesn’t mean you forget what happened. Martha wants a bit of her own back, but knowing how close these two pals are, we can surmise that George will take the prank in good fun. Regardless, the story does not end on tidy moral note, but perhaps with a truer image of how humans forgive and “forget.”

That is the macroscopic take-away from George and Martha. These stories and pictures, like all human relationships, are not as simple as they seem. Loving another person is simultaneously the simplest and the most complicated thing that we do and, as I’ve learned from George and Martha, maybe the most important thing we do too.  

(1) I will put the publication date next to each story, rather than referring to the entire name of the collection for each chapter.

(2) Marshall, James. George and Martha: The Complete Stories of Two Best Friends. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company (2008) 4. This excellent collection of all the George and Martha stories includes a foreword by Maurice Sendak, and tributes to Marshall from several other children’s book authors and illustrators.

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