Jim Murphy, children’s author who humanized US history, dies at 74

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Jim Murphy, an award-winning children’s author who immersed young readers in American history, using extensive research and first-hand accounts to humanize sprawling and chaotic events like the Battle of Gettysburg, the Great Fire of Chicago and a yellow fever outbreak that became the nation’s first outbreak, died May 1 at his home in Woodstock, NY. He was 74.

His wife, Alison Blank, confirmed the death but said the cause was not yet known.

Mr. Murphy, a former children’s book publisher, has written more than 30 books that chronicle fascinating but often dark chapters in United States history. His work has frequently shed light on the lives of young people and returned to themes of determination, perseverance and compassion while telling compelling stories of snowstorms, deadly germs and bravery on the battlefield. .

In presenting Mr. Murphy with the 2010 Margaret A. Edwards Award for Lifetime Contributions to Young Adult Literature, Awards Committee Chair Maren C. Ostergard said, “Jim Murphy’s excellence in the captivating non-fiction writing makes readers realize that young people are not there but actively participating in the story.

“Who can withstand a giant fire or an unstoppable disease?” Mr Murphy said in a question-and-answer session on his website. “I want my non-fiction to be as exciting and readable as any novel, so I’m always on the lookout for inherently dramatic subject matter.”

Drawing on eyewitness accounts from letters, diary entries, oral histories and archival photographs, he wrote about the horrors of combat in books including “The Boys’ War” (1990), which examined the Civil War experience of soldiers as young as 12, and “Truce” (2009), about the Christmas ceasefires during the First World War.

But he also went far beyond the battlefield, notably in “The Great Fire” (1995), which told the story of the 1871 hell that destroyed most of Chicago, and “An American Plague (2003), a chronicle of the 1793 Yellow Fire fever epidemic that caused President George Washington and his cabinet to flee Philadelphia, the nation’s provisional capital. Both books received Newbery Honors and “An American Plague” was a finalist for the National Book Award for Children’s Literature.

In a Washington Post review of “The Great Fire”, journalist Michael Kernan said Mr Murphy wrote an “original, personal and real” book, without speaking to young readers or relying on hackneyed literary tropes. ‘The intensity of its interest carries the reader all the way through how the fire itself spread from Mrs O’Leary’s barn,’ he added, noting that while ‘the book n t is by no means morbid, there is no shrinking from the hard facts of death and panic, stubbornness and incompetence that have sent fire engines to the wrong place time and time again.

Mr Murphy said his books have succeeded in transporting readers to the past largely because of the months or years he has spent researching online or in archives, researching small details and trying to capture the stories of real people like Julia Lemos. , a widowed artist who saved her five children and elderly parents from the Chicago Fire, and Claire Innes, a 12-year-old teenager who was separated from her family during the chaos.

“Jim was an inspired and dedicated researcher,” his longtime editor, Dinah Stevenson, said in an email. “He had a rare talent for finding – in letters, diaries and other documents – the voices that would bring his stories to life, as if he had personally interviewed people from the past.”

James John Patrick Murphy was born into an Irish-Italian family in Newark on September 25, 1947 and grew up in Kearny, NJ. His father was an accountant and his mother was an accountant and an artist. She became one of his fiercest champions, encouraging his interest in publishing even when Mr Murphy doubted he was smart enough to write a book.

‘Out of the blue’, he said, she invited Harold Latham, Macmillan manager and ‘Gone with the Wind’ editor, to dinner so Mr Murphy could chat with him about his work in publishing. Latham said “to keep writing and imitating other people less and less”, Mr Murphy recalled, “and it took me 18 to 30 years to figure that out”.

Mr Murphy was a mediocre student and said he struggled with spelling and grammar long after he started writing books. He became interested in literature while attending a Catholic preparatory school in Newark, where one of his teachers insisted that he could “absolutely, positively do not read Ernest Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms. “I read it quickly,” he said, “and all the other books I could find that I thought would shock my teacher.”

He went on to study English at Rutgers University, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1970, and worked in construction before being hired as an assistant editor at Seabury Press (later Clarion Books) in New York. He worked his way up to editor before leaving in 1977 to become a full-time writer.

His first manuscript, a work of fiction, grew to thousands of pages before he threw it in the trash, deciding it was probably best suited for non-fiction. Within months, he had made his literary debut with “Weird & Wacky Inventions” (1978), which featured old patent drawings for devices such as the Bird Layer and the Portable Fire Escape.

Another early book, “Tractors” (1984), was an unlikely success – a history of the humble farm vehicle, brought to life by tales of tractor explosions and the people who survived them. The book led Mr. Murphy to adopt what has become his standard technique of drawing on first-hand accounts, emphasizing individual people rather than the wide range of events.

Mr. Murphy has also written picture books and novels for young adults, including historical novels about a prairie teacher and a boy working on a whaler. But he largely stuck to non-fiction, including in science-based books such as “Breakthrough!” (2015), which followed the HBO film “Something the Lord Made” by examining the work of a 1940s team that developed a surgical treatment for “blue babies”, infants with heart defects.

With his wife, a children’s television producer, he also wrote the tuberculosis story “Invincible Microbe” (2012), inspired by summer trips they took to the Adirondacks, a region that was once home to tuberculosis sanatoria. Mr Murphy and Blank had met at Seabury Publishing – he fired her while she was working as a sub-editor – and reconnected years later, marrying in 1987.

A previous marriage to Elaine Kelso ended in divorce. In addition to his wife, survivors include two sons from his second marriage, Michael Blank Murphy of South Amboy, NJ, and Ben Blank Murphy of Jersey City; and a brother.

Mr Murphy ‘wanted children to know what things were really like’ in the past, his wife said in a telephone interview, and hoped to remind them that children, not just adults, were central characters in the country’s history.

“They often participated actively and heroically, then wrote eloquently about their experiences,” he wrote on his website. “Unfortunately, many historians focus exclusively on the important adults involved – a president, general, scientist or other powerful individual – and never let us see who else was there.”


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