Marcia (Dorothy) Williams (1945-) Biography
Personal, Addresses, Career, Writings, Adaptations, Sidelights
Born 1945, in England; daugher of Peter Powell (an author and theatre director) and Joan Alexander Carnwath (a writer); stepEducation: Educated in England and Switzerland; studied painting at Richmond College; University of Surrey (Roehampton, England), M.A. (Hobbies and other interests: Animals, reading, travel, food, friends, film, children, music.
Agent—c/o Author Mail, Walker Books, Ltd., 87 Vauxhall Walk, London SE11 5HJ, England.
Freelance writer and illustrator of children's books, 1986—; previously worked as an interior designer and nursery school teacher; with designer Gerald Scarfe, creator of papier-mache and cloth sculptures; actor in stage productions of Mr William Shakespeare's Plays and Bravo, Mr William Shakespeare!
The First Christmas, Random House (New York, NY), 1987, reprinted, Walker Books (London, England), 2000.
The Amazing Story of Noah's Ark, Walker Books (London, England), 1988.
When I Was Little, Walker Books (London, England), 1989.
Jonah and the Whale, Random House (New York, NY), 1989.
Not a Worry in the World, Walker Books (London, England), 1990, Crown (New York, NY), 1991.
Joseph and His Magnificent Coat of Many Colors, Walker Books (London, England), 1990, Candlewick Press (Cambridge, MA), 1992.
Greek Myths for Young Children, Walker Books (London, England), 1991, Candlewick Press (Cambridge, MA), 1992.
(Reteller) Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote, Candlewick Press (Cambridge, MA), 1993.
(Reteller) Sinbad the Sailor, Candlewick Press (Cambridge, MA), 1994.
(Reteller) The Adventures of Robin Hood, Candlewick Press (Cambridge, MA), 1995.
King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, Candlewick Press (Cambridge, MA), 1996.
(Reteller) The Iliad and the Odyssey, Candlewick Press (Cambridge, MA), 1996.
Mr. William Shakespeare's Plays, Walker Books (London, England), 1998, published as Tales From Shakespeare: Seven Plays, Candlewick Press (Cambridge, MA), 1998.
Psyche and Eros, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, England), 1998.
Fabulous Monsters, Candlewick Press (Cambridge, MA), 1999.
Bravo, Mr. William Shakespeare!, Candlewick Press (Cambridge, MA), 2000.
No Worries!, Walker Books (London, England), 2000.
(Reteller) Charles Dickens and Friends, Candlewick Press (Cambridge, MA), 2002.
(Reteller) God and His Creations: Tales From the Old Testament, Candlewick Press (Cambridge, MA), 2004.
Mr William Shakespeare's Plays and Bravo, Mr William Shakespeare! were adapted for the stage by Alan Durant.
Picture-book author and illustrator Marcia Williams is a writer by tradition as well as by inclination. The daughter of a writer, she grew up with books readily available and saw firsthand the discipline needed to successfully write for a living. Now a popular author and illustrator, British-born Williams has brought the classic stories she recalls from her own childhood to life for young children: from Sinbad the Sailor and Robin Hood to Noah and the animals and the gods of Greek mythology, people from many ages and cultures live for modern readers through her tales.
Born in England, Williams spent much of her childhood in boarding school, away from her parents. Homesick, she sent her mother and father self-illustrated letters recounting her day-to-day experiences. Sometimes she even wrote a poem to add to her letters. "This is where my career began," she would later quip to Something about the Author (SATA). Williams's mother, also a writer, had a passion for books, and when the two were together she would often read her daughter excerpts from classics and mythology. "I found Marcel Proust and the Greek myths a little hard going," the author recalled. "I was delighted, therefore, to discover later that many of these stories were exciting and amusing. I think this is why I enjoy making classic tales accessible to young children."
Moving from school to school did not make Williams exactly fall in love with reading. "Always the first thing that happened in a new classroom was having to stand up and read in front of your peers to make sure you had reached the required level," she remembered. "I even find the memory of it a torture. Also, there were very few picture books available, so most classics were read from adult versions, not for pleasure but as preparation for a test. It was only when I had my own children that I came to realize the joy of books. So I think I create books now to make up for all those lost years of pleasure, and to give books to others like Alice and myself who can't see the point of books 'without pictures and conversation.'"
While she had always enjoyed writing and illustrating stories and cards for friends, Williams never received formal art training; she viewed her creative outlet as a hobby rather than as a potential career. That would all change after the birth of her second child in the late 1980s. "I was very lucky to visit Walker Books with a Christmas picture on a day they were looking for someone to write and illustrate the Christmas story," she remembered. "When I look back on it now, I find it hard to believe that I had the nerve to present myself, or that the art designer had the nerve to give a book to a complete novice. Maybe he never realized!" The relationship Williams established with Walker Books has continued, and as the illustrator notes, "creating picture books has become as important to me as breathing."
Published in 1988, Williams's interpretation of The First Christmas follows the traditional story while also adding images of the way the holiday is celebrated in different parts of the world. Called an "energetic and appealing book" by a School Library Journal reviewer, The First Christmas was the first of several books its author has created featuring Biblical themes. Her The Amazing Story of Noah's Ark closely follows the story from the Book of Genesis and is chock-full of animals and activity, with William's colorful drawings augmented by "text … ingeniously distributed over the illustrations," according to a Junior Bookshelf critic. Calling the book an "exuberant folk-art treatment," School Library Journal contributor Patricia Dooley praised William's adaptation of Joseph and His Magnificent Coat of Many Colors for a preschool audience responsive to bright colors, animals, and a sense of magic.
Williams returns to Biblical tales in her 2004 volume God and His Creations: Tales from the Old Testament. The book features eleven well-known Bible stories, including "The Garden of Eden," "Noah's Ark," "David and Goliath," and "Daniel in the Lions' Den," all in under forty pages. As Wendy Lukehart noted in School Library Journal, Williams's retellings of these tales are "humorous, succinct, and rooted in traditional elements." Williams places funny and sometimes insightful comments in the mouths of the tales' human, angelic, and animal characters; in one frequently praised forty-panel, one-page spread in "Noah's Ark," the animals complain increasingly more strenuously about their not-so-varied daily menu as the trip progresses, while in another, the angels debate whether Adam and Eve or the serpent are to be blamed for human sin. However, God's words are drawn straight from the Bible (using the New International Version translation). The results, according to a Publishers Weekly reviewer, are "taut and trenchant renditions" of these well-known tales. Williams's signature style of illustration was also praised by critics; "The artistic details … are wonderfully clever as they flow from Williams' pen and paint-brush," Francisca Goldsmith wrote in Booklist.
From Bible stories, Williams moved to the myths of Greece she recalled from her childhood. In the highly praised Greek Myths for Young Children she introduces youngsters to the timeless stories of Pandora's Box, Hercules, Daedalus and Icarus, Arachne, and the Minotaur, among others. Using a lighthearted tone to dilute some of the tales' darker moments—such as when Icarus drowns in the sea after flying too close to the sun—Betsy Hearne, writing in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, applauded Williams's collection for inducing "a broad range of kids to become culturally literate as they pore over her comic-strip versions" of otherwise offputting classic myths. The author/illustrator's "brightly colored cartoon figures and the witty asides they trade emphasize the vitality and down-to-earth character of the tales," in the opinion of School Library Journal essayist Patricia Dooley.
The author continues her lighthearted approach in her retelling of Homer's epic stories in The Iliad and the Odyssey, published in 1996. Peter F. Neumeyer, in a Boston Globe review, lauded her use of the comic-panel format through which he estimated Williams provided over two hundred illustrations with endpapers comprising another forty-two panels, telling a "wartime story both serious and witty." He praised her ability to juggle "a sober, straightforward running narrative" with a "modern-lingo, ironic, and iconoclastic repartee," together with "illustrations that not only elucidate but themselves editorialize with wit and irony."
Spanning the ages and the continents, Williams has also turned her attention to the legends of her native Great Britain. In The Adventures of Robin Hood she recounts numerous escapades of the outlaw of Sherwood Forest in her characteristic witty fashion, making "this rendition of the Robin Hood legend both an easy laugh and an easy read," according to Booklist contributor Julie Walton. Praising Williams's use of earthy greens, golds, and browns rather than her usual brilliant colors, a Publishers Weekly critic noted that The Adventures of Robin Hood "may well be her most child-appreciated work yet." The regal King Arthur comes in for much the same treatment at Williams's hands, as the adventures of the sturdy knights of the round table are augmented by quips, jokes, and a steady stream of one-liners. While Booklist reviewer Carolyn Phelan noted that the presentation "is not for every taste," critic Deborah Stevenson praised King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table in her review for Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books as "an amiable and breezily told introduction to a durable legend, with adventure, broad comedy, and atmosphere aplenty."
Williams combined legends from around the world in her thematic volume Fabulous Monsters. The five monsters of the title come from the legends of ancient Greece (the Chimera), Aboriginal Australia (Bunyips), the Bantus of Africa (Isikukumanderu), Atlantic islands (Basilisks), and the Vikings (Grendel from Beowulf), but all but one of the stories share the common mythical theme of a hero come to slay the beast. "The smiling, festively colored monsters," as John Peters described them in Booklist, make funny comments—declaring "Tasty tidbits!" as they chomp down on their victims and the like—and "have an unthreatening comic look." Although Williams does depict her monsters killing and eating humans (as mythological monsters are wont to do), "the hyperbolic humor works to soften any images of violence," thought a Publishers Weekly reviewer.
Moving forward a bit in time, Williams retells fourteen of the plays of the classic English playwright William Shakespeare in Tales from Shakespeare—published in Great Britain as Mr. William Shakespeare's Plays,—and Bravo, Mr. William Shakespeare! In both titles, Williams captions scenes from well-known plays with simple, modern-English subtitles while a rowdy Elizabethan peanut gallery provides a humorous running commentary on the action. "I don't think this is quite suitable for children," one such spectator declares during a bloody scene from Macbeth in the former title, while in the latter book another playgoer shouts in frustration at fellow viewers, "They're mummies, you dummies!" as Antony and Cleopatra are buried. Reviewing Bravo, Mr. William Shakespeare! in Booklist, Shelle Rosenfeld declared it "an enjoyable, accessible vehicle to help children experience and appreciate Shakespeare," while Booklist reviewer John Peters commented that Tales from Shakespeare "offers an inviting taste of the Shakespearean buffet, as well as a rare glimpse into the character of Elizabethan theater."
Williams retells the stories of another classic English author, nineteenth-century novelist Charles Dickens, in Charles Dickens and Friends. The book contains condensed versions of five of Dickens' novels: Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities, David Copperfield, and A Christmas Carol. Forcing such long novels into a mere six to ten illustrated pages "requires judicious use of words," Marie Orlando noted in School Library Journal, "and Williams rises to the challenge, providing the salient events in a reasonably smooth narrative flow." Still, as Francisca Goldsmith wrote in Booklist, "This recap of classics is best for an audience already familiar with Dickens' stories."
Williams considers herself a very disciplined worker; she has been known to devote seven days a week, ten hours a day, to complete a book project. "I work in my bedroom, so it is sometimes difficult to shut off, but one day I hope to have a studio," the author-illustrator explained to SATA. "I spend a long time getting the story right as, although my books are short on texts, I believe this means the story has to be even stronger to hold the weight of the illustrations." She employs a style of illustration called "comic-strip" style, wherein inked drawings tinted with watercolor flow from scene to scene along a linear "strip," with captions printed below and "bubbles" within each picture providing additional dialogue. This style grew out of her desire to communicate with young readers on more than one level. "A child recently told me that he understood my books perfectly," Williams noted. "The main text and pictures were for him to share with his Mum and Dad, but the speech bubbles were just for him. I was delighted at his perception and the feeling that we had formed this special bond, and of course he was right. The speech bubbles are also a wonderful opportunity to add a bit of anarchic humor and animation to the stories," Williams added, "helping to make them accessible by bringing them into the child's own orbit of experience."
Because of the comic-book style she employs, there is a sense of theatricality about Williams's books that is intentional on the part of the author/illustrator. "I have always loved the theatre and in many ways I see my books as theatre on the page, and I am the lucky one who gets all the parts!," she explained. "Sheer greed and sheer delight. I hope the delight communicates itself to the reader."
Text and illustration remain equally important to Williams: "I strive … to weave them together to build up character and atmosphere until they become a satisfying whole." "I love my work and can't imagine any other career," the author/illustrator readily admitted to SATA. "I enjoy every part of making a book and also enjoy visiting schools and talking to children who are an endless inspiration and always manage to look at things from unexpected angles."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Williams, Marcia, Bravo, Mr. William Shakespeare!, Candlewick Press (Cambridge, MA), 2000.
Williams, Marcia, Fabulous Monsters, Candlewick Press (Cambridge, MA), 1999.
Williams, Marcia, Mr. William Shakespeare's Plays, Walker Books (London, England), 1998, published as Tales from Shakespeare: Seven Plays, Candlewick Press (Cambridge, MA), 1998.
Booklist, June 15, 1992, Ilene Cooper, review of Joseph and His Magnificent Coat of Many Colors, p. 1843; March 1, 1994, Mary Harris Veeder, review of Sinbad the Sailor, p. 1267; March 15, 1995, Julie Walton, review of The Adventures of Robin Hood, p. 1327; April 15, 1996, Carolyn Phelan, review of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, p. 1438; November 1, 1998, John Peters, review of Tales from Shakespeare, p. 490; January 1, 2000, John Peters, review of Fabulous Monsters, p. 935; March 1, 2001, Shelle Rosenfeld, review of Bravo, Mr. William Shakespeare!, p. 1274; October 15, 2002, Francisca Goldsmith, review of Charles Dickens and Friends, p. 405; March 15, 2004, Francisca Goldsmith, review of God and His Creations: Tales from the Old Testament, p. 1308.
Books for Your Children, spring, 1992, p. 13.
Boston Globe, September 7, 1997, Peter K. Neumeyer, review of The Classics Illustrated.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, November, 1992, Betsy Hearne, review of Greek Myths for Young Children, pp. 94-95; May, 1995, p. 326; March, 1996, Deborah Stevenson, review of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, p. 247; February, 1997, p. 227.
Horn Book, January-February, 1997, Amy Chamberlain, review of The Iliad and the Odyssey, p. 82.
Junior Bookshelf, February, 1989, review of The Amazing Story of Noah's Ark, p. 15; December, 1989, p. 269; February, 1992, p. 35; April, 1993, p. 72.
Kirkus Reviews, March 1, 1994, p. 312; October 15, 2002, review of Charles Dickens and Friends: Five Lively Retellings, p. 1540; February 15, 2004, review of God and His Creations, p. 187.
Magpies, July, 1995, review of The Adventures of Robin Hood, p. 8; September, 1995, pp. 16-17.
Publishers Weekly, August 26, 1988, review of The First Christmas, p. 85; April 27, 1992, review of Joseph and His Magnificent Coat of Many Colors, p. 267; October 19, 1992, review of Greek Myths for Young Children, p. 78; March 1, 1993, review of Don Quixote, p. 57; January 30, 1995, review of The Adventures of Robin Hood, p. 100; March 11, 1996, review of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, p. 66; November 25, 1996, review of The Iliad and the Odyssey, p. 75; November 22, 1999, review of Fabulous Monsters, p. 55; November 6, 2000, review of Bravo for the Bard, p. 93; January 26, 2004, review of God and His Creations, p. 251.
School Librarian, May, 1992, review of Greek Myths for Young Children, p. 58.
School Library Journal, October, 1988, review of The First Christmas, p. 38; July, 1989, Celia A. Huffman, review of Jonah and the Whale, p. 81; April, 1992, Patricia Dooley, review of Joseph and His Magnificent Coat of Many Colors, p. 102; June, 1994, Patricia Dooley, "Beyond Cultural Literacy: The Enduring Power of Myths," pp. 52-53; April, 1995, JoAnn Rees, review of The Adventures of Robin Hood, p. 148; December, 2000, Chapman Collaghan, review of Bravo, Mr. William Shakespeare!, p. 167; February, 2003, Marie Orlando, review of, Charles Dickens and Friends, p. 150; May, 2004, Wendy Lukehart, review of God and His Creations, p. 138.
Times Educational Supplement, September 9, 1994, review of Sinbad the Sailor, p. 20.
Candlewick Press Web site, http://www.candlewick.com/ (April 2, 2005), "Marcia Williams."
Walker Books Web site, http://www.walkerbooks.co.uk/ (April 2, 2005), "Marcia Williams."*
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