Obituary: Jim Murphy

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Award-winning children’s book author Jim Murphy, best known for his painstaking documentary research documenting the dramatic events of history through the experiences of young people at the time, died suddenly on May 1 at his home in Woodstock, NY. He was 74 years old.

Murphy was born on September 25, 1947, in Newark, NJ, to James K. Murphy, an accountant, and Helen Irene Murphy, an accountant and artist. He grew up in nearby Kearny, where he and his friends had their fair share of mischief and enjoyed exploring Newark and New York City, which were just a short bus or train ride away.

As a boy, Murphy enjoyed writing and illustrating his own comics, sometimes during class, an activity that often got him into trouble at his Catholic elementary school, he wrote on his website. He admittedly wasn’t very interested in reading until he was in high school and would often tell the story that made him want to become a reader. One of Murphy’s high school teachers “announced that we could” absolutely, positively do not read ‘Hemingway’s A farewell to arms,” he said. He took it as a challenge and read not only the forbidden book, but “any other book I could find that I thought would shock my teacher,” he recalled. At the time, Murphy also began to write, mostly poetry, as well as a few stories and plays.

Murphy studied English Literature, History and Art History at Rutgers University where he set records in athletics and graduated with a BA in 1970. He completed the Summer Publishing Program de Radcliffe the same year, then returned to New Jersey to work for his uncle, a construction foreman, and earn some money while looking for work in publishing. “In high school, I wrote a little, but I didn’t think I was smart enough to be an author,” he said. TP in a 2016 interview. “I thought about becoming a children’s book publisher, because I loved illustration, but I wasn’t an artist good enough to illustrate professionally.”

Murphy recalled that his mother was instrumental in moving him towards his career goal. “My mother, who at four foot 11 refused to accept anyone’s word ‘no’, out of the blue invited Harold Latham, chairman of Macmillan and editor of Margaret Mitchell’s carried away by the wind, home for dinner, so I can talk to him about working in publishing. After graduating from university, Ms Murphy also insisted that her son write to 40 children’s book publishers and schedule informational interviews with them whether or not they had vacancies. “But nobody wanted to hire me because I couldn’t type!” he said TP.

While working at one of his construction sites, Murphy received a fateful phone call. Jim Giblin of Seabury Press (which became Clarion) offered her a position as sub-editor, despite her lack of typing skills. In the early and mid-1970s, Murphy rose through the ranks to editor and did some of his own writing on the side. But in late 1977 he decided he’d rather try his hand at writing and publishing his own books. He left the editorial office and became a full-time writer.

Murphy’s first manuscript was a work of fiction which he submitted to Norma Jean Sawicki at Crown. After several stints, they both agreed the project wasn’t working and, as Murphy reminded TP, he put the manuscript in the garbage as the garbage truck arrived. Sawicki suggested he submit a non-fiction idea and the result was Bizarre and Wacky Inventionswhich she published with Crown in 1978.

Non-fiction has become Murphy’s business. In the early 1980s he discovered that first-hand perspective was what made his books click, and this particular element became essential in his later works. In all, Murphy has produced over 35 books for young readers, including several historical novels for intermediate readers and a collaboration with his wife, writer and children’s television producer, Alison Blank: Invincible Microbe: Tuberculosis and the Endless Search for a Cure (Clarion, 2012). Among his many accolades, The great fire (Scholastic, 1995), exploring the Chicago fire of 1871, and An American Plague (Clarion, 2003), about the 1793 yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia, both received Newbery Honors. An American Plague was also a National Book Award finalist. Murphy received the Margaret A. Edwards Award in 2010 in recognition of her “significant and enduring contribution to young adult literature”.

Reflecting on his writing career, Murphy once wrote on the Scholastic website, “Life is made up of many kinds of journeys. Some are physical…but most are inner journeys of the heart or soul. The important thing is to face everyone with a positive attitude. And try to learn as much as you can about yourself and others along the way. Oh, yes – and have fun while you experience all of these things.

Murphy’s literary agent, Nancy Gallt of the Gallt and Zacker Literary Agency, shared this memory of her longtime client and friend. “I first met Jim when he married Alison Blank, who was working at Scholastic at the time with my husband Craig Virden. Jim had written dozens of books by then, books he had sold directly to his many industry colleagues.He had also won his first Newbery Honor for The great fire. Some would say he didn’t really need an agent at the time, but when I put my shingle down he was one of the first to join us. I will be eternally grateful to him for this mark of trust and the privilege of working with him for all these years. I was proud to help her celebrate a second Newbery Honor for An American Plague and the Margaret A. Edwards Award. After writing so many books that helped young readers better understand life, his awards and honors were well deserved, but it is his friendship that I will miss most.

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