Get to Know the Duo Behind Miss Nelson Is Missing!
by Alexie Basil
There’s very little information about the mysterious Harry Allard available online. But if you open up your search to include his creative partner, James Marshall, you’ll discover a rich, fascinating collaborative team that created classics like our Book of the Week, Miss Nelson Is Missing!
Harry was born in 1928 in Evanston, Illinois. He served in the Korean War and afterward lived in Paris for many years, where he learned to speak French fluently. He received degrees from Northwestern University, Middlebury College, and ultimately a PhD in French literature from Yale University. He was a French professor for several years and was also fluent in Spanish. According to some (hard-to-track) sources, he never planned to write children’s books.
Harry and James met at Trinity College in San Antonio, Texas, where Harry was a French professor and James was his student. They were both writers and illustrators.
Like Harry, James never planned to create children’s books. James grew up on a farm outside of San Antonio. He loved sketching but never thought he was very good. “Jim underestimated his impact on people, just as he underestimated his genius,” Robert Hale said in the Horn Book Magazine. Instead, according to the New York Times, it wasn’t until his buddies encouraged him to pursue his longtime hobby of sketching that James began doing newspaper illustrations and then books.
At Trinity College, the two became fast friends. James’s work and friendship inspired Harry to write the first book the two published together, The Stupids Step Out. (Read their short bios from the Gaillard Center.)
Like Harry, James would continue to study French. He eventually transferred to the University of Connecticut, where he received degrees in French and history. Despite the distance, their friendship endured!
Although Harry is the credited author of their collaboration, according to children’s book expert Anita Silvey, “Actually, for their collaborations, Allard often provided the story ideas, but Marshall, a consummate wordsmith, crafted each line of text with as much care as he drew each image.” (Read more from Anita Silvey’s 100 Best Books for Children guide.)
Regarding the Book of the Week, the two teachers in Miss Nelson Is Missing! (Miss Nelson and Miss Swamp) are based on James’s teachers. Apparently, as the story is told, Harry rang James at three in the morning and cried out, “Miss Nelson is missing!”
That random exclamation blossomed into the beloved children’s book we have today about the rambunctious kids in Room 207—and was nominated for an Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Juvenile Mystery in 1978.
The stills above are from a video in which James Marshall draws a step-by-step sketch of Viola Swamp, the substitute teacher who terrorizes the students of Room 207. James was a teacher in his late 20s when he began to draw Viola Swamp—and Viola Swamp looked exactly like a teacher who told him in elementary school that he would never be an artist!
(The University of Connecticut published a few fantastic write-ups of James Marshall, including more details about his development process and plenty of images from his sketchbook.)
Not only did Harry and James collaborate on 3 installments of the Miss Nelson series—in total, they created as many as 12 books together, and 4 were turned into movies. By the end of his life, James Marshall was considered to be one of the “wittiest and most genuine children’s book author-illustrators” by the great Maurice Sendak, Caldecott Medal–winning author and illustrator of Where the Wild Things Are. Harry would go on to live in Oaxaca, Mexico—while there, he became a member of the Oaxaca Lending Library and even wrote and illustrated an additional Miss Nelson story after James passed away.
Both Harry and James loved to receive fan mail from students and teachers—and they responded enthusiastically whenever they got a postcard or letter from a class.
Harry Allard (1928–2017) is the author of many hilarious books for children, including several Miss Nelson and Stupid Family titles. Harry never planned to be a children’s book author, but he ended up collaborating on as many as 12 titles with his good friend James Marshall. He received his BS in art from Northwestern University and went on to receive his PhD in French literature from Yale University. He was known for his passion for foreign languages—he was fluent in Spanish, taught French at the college level, and translated two books from German to English.
Photo courtesy of Joan Harmon
James Marshall (1942–1992) created dozens of exuberant and captivating books for children, including Miss Nelson Is Missing!, the Stupids series, and the ever-popular George and Martha books. Before creating his canon of classic, hilarious children’s books, James played the viola, studied French, and received a master’s degree from Trinity College. He also doodled. It was the doodles, and the unforgettable characters that emerged from them, that led him to his life’s work as one of the finest creators of children’s books of the 20th century. In 2007, James Marshall was posthumously awarded the Children’s Literature Legacy Award for his lasting contribution to literature for children.
Photo © Houghton Mifflin Company
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