Tons of Fun

George and Martha: The Complete Stories of Two Best Friends
Written and Illustrated by: James Marshall

"A good book should be shared with friends."

        Sometimes cultural artifacts become icons of the different eras in our lives.  Hearing "Smells like Teen Spirit" on the radio immediately places me on a crowded school bus during my eighth grade year, a pair of headphones split with a neighborhood friend, the smell of sticky green vinyl and Dentyne settling on our shoulders like an old blanket.  It would be at least another year before we were able to let go of the conformity we clung to like life preservers in middle school, truly embrace Cobain's outcast anthem of disenchantment, and get swept away in the nineties zeitgeist, but hearing those muffled lyrics will always bring me back to the dingy yellow school bus in eighth grade.

       Similarly, the George and Martha books are fossils from my childhood.  They are my mom reading to me after a bath and before bed; they are me reading to my little sisters as I grew older; they are my mom, sisters and I quoting our favorite lines and giggling.  

        "There is such a thing as privacy!"

        "Oh dear me!"


        "For shame!"   ...are just a few of the George and Martha-isms that still tickle my funny bone.  
        I have to admit, I had forgotten about these two adorable hippos until my sister recently mentioned them.  The effect was like listening to one of those seminal songs on the radio.  All of my favorite stories opened before me: the one where George spies on Martha in the bathtub, the one where Martha takes up cigar smoking, the one where George starts a secret club.  Every tiny story was shelved in my past, waiting to be dusted off and opened.  

        James Marshall has been a staple in children's literature for decades.  Most adults from my generation remember the infamous Ms. Viola Swamp from the classic Miss Nelson is Missing!.  His characters are lively and complex--and many of them have secrets.  George is the sweet and bumbling friend who loves to play pranks.  His loyalty is as wide as his tubby hippo bottom.  Martha is the hot tamale who knows exactly what she wants and how to get it.  This saucy hippo is usually too spirited to take "no" for an answer; still, she always knows exactly what to say to cheer up her best friend when he stumbles.  While I love both of these hippos unconditionally, Martha's headstrong liveliness has always maintained a special seat in my heart.

        To be honest, I cheated a bit.  When faced with having to choose one of the seven George and Martha books to review, I could not make up my mind, so I chose this collector's edition of their complete works instead.  Every George and Martha book is divided into five brief stories.  Marshall is a master of brevity.  He is the Hemingway of children's literature.  A nuance of true friendship that may take another author an entire book to convey is often expressed in one unadorned sentence in a George and Martha story.  

        When Martha gets a horrible sunburn after cavorting at the seashore without sun block, George could be self-congratulatory.  He did, after all, warn her of the consequences.  "But George never said 'I told you so,'" Marshall writes, "Because that's not what friends are for."  Don't we all need to be reminded of that?  The stories are all so delightful that it's hard to highlight a favorite, but "The Sweet Tooth" (from George and Martha: Tons of Fun) particularly calls my name.  George's affinity for sweets is rivaled only by my own.  He begins sneaking into the kitchen in the middle of the night to raid the refrigerator.  A concerned Martha cautions him that he is eating too much sugar and gaining too much weight.  "Let's not discuss it," George responds over and over--a response many of us have encountered when trying to get a loved one to kick a bad habit.  So what does the tenacious Martha do?  She ups the ante.  On the next page, we see that Martha has taken up cigar smoking. 

        Her response is perfect, and so is Marshall's illustration.  Chain smoking cigars is a perfectly obnoxious way to highlight the destructive nature of bad habits.  This image of Martha all fire and brimstone, her eyes angry slits and her head resting below a noxious cloud of black cigar smoke, conveys the depth of her concern for George.  "Let's not discuss it," she replies when George pleads with her to stop in the interest of her health.  And after Martha turns "a peculiar color" from smoking too many cigars--but before she kicks the bucket--George goes down on his knees and promises to cut back on sweets.  

       The story of "The Tub" (from George and Martha) is only thirty-two words long, yet it is one of the most memorable ones from my childhood.  George spies on Martha while she is taking a bath.  On the last page of the story, you see Martha has dumped the entire bath tub on top of his head and is beating him with a brush.  "We are friends," she says, "but there is such a thing as privacy!"  It is a hilarious way to address boundaries and how--no matter how close you are to someone--there are certain things that are just not your business.  I was reading reviews of this book on Barnes and Noble.com one afternoon and ran across one incensed reader who wrote "The story called 'The Tub' is totally inappropriate for children and I'm very surprised that it was allowed in a children's book."  Thank God Marshall and the people over at Houghton Mifflin had a better sense of humor.  

       I will close with my favorite George and Martha illustration.  It is from the story "The Surprise" in George and Martha Round and Round.  George and Martha, upon making up after a wet prank George played on his friend, sit and watch the autumn leaves fall from the trees.  "'Good friends just can't stay cross for long,' said George.  'You can say that again,' said Martha.  And together they watched the autumn arrive."  It's the perfect ending to a tale about two friends.

        Except it's not the ending.

        And that is exactly what readers love about the George and Martha stories.

"Trust me: they fit your face perfectly."


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